“First, What kind of life was lived in this place, that is, Why and how did its builders build as they did?
And second, what rules with general validity and applicability did they follow?”
Carroll William Westfall, Learning From Pompeii.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


We were recently reading an urban history of Vicenza in a conventional biography of the Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. We could not help but notice some superficial similarities between Vicenza and the city of Richmond, mostly in the areas of urban form and social relations relating to their shared European derivation. It occurred to us to substitute the place and personal names and a few of the facts in the text and see if the odd parallels and the comic discontinuities between Richmond and Vicenza and Palladio and Jefferson could lead us to a fresh perspective. What is remarkable is how little it was necessary to change in order to juxtapose Richmond’s early history with the text of Vicenza’s.
Parallels with Renaissance Vicenza merely point out the stubborn continuity of Western urban life and the deliberate cultivation of classical themes of virtue and civic duty familiar to the elites of both cities. A theory of the city that can account for the likeness and dissimilarities of the two cities might be a useful tool for untangling Richmond’s current disarray. We indicate the words or phrases that have been replaced by a restrained use of the Italic. Based on an excerpt from Chapter Two of Bruce Boucher’s Andrea Palladio: The Architect and his Time( New York; Abbeville Press, 1994).  
In 1791 the South Carolinian Congressman William Loughton Smith traveled through the Upper South and kept a record of his observations. He gave a positive account of Richmond, noting its seven miles of canal navigation, and the falls of the James River, that gird it on the south; of its buildings, he mentioned the Capitol, still under construction, and the excellence of some of its brick housesFive years later the French essayist La Rochfoucauld-Liancourt jotted down his first impressions of Richmond as “truly agreeable.” He arrived just seven years after the completion of the Capitol, and it was the secular stamp of the city, its multitude of private houses, that caught his attention. The famous western view of Richmond in 1825 [above] shows just how much of Jefferson’s program was then half-finished or only just begun, but the cumulative effect must have been remarkable, especially for a traveler familiar with other southern towns.  A generation later, Rochefoucault-Liancourt’s response was followed by those of William Wirt and James Kirk Paulding, and by a stream of nineteenth-century pilgrims coming to worship at the shrine of Jefferson: his revolutionary impact on Richmond’s architecture ensured the city’s fame as well as his own.

The alacrity with which the Richmonders turned what was a small town into a building site can hardly be exaggerated. Jefferson’s contemporaries were mad for building in a way that courtiers in Elizabethan England or German barons along the Weser River would have understood. What makes Richmond so extraordinary is the scale and quality of building that took place in one architect’s lifetime and within a town, in 1820, of less than twenty thousand inhabitants.

To understand the Jeffersonian phenomenon in Richmond, we must step back and look briefly at Richmond in the period prior to the capital’s arrival in 1779. The city is situated at the falls of the James River at the western edge of the Tidewater region. Its land is fertile, and notwithstanding the growth of a small iron making and coal mining trade, tobacco cultivation was the principal source of wealth in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In Jefferson’s day, the city still bore the traces of its Indian origins: the old Indian path or Powhatan’s Road running east to west divided the city into halves. Richmond’s nucleus lay within its gridded boundaries, and here stood the chief manifestations of religious and civic power, crystallized in the Town Church on the hill [above] and the Henrico County Courthouse in the center of Twenty-second Street, respectively. On the eastern bank of Shockoe Creek was a section that served for the sale of grains and produce while an open area called the Rock Landing served as a port at the end of the old Three Notched Road, the present day Broad Street, in the west; tanners and millers set up shop along the river.

The main families of Richmond, who constituted the core of the ruling class, had their mansions on the hills around the town and on secondary streets.  As was often the case in deferential communities, these families staked out different sectors as their power bases. Thus the Adamses, one of the richest families, held a number of houses just below the cemetery and around the Town Church, while the Mayos, who may have been the richest family in Richmond, owned most of a large oblong block on the crest of Council Chamber Hill. A principal street like Marshall Street ran north of the old Three-notched Road and contained a preponderance of houses owned by the in-laws of Chief Justice John Marshall, as the name suggests [his house is above].  Beyond the grid lay newer settlements, corresponding to gates to the city and the main roads leading to the other centers of the Piedmont, as the central part of the Virginian commonwealth was called.  Here building was less dense with a number of plantations and suburban villas with large gardens.

During the colonial era, the Richmond area had been fought over by native tribes, local forces, and the troops of Great Britain, but the selection of the town as the capitol in 1779 brought Richmond peace and prosperity on a scale previously unknown. Since Richmond was no longer a pawn in colonial politics, the gentry turned to building, as is evident from the large and varied mansions that once were seen to cluster about streets like Marshall, Clay, and Fifth.  Few documents survive concerning these buildings, but they seem to have been part of a burst of private construction between 1780 and 1800. One wealthy Richmonder named Richard Adams listed property worth $20,000 in his will of 1817, holdings not untypical of the upper strata of local society. Some of these monuments, like the imposing Edmund Pendleton House on Broad Street, Moldavia on Fifth Street, and the villa at Clifton, on Council Chamber Hill [above], ranked among the most important examples of Federal architecture in the Piedmont, and the number and variety known from this period testify to the extensive construction in hand during the third quarter of the eighteenth century.

Not surprisingly, Virginia Georgian is English in origin, and the piazzas with round arches, the compass-headed windows, the Flemish-bond brick walls with wood or stone trim,  and pedimented central pavilions all mirror the appearance of slightly earlier English houses. In a way, Virginia Georgian can be understood as a reflection of cultural imperialism, the attempt by a subject state to assimilate the style of its far-away rulers; symmetrical floor plans, impressive paneled interiors also bring this point home.  Of course, English city houses evolved to meet the peculiar requirements of building in a mild climate and in a dense urban context. This led to a tripartite division of houses, with service functions in the ground floor, principal rooms on the floor above, and bedrooms in the upper story. In Virginia there was no reason to adopt such plans, and the result is that the forms of houses were adapted for local social and functional purposes. evolved to meet the peculiar requirements of building staircases, and the rare paneled interior also bring this point home.  Of course, English city houses evolved to meet the peculiar requirements of building in a mild climate and in a dense urban context. This led to a tripartite division of houses, with service functions in the ground floor, principal rooms on the floor above, and bedrooms in the upper story. In Virginia there was no reason to adopt such plans, and the result is that the forms of houses were adapted for local social and functional purposes

The beginnings of a new classical style appeared in Virginia as early as 1753, the date of the handsome piazza on the Georgian façade of the Old Capitol in Williamsburg. Even more striking is the Palladian façade of Mount Airy, where the ground-floor loggia incorporates roundheaded arches while on the loggia of the opposite front a pilaster order separates the bays. It had a large façade, one entirely of stone, which makes it a rarity in Virginia. The most remarkable shift in taste came with the first house at Monticello [above], singled out for praise by a European visitor during his visit of 1782. Begun in 1769, the house was extensively rebuilt around the same time that Richmond was going up. Whimsical and not without British Palladian overtones, Monticello represents the extreme of classically wrought facades found in a more Georgian idiom on Mount Airy.  Both houses preserve the rich effect prized by eighteenth-century Virginian patrons, an effect that the poetaster Giovan Battista Dragoncino evoked as “proud palaces with facades and foundations of adamantine rustication.’ Gilded and painted, the late eighteenth-century mansions of Virginia underscored the wealth and aspirations of its citizens.

The earliest signs of the Classical style were derivative and often seem little more than an overlay of new elements on older ones. Sometimes, as with the Old Capitol in Williamsburg [above], a Georgian public building had been “modernized” by the introduction of Ionic columns, and a two-story piazza. The results looked incongruous, with the wide intercolumniation and uncanonical proportions. Such attempts at bringing older buildings into line with more contemporary tastes were not uncommon even though they betrayed a lack of understanding of the principles behind Classical design.  The mongrel nature of such architecture was probably what Jefferson had in mind when he condemned “the burthen of barbarous ornaments with which these buildings are sometimes charged” in his Notes on the State of Virginia.
When the radical French writer Jacques Pierre Brissot published a guide to the United States in 1792, he exclaimed that “Richmond with its capitol has turned the heads of Virginians. They imagine that, like the Romans, they will someday dictate the laws of the whole world.” It was a perceptive comment, for it laid bare the strategy embraced by Jefferson and his fellow directors in most of his Richmond designs. Indeed the Capitol Square can be seen as a microcosm of the Jefferson phenomenon that, through the quality of design and the unswerving adherence to a new and distinctive approach to architecture, invested these public buildings with a status beyond their actual scale and the relatively humble nature of their materials. The readiness with which the Richmond gentry adopted the approach to architecture espoused by Jefferson transformed the face of that city in ways already apparent when men like Brissot visited it in 1788. The overlapping of public and private patronage in post-Jefferson Richmond, implies, moreover, a deliberate intent on the part of men like John Wickham, John Brockenbrough, and John Bell, who saw the creation of their own houses in much the same terms as the building of new arcades for the market house, both gestures reflected honor on their city and on themselves [the Wickham House is above]. Jefferson’s successors shared a common outlook and a commitment to building, even though they knew that family taste and economic circumstances would not remain constant and that their lineage might not occupy their houses in decades to come.

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