In 1845 Philip St. George Cocke commissioned Alexander Jackson Davis to design a Gothic revival villa for Belmead. In doing so he radically departed from the tradition of Palladian and classical architecture that had characterized elite Virginia plantations since the mid-eighteenth century. In A. J. Davis’s Belmead: Picturesque Aesthetics in the Land of Slavery, Daniel Bluestone argues that a Davis design resonated differently on the banks of the James River than on the banks of the Hudson. The appeal of Davis’s design lay in its sensitivity to the reciprocity between buildings and landscape, highlighting Cocke’s advocacy of greater stewardship of the land in the place of generations of ruinous agricultural practices. Beyond his villa and his land, Cocke commissioned Davis to design Belmead’s slave quarters. This was an attempt to harmonize himself with his slaves and the nation with an agricultural system based upon chattel slavery rather than yeomen farmers. This essay encourages us to look beyond the universals that often frame architectural history discussions of picturesque aesthetics to situate picturesque designs more precisely within a place-centered context of client vision and socio-cultural meaning.

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