If Walls Could Talk – The Beginning

This summer I am researching the architecture of historical buildings and how they were perceived at the time of their construction. I’ll be looking at 18th century homes in Colonial Williamsburg as well as in coastal North Carolina. My firsts step in beginning my research process was to meet with Mr. Klee the architectural historian for Colonial Williamsburg. I had the opportunity to meet with him to discuss my project at the end of last semester and he provided me with valuable insights which have guided the direction of my research this summer.  My original plan had been to analyze three towns in addition to Colonial Williamsburg but Mr. Klee suggested that this would be too ambitious given the time allotment of the research. Being familiar with both Bath and Beaufort, North Carolina, he warned that Beaufort’s history contains lots of myths and legends mixed in with facts. Sorting through all these stories would make it difficult to decide between fact and fiction. He recommended I just focus on New Bern, the second oldest town in North Carolina, which is the best-documented. My current plan is to compare several structures in New Bern, North Carolina to similar structures found here in Colonial Williamsburg.

This summer I am doing biology research in Williamsburg so I haven’t been able to travel to New Bern yet. This weekend I am planning to travel to New Bern and to photograph several of the homes. I am looking to compare 18th century homes in New Bern to 18th century homes in Colonial Williamsburg. There are far more homes dating from this time period in New Bern than I thought there would be so the first step is to decide which homes to include in my project. Many of the structures that date from the 18th century have been extensively remodeled meaning they are no longer representative of the time they were first constructed. As I am trying to evaluate the perception of these homes at the time they were built, it would be ideal to have homes that are remodeled as little as possible.

I also plan to tour Tryon Palace which is very similar to the Governor’s Palace in Colonial Williamsburg. Both are very grand brick structures constructed for the governors of the two cities. Although these buildings will be more representative of British taste, their construction and the skilled craftsman construction of these buildings employed greatly shaped the architecture in the decades that followed.

Mr. Klee suggested I look for certain features when determining a home’s perception. As I don’t have much knowledge about architectural nuances I will begin by describing straightforward characteristics of the homes such as number of stories, the exterior molding, and the number of windows. These three characteristics will serve as good indicators of the homes construction and I’ll be able to identify and quantify them easily. Earlier I had planned to look at the interiors of homes as well as the exteriors but after speaking with Mr. Klee this component would be too big a project to take on along with viewing the exteriors.

Currently, I hope to compare at least three structures from New Bern and Colonial Williamsburg. One aspect I want to explore is the differences that result from different types of preservation. Colonial Williamsburg was reconstructed and staged to appear as it would have hundreds of years ago. While New Bern is also a historic city, it carries its history differently – the buildings change and take on new purposes as the years go by. The differences in uses of the buildings will alter their appearances and play an interesting role in the buildings future.

At this point in my research process I am still learning about what is and isn’t feasible. As I’ve learned from speaking with Mr. Klee, some of the ideas I start with will morph into other ideas and take me into a different direction than I originally anticipated. Part of the process will be learning which questions to ask and in what ways. For instance, looking at remodeled buildings will make it difficult for me to assess their original status but I can learn about their later history from these adjustments. I’m looking forward to visiting New Bern and to the new questions I will have after my trip.


  1. This sounds like a very interesting project! Do you believe that there will be significant differences in the architecture between these two cities? New Bern and Williamsburg are rather far away from each other by colonial standards, so I would be interested to know if there actually are major changes in the design because of this distance. If so, that would suggest that colonial architecture was unique if not town to town, then perhaps colony to colony, dissipating the notion of a brick and wood generic “colonial house”.
    It’s very cool that you have an expert helping and advising you on this project. His suggestion that going more in-depth in only New Bern and Williamsburg rather than attempting to hit more towns is a good one. Hopefully he will be able to help differentiate between features that are genuine and those that are the result of a remodel or preservation attempt, as those may be the cause of some mix-ups. I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of this project pan out!

  2. mecampbell says:

    Comparing architecture from these two cities from the same time period should shed an interesting light on regional differences. Will you compare buildings that served a similar purpose; such as administrative or residential? Perhaps differences in architectural style between these two cities could suggest differences in the social, political, and economic climate of each region.
    It will be interesting to see what you find out about the impact of different preservation strategies as well. Do you have an opinion about which is a better way to preserve historic architecture- preserve its original structure and function as closely as possible, or allow changes to better fit with changing times?