Prodigy Houses of Virginia: Architecture and the Native Elite

By Hudgins, Carter L. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, January 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Prodigy Houses of Virginia: Architecture and the Native Elite


Hudgins, Carter L., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Prodigy Houses of Virginia: Architecture and the Native Elite * Barbara Budison Mooney * Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008 * xii, 366 pp. * $65.00

The large, classically inspired houses that Virginia's wealthiest eighteenth-century planters built for themselves and their families have excited both popular imagination and scholarly inquiry since the middle of the nineteenth century when Anne Pamela Cunningham launched her effort to save George Washington's Mount Vernon for posterity. Architectural historian Barbara Budison Mooney has assembled for this book a study group of twenty-five houses constructed between 1720 and 1770, many of which survive, such as George Mason's Gunston Hall, while others are known only archaeologically, such as Governor Alexander Spotswood's Germanna. Celebrated as aesthetic achievements, sometimes criticized as symbols of wealth built on slavery, and so familiar that they have achieved iconic status, these houses are certainly the nation's most closely studied. Mooney's analysis of the builders of these "prodigy" houses explores modern understanding of what has long been assumed was the eighteenth-century maxim that grand architectural gestures propelled personal and political advancement. Her application of what she calls a "material culture approach" and her innovative application of gender analysis challenge several cherished notions about why elite eighteenth-century builders set themselves apart architecturally.

Mooney deftly explores how wealth and kinship gave Virginia's elites access to transatlantic trends in design and ornamentation and the challenges faced by planters who eschewed timber to build in more stylish brick. Mooney's treatment of these themes leans heavily on insights garnered from the scholarship of Rhys Isaac, Carl Lounsbury, Dell Upton, and Camille Well, among others. Mooney agrees that wealth and intellectual capacity combined with rising social and political expectations to make architecture an "active agent in legitimizing the social order the wealthiest planters envisioned" (p. 10). She breaks, however, from accepted analytical equations and is more broadly interested in whether large houses made families than she is in how families shaped their houses. …

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