The Evolution of an American Style of Architecture

The earliest English architecture in the Americas, constructed at Jamestown, Fort St. George and Plymouth Plantation, was identical to that lived in by the common folk in England and Wales. By the time of the American Revolution, residential architecture was distinctly different in the rebellious North American colonies. Then in 18o5, Cherokee leader, James Vann, constructed the first Greek Revival house. That’s right, an architectural tradition as “American” as peach cobbler pie, began with a mansion built by a Cherokee, followed soon thereafter by numerous, more modest farmhouses, built by affluent Creek Indian families in West Georgia.

As I work on the virtual reality images and animated films for a planned TV program on the ancient heritage of the Georgia Mountains, a series of articles in The America’s Revealed will introduce you to development of an American style of architecture in the British colonies of North America. These are more lessons that I should have been taught at Georgia Tech’s School of Architecture, but wasn’t. I learned those lessons the good-ole-fashion way . . . by working on Colonial era and Federal Period houses.

The deviation point for the development of an American style of architecture was in the year 1611. Governor John Hunt was sent to Jamestown to save it from total abandonment. Most of the colonists had died. Many of the original houses, built out of saplings, had burned. The timber palisade has rotted so severely that occupants merely walked through holes in the walls, rather than using the gate. Had the hostile Powhatan Indian Confederacy known this, they could have wiped out the colony in a few minutes.

As an architectural metaphor for the changes that Hunt was implementing, he designed two sets of two-story townhouse condominiums in a vacant section of the dilapidated fort. Stone cobbles, that had served as ballast for ships arriving from Bermuda, were utilized to construct solid foundations. Heretofore, the colonists had merely stuck small tree trunks in damp soil for corner posts, which immediately began rotting. Hunt designed stout frames of sawn oak trees like the buildings constructed four years earlier at Fort St. George in Maine. Superficially, these looked like Jacobean houses in England, except the concept of building free-standing condominium townhouse blocks was all new. Three centuries later they would be endemic in the suburbs of the United States of America.

This is the basement of my former home in the Shenandoah Valley before restoration. It was originally the first floor of a fortified blockhouse, designed by Colonel George Washington and built by members of the Virginia Colonial Militia in 1754. The mortar had the strength and appearance of dried clay.

Through research in 1988, I leaned that this was 234 year old “slime” . . . a Colonial Period concoction composed of “yellow oak clay,” sand and the ashes of limestone rubble, burned in a very hot fire. Masonry contractors would dig holes in the ground, mixed the dry ingredients with the right amount of water . . . pour the slime in the pits . . . then let the mixture change chemically for about 3-4 months before they returned to the construction site to build the stone walls. My post-graduate education in REAL historic preservation had just begun.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.