The Courthouses of Early Virginia: An Architectural History

By Reynolds, Craig A. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, April 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

The Courthouses of Early Virginia: An Architectural History


Reynolds, Craig A., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


The Courthouses of Early Virginia: An Architectural History * Carl R. Lounsbury * Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005 * xxii, 430 pp. * $60.00

In the course of the American experience, houses of government have played a major role in shaping the nation. Courthouses specifically, have come to be the identifying physical feature of towns across America. In Virginia, the county courthouse played a crucial role in establishing civil society. These temples to democracy have been both the centers of day-to-day operations and the sites of pivotal moments in history. What led to the importance of these public spaces is at the heart of Carl R. Lounsburys new work, The Courthouses of Early Virginia.

Lounsbury traces the Virginia courthouse model from 1650 to 1815 in six principal parts: court in early Virginia; courthouses, 1650-1725; courthouses, 1725-1815; the public building process; punishment and prisons; and taverns and clerk's offices. In doing so, he explains how the social role of the courthouse changed but always retained its role as the nucleus of town life. Architecturally, courthouse plans became more specialized. By the mid-eighteenth century the brick courthouse replaced its wooden predecessor and generally followed two floorplans: "oblong" or "T."

During the infancy of Virginia law, however, colonists had yet to realize the importance of a centralized public building. They also struggled to emulate English custom in the midst of a growing agrarian economy. The resulting attempts neither created a distinguished building type nor marked the arrival of high-style English design in Virginia. "Most courthouses were simply modified houses that contained courts" (p. 65). Virginians relied on the one model they had readily available: the parish church. Compass windows and arched ceilings were appropriated from ecclesiastical architecture, setting basic design standards during the second quarter of the eighteenth century.

A strengthened economic environment and a growing gentry class ultimately led to the change in sentiment toward public buildings. Such features as the "T" plan and English arcade became more common after 1725, marking this period as the "first wave of self-conscious public buildings" (p. 45)· Lounsbury rightly points to Virginia's reliance on English precedent as the source for this newfound self-consciousness. The magistrate's chair and curved bench are tangible evidence of this relationship. …

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