“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, March 9, 2010

Rural Extensions: Dinwiddie County Architecture

All through the winter, Urbanismo has been at work far from our customary haunts. We have been occupied several days a week with the cataloging of old houses in one of the quietest and least urban of places: Southside Virginia. There we have visited some of the most powerfully evocative places from a seemingly ancient past in the venerable county of Dinwiddie. The landscape is made up almost entirely of small winding roads, modern agricultural businesses, crossroads churches, pulp-wood plantations in every stage of propagation from clear-cut to mature, and abandoned country stores (the stretch of Route 1 south of DeWitt is startlingly beautiful, quiet, and undeveloped). The county has been spared much of the devastation of suburban sprawl due to a large extent to the lack of economic growth in the adjoining city of Petersburg, yet it has suffered a terrible forgetting nonetheless.

The small houses of freed slaves and tenants, the farmhouses of the proud black and white landowners of the post war and early twentieth century can be seen in overgrown fields, most abandoned and unrecorded. Great plantations and middling mansions, set up to be showplaces of order in a now invisible landscape, are to be seen only in truncated remnants, sometimes perched uncomfortably in center of now-dated housing developments, many shorn of their accompanying villages of outbuildings and barns. When these outbuildings survive to be recorded by us, they are usually dilapidated and disused. Often the old houses serve as weekend or commuter homes. Our experience shows that almost no-one is at home during the week in Dinwiddie County.

While much farming takes place in the county on a variety of scales from small to large, a drive down one of the many newly forested roads is a constant reminder of the wreckage of a farm-based life across the state. Here there is none of the lush but shallow horse-oriented landscape that has replaced authentic small farms in areas colonized from the cities. Hunting camps and clubs abound. The most rewarding winter sights are the silhouetted groves of oaks that cluster around many farm houses and churches, set aside for the comfort of the muggy Southside summers.

The traditional farm life lives on among a number of older farmers, some of whom spoke to us of farming with horses and mules in the 1960s and later and whose farms are still replete with granaries, corn cribs, hay barns, and the tall log dark-fired tobacco barns so characteristic of the county’s fields. The old patterns of stability continues at a greater depth under the surface, harder to detect for those who don’t take part, but the empty trailers and proliferating roadside Cape Cods indicate the rise and triumph of another way of using the land. One is reminded of the closing, elegiac words of Henry Glassie’s now-classic study of conservative architectural and farming traditions in the Piedmont counties of Goochland and Louisa:

The old farmer of Middle Virginia is left standing alone at the end of a row. He watches, without motion, the dust spun from the auto’s tires settle through his garden. He lifts his chin from the back of his hand, his hand from the hoe. He shoulders the hoe and crosses the yard, glancing to the left at the sleek mule in his pen, and drops himself into a chair on the porch, where, efficient and swift, the hands of his wife click snap beans into a pot. Staring down into the middle distance, he says to himself alone, “Many changes, many changes, many changes, many changes.”

Henry Glassie, Folk Housing in Middle Virginia, 1976.

The first forgetting of Dinwiddie was the destruction in the Civil War of all its public records before the 1830s. A survey sponsored in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration first inventoried the county’s oldest houses, already in attenuated condition. The loss of memory was scarcely made up by a thin record of owners and dates attached to blurred and enigmatic photographs. Antiquarianism had overtaken the recorders; in keeping with the times, 1830 was considered the terminus ante quem of significance in furniture and architecture. Everything later was discounted. The eighteenth century was most honorable. Invented dates have since been assumed for many houses far in advance of possibility. It is astoundingly difficult to say for sure when and for whom many of the oldest and most important houses were built (and there remain quite a few).

The second forgetting has been the destruction of the historic landscape. Since the mid-twentieth century the loss has been disheartening. Two-thirds of the houses recorded in a survey of pre-1830 houses done in 1969 are vanished. Where ten years ago, most old houses looked out at the world through the refractions of mortised wood sashes, today almost every occupied dwelling in Dinwiddie stares at the viewer with the irrevocable, sterile glare of lightweight vinyl windows. Similarly, vinyl siding renders mute and hulking the delicate solidity of a well-built country church. To the eye of an historian of the rural landscape, the visible wreckage is so great in a few areas of the county that it is almost as if a war has devastated the countryside and left only ruins. The invisible transformation of the people of Dinwiddie may only be less palpable to outsiders.

The industrialization of the activity of building and of maintaining existing building completes the process. It becomes increasingly impossible to make traditional decisions, due to the cost and unavailability of materials and workmanship and of the memory of their meaning. In the end, however, it turns out that it is not the houses that matter but what goes on in them. As traditional patterns are lost, the rural order deteriorates from community into mere arrangement. It is all too likely that cataloging of artifacts serves no civic purpose here, except perhaps to set apart some products of the former times, undeniably hallowed by their close connection with the powerful current of human life lived in liberty, what Aristotle called “the Good Life.”

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