Academic journal article Material Culture

A Story Thoroughly Told?: History Becomes the Thoroughgood House in Princess Anne County, Virginia

Academic journal article Material Culture

A Story Thoroughly Told?: History Becomes the Thoroughgood House in Princess Anne County, Virginia

Article excerpt

At the end of the nineteenth century, many old Virginia buildings received new attention. Rundown structures occupied by tenants, or buildings in disrepair offered for sale, gained a new-found venerability ("To Be Sold" 1897; "Trustees Sale" 1897; "Oldest House" 1917; "Shrines of Princess Anne" 1932). They now housed history. What history looked like, different yet recognizable to its circa 1900 interpreters, transformed the farmhouse -tenant, house -storage shed into shrines of national significance.

Architects and preservationists repaired and restored Virginia's historic buildings according to their understanding of the past. These early preservationists studied the construction of the historic structures. Those structural details, in turn, allowed the architects and preservationists to reconstruct their idea of what early American buildings looked like (Bell 2002; Price 2013; Upton 1988; Vivian forthcoming; Wells 1998).

A seminal example is the farmhouse thought by historians and preservationists for most of the twentieth century to be the homeplace of Captain Adam Thoroughgood. For the Thoroughgood House, the restoration of the building is as significant to understanding preservation history as the original fabric is to the architectural record; both are facets of a physical and intellectual frontier. The frontier was claimed from the marshes of Virginia in the 1630s, when Captain Adam Thoroughgood lived there, and arguably again in the early 1900s when preservationists saw the house as a means to reinterpret that past and claim the present.

Laying claim to the present, through stories told of the past, guided initial preservation efforts at the Thoroughgood House. Those claims also are the foundation of this paper. In the sections that follow, historical architects and preservation sponsors discover Captain Adam Thoroughgood and the house they thought he built in the 1630s. That the house they studied was almost 100 years younger made the building sit uncomfortably in the historical narrative that led to its preservation. As other dwellings of the early Chesapeake region of Virginia and Maryland became known through maps, archaeology, and photographic surveys, the seventeenth-century character of the Thoroughgood House all but vanished. In its place appeared a dwelling important for its floor plan and construction more so than its prominent, eighteenth-century builders.

Artifact and Artifice: The 20th-Century Thoroughgood House

The Thoroughgood House stands at the verge of British Colonial America in popular imagination and as a preserved remnant of that history (Figure 1). It provides an ever-moving measure of cutting edge methodological approaches that were developed to extrapolate clues from material evidence. The material allowed for a fuller interpretation of traditional sources. The evidence led contemporary historians to the eighteenth-century builders, Argall and Susannah Thoroughgood (Luccketti 2004). Notable today for its innovation in design and in construction, the house also exhibits traditional building technologies. The determination of its construction date (1719-20) proved integral to understanding not only the individual dwelling but also the larger continuum of house-building in the Chesapeake as the frontier shifted westward and the architectural evidence left behind proved more recent (Carson et al. 2008; Carson and Lounsbury 2013; Chappell 1991; Graham 2003; Graham et al. 2007).

Early twentieth-century histories of old Virginia places, such as the Thoroughgood House, told stories about singular accomplishment and, usually, about a man's success. The frontier that was the seventeenth-century Chesapeake was unfamiliar, much as the small-scale, one and one-half story brick house with its distinctive chimneys was to modern eyes. Twentieth-century suburban development throughout Princess Anne County further heightened its "of-anothertimeliness" as kinship networks were lost and fascination with swash-buckling cavaliers of early Virginia grew (Fischer 1989; Sale 1909). …

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