- Historic Sites
The Best Of Georgian
The pilasters and pediments of an architecture perfectly suited to our eighteenth-century aristocracy flourish in today’s skyline and suburb
February 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 1
On January 24, 1710, six years after his father’s death, William Byrd wrote in his diary: “I had my father’s grave opened to see him but he was so wasted there was not anything to be distinguished. I ate fish for dinner.” The brief entry says a good deal about the wealthy Virginia planter and the builder of Westover, near Richmond, on the James River. Throughout his life William Byrd remained cold, formal, and obsessed with the way things looked.
In Byrd’s diaries, which he kept in secret code for more than thirty years (1709-41), his personality is surprisingly elusive. The diaries catalog the events in Byrd’s life from the extraordinary to the mundane, but they tell us little about what he thought and even less about what he felt. What finally does emerge from Byrd’s diaries is a portrait of a man with a love for display and ceremony and with an aversion to the expression of any emotion.
Byrd’s obsession with external appearances is useful as a metaphor for his age and as a key to understanding the architecture of Westover, one of the finest Georgian houses in America. In letters, in philosophy, in the arts, and in architecture, the eighteenth century was an age of reason triumphant over passion. The writers of the Enlightenment—John Locke, Isaac Newton, Adam Smith, Alexander Pope, and Joseph Addison—held the belief that nature was subject to laws and that people could understand these laws and benefit from them. From palaces to plays, in treatises and in teacups—in every aspect of life—order, balance, and control were most highly prized. And the greatest expression of these laws that derived from and governed nature was to be found in the works of the ancient Greeks and Romans. It was to this idealized past that America’s ruling class looked for inspiration.
Named for the reigning monarchs of England, the Georgian architectural style in colonial America was more than the sum of pediments and pilasters, more than its innovations, such as sliding sash windows. It proclaimed a new conception of a world based on rational order and proportion, a world in which local passions and brute forces were subservient to universal reason and “proper” form.
Completed in 1735, Westover is typical of the hundred or so high-style Georgian houses that still stand in America and in which this Enlightenment philosophy can be traced. Classical details, meticulously copied from London pattern books, were not just applied decoration, like the icing on a cake (as they would be on numberless imitations), but were integral expressions of precise rules of harmony and proportion. The dimensions and placement of pediments, pilasters, cornices, water tables, and stringcourses (see glossary on page 113) were dictated by the rules of geometry and were themselves a part of the building’s larger aesthetic unity. Given this stylistic imperative, the architecture of Westover was based on a code no less elaborate than the code in which Byrd composed his diaries. The result at Westover and for most Georgian houses was an architectural facade with a seemingly frozen expression of unperturbable calm, an apparent serenity often in striking contrast with the confusion and turmoil of the surrounding society.
In the eighteenth century most people lived not in Georgian mansions but in one- and two-room houses, which were often little more than excuses to enclose a hearth. Around licking flames or glowing embers, early Americans cooked, ate, slept, and played. Under low roofs, in dark and sooty interiors, flock beds and chamber pots sat next to cooking utensils and farm tools. The forms these houses took were dictated by native materials adapted to the local geography, climate, and agriculture. The buildings were designed, it has often been said, from the inside out. Additions, sheds, and lean-tos jutted out from the houses, and windows and doors punctuated the walls in seemingly random patterns.
In contrast, because it was built primarily to be seen, the Georgian house was designed from the outside in. Its external arrangement of posts and beams dictated the placement of internal partitions. This new spatial organization encouraged the demarcation of specific areas for cooking, sleeping, and entertaining. Areas for servants and slaves, for women, and for visitors similarly were increasingly specialized. Most important, the Georgian house was a reflection not of local conditions and needs but of an international ideal. And it differed surprisingly little whether it was found in the Italian Veneto or in tidewater Virginia, on Kittery Point in Maine, or on the Ashley River in South Carolina.
Like the English country house (which often was partially built in the Georgian style), the Georgian house in America was the focal point for a diffuse network of economic, political, and social relationships, and the builders and occupants of Georgian dwellings were the representatives in their local communities of a truly international Atlantic community.
William Byrd was a typical citizen of this cosmopolitan world. Born in Virginia, by his fiftieth birthday he had spent more time in London than in the colonies. He was educated at the Inns of Court and was a member of the prestigious Royal Society of London. He read or spoke at least five languages and counted dukes and earls among his friends. (Characteristically, when he returned to Virginia, he hung their portraits on his library walls.) By London standards Byrd might have been counted as one of the “new men” who had recently risen to high rank from the profits of overseas trade, but in Virginia his social station was higher than that. Byrd was, in fact, one of the founding members of a new American aristocracy. A member of the Council in Virginia, and the colony’s representative in London, he held the office of receiver general of His Majesty’s revenues and was a colonel in the Virginia militia. Byrd’s social standing was just below that of the governor and the representative of the Anglican Church in Virginia.
Byrd’s life history, with slight differences in detail, was mirrored in the histories of other owners of Georgian houses. The Wentworths in New Hampshire; the Hutchinsons, Royalls, and Vassalls in Massachusetts; the Browns in Rhode Island; the Chews in Philadelphia; the Carters and Lees in Virginia; and the Brewtons and Draytons in South Carolina—all played similar roles as middlemen between rude colonial settlements and the splendors of the imperial capital. Caught between two worlds in the years before the Revolution, they were the leaders who first tried to regulate and direct the rising tensions between colonists and king.
After the Revolution many of America’s first aristocrats fled; those who remained found their economic roles increasingly filled by a rising merchant class and their political places usurped by a new breed of “democratic statesmen.” (Byrd would have thought the phrase a contradiction in terms.) But the philosophy of America’s colonial elite, both political and aesthetic, which was embodied in the architecture of their houses, continued to inspire. Their legacy of rational order and the harmony of parts became the heart of a newly emerging American social and political order.