In my last post I discussed my visit to New Bern to select and photograph homes. The next part of my research process was to select houses that I would analyze in Williamsburg. Initially I thought I would be able to compare homes of very similar ages but this turned out not to be the case. Although I had selected the oldest homes in New Bern, most were still built significantly later than those of Williamsburg. The homes in New Bern were built in the latter part of the 18th century, while many homes in Williamsburg were built in the early or mid 18th century. Additionally, the New Bern homes were all grand in size, most having two or more stories. In contrast, the majority of homes I researched in Colonial Williamsburg were more modest in size.
After choosing several homes in Colonial Williamsburg, I again met with Mr. Klee, the architectural historian for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, who I discussed my findings with.
For starters, I had hoped to compare the general architecture from the two regions by comparing individual homes from the two towns. My reasoning for this was that both towns possessed grand homes for their governors. I had visited both New Bern and Williamsburg prior to beginning this project and was struck by the similarity of the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg and by Tryon Palace in New Bern. The two large brick structures, both built for governors and of British design, were strikingly similar. The similarity of these two buildings prompted me to wonder whether other buildings in the two towns possessed such similarities.
I posed this idea to Mr. Klee, and he cautioned me that comparing the two towns in such a way would draw the incorrect conclusion that they were very similar. As we further discussed this idea however, it took shape as a good way for me to break the project into parts. For instance, I could compare the Isaac Taylor House of New Bern to the Palmer House of Williamsburg. Both houses are large brick structures, the Isaac Taylor House being a large three-story brick townhouse and the Palmer House a two-story brick house positioned near the Capital building along Duke of Gloucester Street. I elected to compare the John Wright Stanly House in New Bern and the George Wythe House in Williamsburg as well. Both of the houses lend themselves to comparison as they are amongst the most grand and iconic in their respective town. Although dissimilar in their architecture, their architectural importance in their town unites them.
I’d noticed that the majority of the Williamsburg homes were built prior to those in New Bern. Mr. Klee explained that the architecture of homes reflects the town’s history. When a town is prosperous and thriving economically, money is poured into developing architecture and building new homes. Thus, when you view towns, the architecture tells you when the town was “booming”. To that end, comparing Williamsburg and New Bern, one can see that Williamsburg had its heyday before New Bern. In 1780, the capital of Virginia was moved from Williamsburg to Richmond, which left Williamsburg as a sleepy way station instead of the bustling capital it had been (Chorley 361). In contrast, New Bern came into prosperity much later, as it was North Carolina’s largest urban center during the Federal Period from 1790 to 1820 (Sandbeck 35).
The next step in my research was to analyze the architecture of the homes and how they would have been perceived in their time. This part of the process required lots of reading, both about the individual homes but also about the construction methods of the times. To provide one example, let’s examine the large porches that are present in the homes of New Bern but not their counterparts in Williamsburg. I found in my reading that large one- or two-story porches weren’t popular in Virginia due to its colder climate. Popular in the south where temperatures were more mild, these porches would interfere with the winter sunlight which, in cooler Virginia, was desired to warm the homes the the cold winter months (Whiffen 76). Many of the homes in Williamsburg that I photographed didn’t have large porches, while several of the
homes I photographed in New Bern did. This can be seen in the Hawks House on the left and in the Coor-Gaston home pictured on the right. Whiffen also explains that climate influenced building material and landscape design (77). Additionally, in Williamsburg there were laws in place that regulated what kinds of buildings could be constructed and dictated that they be built of brick so as to avoid the flammable nature of wood (Whiffen 79).
To provide a window into the analysis I did, I’ve included two homes that I compared — the John Wright Stanly House in New Bern, North Carolina, and the Thomas Wythe House in Williamsburg, Virginia. Both of these homes are considered some of the grandest, if not the grandest, of their time in their respective towns. Although similar in their grandeur, the houses are very different in their presence. Assessing the homes on the most basic level, we can note that the houses are similar in size, both being five bays wide (four windows and a door in the center), and both houses are two stories tall with double chimneys set in the center of the house.
The John Wright Stanly House was built in the Georgian style; its architect and skilled craftsmen are unknown. However, the house is linked stylistically to John Hawks or James Coor (Sandbeck 415) as are several of the other homes I photographed in New Bern. John Wright Stanly, the home’s first owner, was born in Virginia in 1742. He moved to Jamaica at a young age and made his fortune in the export of rum, rope and salt. He moved to New Bern in 1772. During the American Revolution he made a large fortune operating his ships. The house has been moved twice, was restored by the Tryon Palace Commission and currently serves as a house museum (Sandbeck 415). Sandbeck describes the interior of the home as “the most sophisticated in New Bern, excepting those at the Palace” (415). The interior work is credited to a skilled craftsman from Philadelphia who worked for John Hawks, the architect of Tryon Palace (Sandbeck 416).
One interesting aspect of the John Wright Stanly house is an architectural detail called a quoins. These are used to provide a visual cue of structural strength at the corners of the home (Morrison 304). At the John Stanly Wright house, Mr. Klee explained, they are an element used to give the illusion that the house is made of stone instead of siding. The use of quoins was likely included to make the home appear more costly.
The George Wythe House was built around 1752-1754 by Richard Taliferro, a planter who occasionally worked as a builder and may have designed the buildings he constructed. Taliferro was also responsible for repairing and renovating the Governor’s Palace and may have been working on both projects at the same time (Whiffen 175). In 1755 George Wythe married Elizabeth, Richard Taliferro’s daughter and then moved into the house. When Taliferro died in 1755, the house was deeded to the couple. The brickwork of the exterior is of high quality with artistic touches seen in the flayed brickwork above the windows (Whiffen 175). Perhaps the most notable aspect of the house’s construction is the use of ratios and symmetry to appeal to the viewer’s eye (Whiffen 88). All four exteriors of the house are symmetrical, with the interior only symmetrical along the east-west axis (Whiffen 175). Outbuildings and kitchens were removed from the main structure, as was typical in colonial Virginia (Whiffen 175).
In thinking about these two homes their prowess is displayed in different ways. The George Wythe house displays the refined taste of its owner through its construction directed by proportions, flayed brickwork above the windows, and its overarching symmetry. Both homes are grand in scale and well-constructed. The George Wythe house is built of brick, a more common construction material in Williamsburg than in New Bern. In contrast, the John Wright Stanly House is built to mimic stone, but is made of siding a more common material in New Bern. These homes were both built to display their owners’ wealth and taste, no doubt achieving awe from passersby in their respective towns.
Not only did I learn a great deal about the history and architecture of the two towns that I studied, but I learned a great deal about the research process. Meeting with Mr. Klee and discussing my project and ideas really helped me to structure my analysis. While I could categorize the homes by the features they had and guess at some of the reasoning, I realized I didn’t have enough background information or experience to be able to discern the architectural nuances. I was able to view the homes in isolation, but, with more knowledge, one could examine these historical homes as a part of the fabric of architecture in America to determine what they represent in a much larger sense. Additionally, I’m sure much of the history was interwoven and connected across various regions so further continuing to investigate these relationships would be interesting.
I had a wonderful experience exploring the architecture of these two towns this summer but definitely feel like I’ve just found the tip of the iceberg rather than come to a full-circle understanding.
Chorley, Kimball, Perry, Shurcliff, Nash, Chorley, Kenneth, Kimball, Fiske, Perry, William Graves, Shurcliff, Arthur A., Nash, Susan Higginson, and Perry Collection.The Restoration of Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. New York: F. W. Dodge, 1935. Print.
Sandbeck, Peter B., and North Carolina. Tryon Palace Commission. The Historic Architecture of New Bern and Craven County, North Carolina. 1st ed. New Bern, N.C.: Tryon Palace Commission, 1988. Print.
Whiffen, Marcus., and Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. The Eighteenth-century Houses of Williamsburg : A Study of Architecture and Building in the Colonial Capital of Virginia. 2nd Rev. ed. Williamsburg, Va. : Charlottesville, Va. : Distributed by The University Press of Virginia: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation ;, 1987. Print. Williamsburg Architectural Studies.