Magazine article Humanities

"From Skyscrapers to Barns and Everything in Between"

Magazine article Humanities

"From Skyscrapers to Barns and Everything in Between"

Article excerpt

VIRGINIA'S MOST ENDURING LEGACY LIES IN ITS architecture, says Richard Guy Wilson, a professor at the University of Virginia, far more than through painting, literature, or any other traditional art form.

He mentions Mount Vernon and Monticello as two of the most famous historic houses in the country, and cites Colonial Williamsburg as the touchstone for understanding life in the eighteenth century. But there are unexpected architectural treasures to be found, he says, among the county courthouses, the rural churches, the Civil War cemeteries, and even the shopping malls. They are all part of a new guidebook: Buildings of Virginia: Tidewater and Piedmont.

Structures both famous and obscure can be found on its pages. There is Pear Valley on Virginia's Eastern Shore, a one-room, yeoman farmer's cottage believed to date from 1740 with a chimney that measures ten feet across at the base.

A number of churches are included, among them St. Luke's Church in Isle of Wight County, the earliest surviving Anglican church in the state. Anglicanism had been the state's official religion until disestablishment in 1786. Another, Christ Church in Lancaster County, dating from preRevolutionary Virginia, offers testimony to the power of the patron, in this case Robert "King" Carter. "In churches such as this ... the local gentry would express their status by having their family pews raised higher than those of the lesser members of the congregation," Wilson writes. Still another is the Third Street Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Richmond, which dates back to 1859, a reminder of the existence of a sizable free black population in the state before

the Civil War.

Wilson describes these structures, along with hundreds of others, in Buildings of Virginia, the seventh and newest of a projected fifty-eight volumes in the series, Buildings of the United States. There will be a second Virginia volume on the southern and western parts of the state.

Creating a nationwide series of guidebooks has been the goal of the Society of Architectural Historians since its founding in 1940. However, says Damie Stillman, the editor-in-chief of the series, "There was never either enough money or enough time on the part of the members to pursue the project."

Then, at the time of the United States bicentennial in 1976, the British architectural historian, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, challenged the society to do for the United States what he had done for Britain. Pevner's project was The Buildings of England, fifty volumes published from 1951 to 1974. The success of his work led to the extension of the series to Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.

Stillman says, "It would be another ten years before we were able to organize the effort, commission authors for the initial group of volumes, and secure the first funding, a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities." Since then, volumes have been published on Michigan, Iowa, Alaska, the District of Columbia, Colorado, and Nevada. Thirteen volumes are to be released over the next five years.

When all fifty-eight are finished, Stillman says, "The series will provide a detailed survey and history of the architecture of the whole country, including both vernacular and high-style structures for a complete range of building types from skyscrapers to barns and everything in between."

Although The Buildings of England provided a model, the American version is as different from the English as American architecture is from English, Stillman says. In the foreword, Stillman notes that "Pevsner was confronted by a coherent culture on a relatively small island, with an architectural history that spans more than two thousand years. Here we are dealing with a vast land of immense regional, geographic, climatic, and ethnic diversity, with most of its buildings-wide-ranging, exciting, and sometimes dramatic-essentially concentrated into the last four hundred years. …

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