Statements in Brick and Timber: The Eighteenth-Century Middling Planter Housing of Accomack County, Virginia

Barnes, Edward, Architectural History - School of Architecture, University of Virginia
Nelson, Louis, PV-Ofc of Exec VP & Provost, University of Virginia

Historians of eighteenth-century Virginia and its architecture have long argued that houses were a material manifestation of their owners’ wealth and position in society. Treating houses as representations of planter wealth and status has allowed architectural historians to identify and categorize eighteenth-century Virginia houses as products of particular classes of planters according to house size, form, materials, and finishes. But our understanding of class-based developments in Virginia’s eighteenth-century housing has suffered from the predominance of an interpretive perspective of the built landscape that is overly broad in scope. The tendency has been to explain the evolution of aspects of Virginia housing such as the development of architectural expressions of planter class in terms of general Virginia-wide trends. Groups of buildings that exist in opposition to these trends and thus cast doubt on generalized interpretations of the development of the Virginia house type have not been sufficiently studied. This thesis is a thorough examination of one of these outlier groups of buildings—the houses built by middling planters in Accomack County on the Eastern Shore of Virginia in the eighteenth century. Through an analysis of these houses that places them in their local context—one that takes into account the unique geographic and economic conditions of the place they were built, along with the effects of those conditions on the local social structure—they are shown to represent the emergence of a distinct class-based architectural expression divergent from patterns of architectural development that occurred elsewhere in Virginia. These buildings challenge standard assumptions of the ways in which planter class was expressed in domestic architecture in eighteenth-century Virginia and prompt us to reevaluate generalized approaches to the interpretation of a built landscape that was likely more varied and diverse than previously thought.
Through a focused study and comparison of eighteenth-century Accomack houses and their original owners, the use of the hall-chamber or center- and side-passage plans is shown to have been explicitly tied to planter class, and is thus at the root of the divergence of middling and elite housing into parallel but distinctly separate architectural expressions. In Chapter I, the reader is introduced to the unique geographic, demographic, agricultural, and economic circumstances present on the Eastern Shore of Virginia in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that led to the rise of a large and prosperous group of middling planters. Chapter II contains an overview of the history of the Eastern Shore’s early architecture which illustrates how the locally-specific circumstances discussed in Chapter I were reflected in the built landscape, particularly in the small but well-constructed houses of the Eastern Shore’s wealthy middling planters who were able to access costly building materials and decorative treatments that served to distinguish their houses from those of their poorer neighbors, a development which marked a significant divergence from mainland Virginia trends in middling planter housing. Chapter III uses a detailed analysis of forty-six houses built by both middling and elite planters in Accomack County in the eighteenth century to discuss the middling house as a distinct local housing type. When these forty-six buildings are subjected to a comprehensive comparison that takes into account not only their architectural features but also the wealth and social standing of their original owners, we find compelling evidence that Accomack’s middling planters, through their commitment to the hall-chamber floor plan, intentionally sought to differentiate their houses from those of their elite planter neighbors, and in so doing generated their own unmistakably distinct architectural expression that would serve as a permanent and public statement of their emergence as a prosperous and established social group.

MARH (Master of Architectural History)
Accomack County, Virginia, eighteenth-century domestic architecture, middling planters
Issued Date: