American Architectural History: A Contemporary Reader

By Keith L. Eggener | Go to book overview

Part 2
Building the republic

Clifford Geertz, in discussing nationalism among colonial and post-colonial societies, has argued that national identity often begins with little more than the demand for independence and the denial of colonial subjecthood. It is only after political independence has been achieved that positive cultural definition can begin (C. Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, New York: Basic Books, 1973, pp. 238–243). If, after 1776, citizens of the new US knew that they were no longer British, it was some time before they determined just what they now were. The essays in this section consider some of the builders and buildings of a new nation seeking to define itself.

It is, perhaps, the central paradox of American history that a nation upholding “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” could also condone slavery. If independence from Great Britain meant little to African-American slaves, their labor was nonetheless key to the new nation’s economy and growth. Yet, as John Michael Vlach shows, despite the many limitations placed upon them, slaves often played important roles in shaping the built environments in which they lived and worked. As Dell Upton did with the buildings of colonial Virginia, Vlach sees plantation landscapes as indicative of hierarchical social relations. In appropriating and modifying portions of their environments, slaves found subtle means of resisting their masters and developing their own distinctive cultures.

Looking at the opposite end of the social hierarchy, Mary N. Woods’ chapter on Benjamin Latrobe charts the development of architectural practice in post-Revolutionary America, from an aristocratic hobby or a mechanic’s craft, to a full-fledged and wellrespected profession. Born and trained in England, Latrobe defined the architect’s role for the next generation of native-born professionals. Among these were his assistants Robert Mills and William Strickland, and also Thomas U. Walter—architects who prospered during a period of burgeoning opportunity and economic growth, designing buildings for some of the new republic’s central institutions.

Mills, Strickland, and Walter were all associated with the Greek Revival, a style of architecture often seen as “the first national style”—a distinctly American manner that deliberately expressed democratic meanings. Looking back at the Greek Revival’s contemporary dissemination and reception, W. Barksdale Maynard revises this view, reminding us that not only was the Greek Revival an international phenomenon, but that its popularity in the US was based less on politics and more on matters of taste, cultural insecurity, and economy. The slightly later Gothic Revival, on the other hand—represented in the popular domestic pattern books of Andrew Jackson Downing and others—was intimately

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