- Re-creating the American Past: Essays on the Colonial Revival
In fall 2000, the University of Virginia's Department of Architectural History held its annual symposium but this time with a diverse group of cosponsors. What would bring together the Department of Landscape Architecture, the Office of the Architect, and the National Park Service with a group of academic architectural historians? It was the Colonial Revival, an apt topic for a campus that features not only Jefferson's architecture but its many variations and renewals that have appeared in the past two hundred years. Richard Guy Wilson, the head of the conference and one of the editors of this volume, is of course, one of the well-known scholars in the field. Under his leadership, the symposium drew a large audience to hear fifty-eight papers. From those presentations, twenty-three were selected for this publication. Wilson and his coeditors organized them into seven sections, starting with an essay by William Rhodes, the man who pioneered the modern study of the Colonial Revival with his 1974 dissertation (published in two volumes in 1977). They drew on a wide range of scholars from a variety of disciplines to explore the people who helped shape the Colonial Revival, the role of the federal government in sponsoring and promoting it, preservation issues that surround it, case studies of its use, and interiors done in its name. They concluded with what they call "Colonial translations," that is, versions of the Spanish Colonial image in the Southwest as well as examples of American-style buildings in France (including a recreated Mount Vernon for the 1931 Exposition Coloniale in Paris).
The volume that results from all this is hefty, but the individual essays are fairly short. Most are about ten pages with about six illustrations. The essays cover subjects such as Wallace Nutting's role in helping to invent the idea of Colonial America (one of his hand-tinted, made-up photographs is on the dust jacket), Ellen Biddle Shipman's ideas for what a Colonial Revival garden style could be, the role of the Historic American Building Survey (HABS) in championing a renewed interest in Colonial-era buildings, the myth that Georgetown has an abundance of eighteenth-century architecture (most [End Page 129] is Victorian), and the idea of what Colonial Revival interiors should look like.
The essays that work best are those like Kim Hoagland's on "The Architecture of Efficiency: The U.S. Army and the Colonial Revival Style in the West," in which she makes a clear, central argument that the Army used the style not for its iconography but for its modern efficiency, lays out the story with precision, substance, and purpose, and never loses track of her main point. Or Marilyn Casto's "The Concept of Hand Production in Colonial Revival Interiors," in which she gives us a subtle, nuanced reading of all the complicated factors that went into the romantic celebration of the handmade. Other essayists seem more interested in telling the story than in making an argument, and a few seem to have difficulty telling their stories within their page limitations. But all of them contribute toward the overall purpose of the volume, namely to explore the many facets of the Colonial Revival and to demonstrate its persistence in our culture. The Colonial Revival is usually thought of as a style of architecture. These essays show its scope is much wider than that.
There is not enough space here to comment on all of the essays, so let me refer to just a few to demonstrate the scope of the collection. Tim Davis in his "The American Parkway as Colonial Revival Landscape" argues that "folk culture, historic preservation, and idealized national landscape" were part of the shaping of the parkway system (140). In a novel approach, he suggests that the parkway was shaped, at least in part, by an antimodernist historicizing championship of picturesque "sturdy...