This collection of essays is an excellent example of the “new architectural history” that has been practiced during the past forty years by most scholars of American architecture, especially those focusing on the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries. This new architectural history was at first associated solely with scholars who studied vernacular architecture, but with the succeeding years, vernacular has become a broader term that also describes an approach to the study of architecture, regardless of a building's design origins or place in time. Although this approach to architectural history is no longer new, historians have yet to find a satisfactory term that describes the sea change that took place in the discipline during the last quarter of the twentieth century. In any case, the field of architectural history turned a corner and became the richer for it.
This approach can be traced to two seminal works of the 1970s—Henry Glassie's Folk Housing in Middle Virginia (1975) and Abbott Lowell Cummings's The Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay, 1625–1725 (1979).1 Glassie, a folklorist, employed the theories of semiology to investigate the idea that buildings are the results of complex, culturally embedded signs and symbols. Like language, buildings can be read and analyzed as intentional expressions of the mind and of human behavior. Glassie not only imbued buildings with a remarkably humanist quality but also introduced architectural historians to an interdisciplinary approach to studying the built environment. Cummings emphasized an equally systematic approach to the study of buildings. Through documentation in the field and close analysis of the building as an artifact, he provided historians with an example of the kind of hard evidence that social historians and social scientists employ to draw conclusions. Historians of early American architecture began to look beyond the stylistic pedigrees of buildings and to focus instead on spatial analyses; buildings could now be read as active agents in social history. Historians gave particular emphasis to the analysis and interpretation of careful, original fieldwork, and their analysis and interpretation were guided by close reading of documentary evidence and by methodologies developed in disciplines such as linguistics, anthropology, and archaeology. Thus, Glassie and Cummings laid the important foundations on which a new and enterprising generation of architectural historians would build.2
Carl R. Lounsbury was among the first of this new generation of architectural historians to employ these new techniques and methodologies, and the writings collected in Essays in Early American Architectural History continue to teach and inspire students and scholars alike. Lounsbury began his career as an architectural historian in 1982 at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation—where he continues to research and write—at a time when the foundation was establishing itself at the forefront of the new architectural history. During the past thirty-five years, Lounsbury has been investigating and writing about the architecture of colonial America and England, leading a vanguard of eager and dedicated historians. The work he presents in the current volume is among his best, and among the best in the discipline.
Of the twelve essays, eight are reprinted from journals or edited volumes; the remaining four are new essays developed from conference presentations. As a teacher, I am especially pleased that the essays are accessible and compact enough to use in the classroom. The collection is divided into four parts. The three essays in part 1, “The Origins of Early American Architecture,” cover examples from both New England and the Chesapeake and explain how quickly regional building traditions developed in early America and diverged from their English origins. The essays in this section show the value of interdisciplinary collaboration. Working with a team of historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists, Lounsbury discovered evidence of a built landscape that early colonists created—one that showed the emergence of a distinctive colonial society. In part 2, “The Design and Building Process,” Lounsbury includes two essays in which he challenges assumptions about the design process in early America. In these case studies, he finds that the process was one of collaboration among client, contractor, and craftsmen. Rarely, if ever, was a design guided solely by one hand, and again, while antecedents can certainly be discerned, modifications were made depending on the particular requirements of time, place, and personages involved in the design and construction process. Part 3, “Regional Building Patterns,” contains four essays that focus on ecclesiastical architecture and the interchange between regional building practices and theological tenets. For example, Lounsbury compares the colonial-era Anglican churches of Virginia and Maryland, finding that the building type varies greatly between the two colonies. He traces the differences to the different time periods in which Anglicanism was officially established as the state religion and to the transformation of English church design during the turbulent Protestant ascendancy of the seventeenth century. In part 4, titled simply “Williamsburg,” Lounsbury focuses on the public buildings of Virginia's colonial capital. Two of the essays consider issues of cultural history and historic preservation. In the case of the reconstruction of the capitol building, for example, Beaux-Arts-trained architects who worked on the reconstruction could not accept the archaeological evidence indicating that the original building had, to their sensibilities, some jarring asymmetries. As Lounsbury notes, the reconstruction of Virginia's capitol building is a cautionary tale about how contemporary attitudes can misinform the best-intentioned restorer.
Lounsbury has an admirable command of his subject, and he has in this volume brought together well-written and insightful essays that deal with the lessons we can learn from careful investigation of the built environment, not only that of colonial America but also that of other eras and places. The essays here will stand the test of time. Lounsbury's introduction to his collection is titled “Reshaping the Study of Early American Architecture,” and although this refers to the work of many scholars during the past forty years, Lounsbury himself has indeed been instrumental in that reshaping.