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  • The Chesapeake House: Architectural Investigations by Colonial Williamsburg ed. by Cary Carson and Carl R. Lounsbury
  • Carter C. Harvey (bio)
The Chesapeake House: Architectural Investigations by Colonial Williamsburg Edited by Cary Carson and Carl R. Lounsbury Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press and Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2013 488 pp.

The Chesapeake House is a must have for anyone interested in the history, design, construction, and usage of early American architecture. Editors Cary Carson and Carl R. Lounsbury, along with their contributing colleagues, have synthesized decades of research carried out by themselves and fellow architectural historians, archaeologists, and historians to produce a beautiful volume that will stand for generations as the authority on the development of the Chesapeake region’s buildings. Spanning from the nation’s roots at Jamestown (1607) through the early nineteenth century (c. 1830), the seventeen chapters of the book move through four parts that illustrate both Old World influences on building construction and the creation of unique styles dictated by the conditions of life in Virginia and Maryland.

In many ways, The Chesapeake House can be viewed as the product of nearly a century of scholarly research put forward by the staff of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Under the leadership of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Colonial Williamsburg began restoring Virginia’s colonial capital in 1926 with architectural details gathered from countless domestic and public buildings located in the hinterland of Virginia and Maryland. Research has monumentally increased in the last thirty years as Colonial Williamsburg’s staff and partners have documented and recorded thousands of buildings in an effort to understand both the diachronic and synchronic changes physically manifested in the region’s architecture. Significantly, the multidisciplinary work of Williamsburg’s researchers has been all encompassing, as both extant architecture and archaeological resources have been consulted, with attention given to the housing of all social levels ranging from enslaved Africans and free laborers to elite planters.

In the first part, “Ends and Means,” the authors describe the goals and methods of the book and present a socioeconomic narrative outlining the conditions of life in the colonial and antebellum Chesapeake region. In [End Page 580] particular, the modern fieldwork techniques employed by the contributors are examined in chapter 3. The predecessors to this volume pioneered some of these practices, while others were adapted or recently invented through the use of new technologies such as dendrochronology and paint analysis. As Carson notes in his introduction, field recording should be carried out with an understanding that the recorded scholarship serve as a legacy for future reinterpretation, but “first, foremost and fundamentally on the questions that researchers believe are the most important ones to ask about houses and their inhabitants” (4–5). In the case of The Chesapeake House, the inquiries at hand are focused on an understanding of “how buildings and furnishings actually worked for the people who acquired and used them” (2).

The second part of The Chesapeake House approaches the design and use of buildings, including investigations of domestic structures, housing for servants and enslaved people, and agricultural workplaces. The temporal parameters of the book allow the authors to follow the development of regional house forms and the shifts in domestic lifestyles dictated by urban and rural contexts, agricultural diversification, and the rise of a slave-based labor system. Throughout, the authors significantly add to ongoing historical discussions centered around the rise of a consumer society and the increasing dependence on objects of material culture and their abilities to communicate status, taste, class, and identity within the expanding British Atlantic world. In contrast to that of objects such as ceramics and furniture supplied from England, the design and construction of the Chesapeake’s buildings was “far more fluid, as clients, contractors, and craftsmen played important and often variable roles in the process” (64). While English pattern books played a role in design, as Lounsbury notes, “the transatlantic connection was imperfect” and “building design and finishes depended upon a variety of circumstances and the intermingling of complex social, economic, environmental, and technological factors” (84–85). Accordingly, the “consumption” of buildings in the Chesapeake was far more dynamic than scholars have previously acknowledged, and far more complex...


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