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The House Of Many Layers

June 2024
4min read

The Colonial Revival was born in a time of late-nineteenth-century ferment, and from then on the style resurfaced every time Americans needed reassurance

What would you do if you owned a Rembrandt that had been painted over by Picasso? A similar problem confronted the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in 1969, when it came into possession of Carter’s Grove, a mansion on Virginia’s James River that had been built between 1750 and 1755 and extensively remodeled in the 1930s. Should the house be restored to its original condition to portray the life and society of Virginia’s colonial aristocracy, or should it be preserved as it was received, to illustrate a more contemporary social milieu? In the mid-1980s the directors of Colonial Williamsburg decided to preserve Carter’s Grove as it had stood in the 1930s—as one of America’s finest examples of the Colonial Revival style.

That their home, as they had lived in it, had become a museum probably would have pleased Archibald and Mary McCrae, the owners responsible for the sweeping 1930s renovation. To some critics the couple were no more than nouveau riche vandals whose efforts had destroyed the original modest lines of the house by raising the roof to accommodate a third floor, placing dormers on the roof and shutters around the windows, and adding grandiose connecting wings to the simple kitchen and office to house the politicians, statesmen, and industrialists who were their guests. The skeptics might have seen the McCraes as examplars of the worst of the emerging New South: Northern money, represented by Archibald McCrae, a wealthy Pennsylvania railroader, meeting Southern avarice, in the person of Mary McCrae, a Virginia beauty who had married first into one fortune and then into an even greater one.


The McCraes’ far more numerous admirers, however, recognized something better. In the 1930s, during the critical years of America’s Depression, the couple personified a new breed of civic-minded, amateur social engineers who believed they shared the political philosophies of Washington and Jefferson and who furnished their houses as virtual museums honoring the symbols of the nation’s founding. At Carter’s Grove seven portraits of George Washington hang on the walls, underscoring the point.


Archeological accuracy was never of prime importance to the Colonial Revivalists. More significant was the establishment of a feeling for the past, an emotional reality. Classical details were used as mere ornamentation, and they were often placed in relationships to one another that might have left a colonist scratching his head in bewilderment. Carter’s Grove has been described as a hall of mirrors where elements of the past are layered and reflected to create an image at once new and nostalgic.


The image is embellished not just by physical details but by the myths that have adhered to them. In the Carter’s Grove “refusal room,” both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, it is said, proposed marriage and were rejected (Washington to Mary Gary and Jefferson to Rebecca Burwell). It is also said that during the American Revolution the British colonel Banastre Tarleton rode his horse up the great stairway (an authentic example of the magnificence that colonial craftsmanship could attain), hacking at the banister rail with his sword while calling his men to arms. A piece of metal embedded in the rail reminds visitors of the “event.” Both stories in reality can be traced back no farther than the early twentieth century. In the case of the sword clash, Ivor Noel Hume, then director of Colonial Williamsburg’s Department of Archaeology, detected an anomaly while being guided through the house by Mrs. McCrae in 1956. “I refrained from asking how a slashing weapon could have been held so that its point could have been thrust straight down,” he later wrote, “and I ignored what appeared to be the mark of a hammer blow just where the metal had been driven home.”

The Colonial Revival style, with its mingling of truth and fancy, had its first showcase at Philadelphia’s 1876 Centennial Exposition. Of the examples of Colonial houses erected in Fairmount Park, one of the most popular exhibits was a “New England Kitchen of 1776,” crowded with Colonial furniture and presided over by women in period dress. From the final years of the nineteenth century forward, as economic upheaval, labor strife, and political unrest coincided with the immigration of Eastern Europeans, these symbols of an earlier, seemingly more settled period struck an increasingly reassuring note for many long-established citizens.

Consciously or not, upper- and middle-class Americans used nostalgia for the past and reverence for history as a tool for “civilizing” the new immigrants while maintaining a cultural barrier. American values could be taught better than in any textbook by crafting a history in buildings and filling the rooms with examples of America at its best. The phrase good breeding shows up often in connection with the Colonial Revival. In an 1878 magazine article the noted Boston architect R. S. Peabody wrote of the style’s “disciplined and almost universal refinement and dignity, as well as the absence of vulgarity and eccentricity even when display is attempted. These virtues, not too common in our days, lend an added charm to it for us.”


In the early twentieth century, museums began to install period rooms with the same purpose openly expressed. Even later, during the 1924 ceremonies that inaugurated the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a speaker explained: “Many of our people are not cognizant of our traditions and the principles for which our fathers struggled and died. The tremendous changes in the character of our nation and the influx of foreign ideas utterly at variance with those held by the men who gave us the Republic threaten, and unless checked may shake the foundations of our Republic.”


Despite the mantle of such certainty, the style called Colonial was eclectically applied. It seemed to describe any building from before 1820, and it showed up in at least a dozen variations—Georgian, Adam, Dutch, and Shingle among them. The art historian Vincent Scully wrote about the first architectural critics who paid attention to the style: “Whether the house in question happened to be of the earlier, more medieval or later, more Palladian type seems to have made no difference to the writers; it was all old, colonial, and picturesque.”

Later, Scully noted, the word generally came to mean “Georgian.” It is, of course, Georgian splendor, in both its incarnations, that animates Carter’s Grove. The decision to preserve Carter’s Grove as a Colonial Revival house rather than as a Colonial one, as a Picasso rather than as a Rembrandt, reflects a growing awareness at historical museums that history is a continuing process.


For years critics of Colonial Williamsburg and other history museums have objected to the presentation of history as neatly cut slices of time, where change occurred slowly and remarkably peacefully, if at all. At Carter’s Grove the guides offer a much fuller view, stressing the role of change over time and presenting a varied cast of characters. The guided tour passes through the room where the McCraes’ cook, Edna Washington, lived; her ironing board is set up in an alcove with a dress waiting to be ironed. In the kitchen, alongside a spinning wheel and cast-iron pots, are more modern implements, like an electric waffle iron and a coffeepot.


In 1933 W. Duncan Lee, Mrs. McCrae’s architect, recalled an issue he had just grappled with in redoing Carter’s Grove: “An old building can be and should be faithfully restored, and left at that if it is to be used for museum purposes solely, but if a person buys an old house, pays a lot of money for it, and intends to use it as a year-round home, he is not going to be satisfied to take his bath in a tin foot-tub and go to bed with a candle in one hand and a warming-pan in the other just for archaeological reasons.” Reflecting some of the newest trends in historical interpretation, Carter’s Grove is right up-to-date—and very agreeably old-fashioned.

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