1600-1754: Architecture

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Spanish Influences. The most lasting contribution of Spanish colonists to American culture is in the field of architecture. Though the early architecture of Florida differs from that of the Southwest and California, both are derived from the tastes of the seventeenth-century Spanish court, as they were transmitted to the New World by Catholic missionary-priests.

Florida. The earliest surviving buildings in Florida date from around the middle of the seventeenth century. Of these the most notable is the Castillo de San Marcos in Saint Augustine, begun in 1672 and often called the finest structure of its kind in the United States. Built around a one-hundred-square-foot central courtyard, this castle has spear-shaped bastions at its four corners, massive walls made of coquina (a form of limestone), and a forty-foot moat. Comparing favorably to fortresses constructed in Europe at the same time, the Castillo was successfully defended during attacks from English forces in 1702, 1728, and 1740.

The Southwest and Texas. In the Southwest, where the Spanish adapted the building practices of the Pueblo Indians, Native American builders created the only examples of American architecture in which the traditions of the indigenous culture significantly altered European tradition. An important example of this style is the Gov- ι ernors Palace in Santa Fe, New Mexico, built in 1609-1614 and rebuilt in 1680 and at several later dates. Constructed from adobe and featuring a long covered porch, it is believed to be the oldest surviving structure built for white people in the United States. The earliest of the many Spanish mission churches still in existence in 1 the United States is San Esteban in Acoma, New Mexico, completed before 1644. The earliest surviving examples of murals in Southwestern Spanish missions, which date from the late eighteenth century, reveal a distinctive local style that combines imagery from Native American mythology with Christian symbolisma style that probably developed earlier. Texas has three mission churches that were started in the 1740s and completed during the second half of the century: Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Acuna, begun by 1743 and dedicated by 1755; the church at the mission of San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo), started in 1744 and completed after 1777; and the chapel at the Presidio la Bahía in Goliad, established in 1749. The missions of California were constructed between 1769 and 1823.

French Influences. After René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, explored the region in 1682, the French began establishing trading posts at strategic locations in the Mississippi River valley from Canada all the way south to the Gulf of Mexico. The original seventeenth-century structures built at these settlements have been destroyed by fire or flood. The oldest surviving French house is the so-called Courthouse in Cahokia, Illinois, built as a private residence around 1737 and converted to a courthouse and jail in 1793. This and other early French buildings were built of upright logs set in the ground or on stone foundations. The logs were hewn flat on the sides that faced the interior and exterior of the structure, and the spaces between them were filled with stones, bricks, or clay mixed with binding materials such as moss, grass, or hair. Often the outside was covered with lime plaster to retard erosion by wind and rain. Like later French houses in the New World, Cahokia Courthouse has a high, double-pitched roof to accommodate a covered galerie, or veranda, around all four sides of the house. Especially adapted to hot climates, this style was employed in the larger, often two-story plantation houses built in Louisiana later in the eighteenth century. The earliest of these houses, Parlange, was built around 1750 in Pointe Coupée Parish.

New Orleans. In New Orleans, settled by the French in 1718, the earliest buildings were constructed according to a medieval technique called briquete entre poteaux, which employed massive wooden vertical posts with brick infilling between them. These walls were often covered with boards or plaster, but in and around New Orleans they were sometimes left exposed and consequently suffered deterioration from the weather. Many of the early-eighteenth-century buildings in New Orleans were destroyed by fires that devastated the city in 1788 and 1794. Among these was the first parish church of Saint Louis, designed in 17241727 by Adrien de Pauger. Built of plastered briquete entre poteaux, the church had a cruciform (cross-shaped) floor plan typical of European churches, a pedimented facade, and a circular window over the arched doorway. In 1727 François Broutin designed another briquete entre poteaux building to serve as the first Ursuline convent. The first major brick building in the city was the prison (1730), designed in Louis XV style by Pierre Baron. The only surviving public building in New Orleans that dates from before the city was ceded to Spain in 1764 is the second Ursuline convent, a brick structure designed by Broutin in 1745 to replace the first convent, whose wooden timbers had not held up well in the humid climate of the city.

New Netherland. Dutch and Flemish settlers brought to New Netherland a rich tradition of brickwork that is still evident in the Low Countries of Europe. Though some bricks may at first have been imported from Europe as ballast on ships, kilns capable of producing good-quality bricks were established not long after the first settlers arrived in New Amsterdam in 1626. Before long the first settlement of thirty bark-covered houses and a palisaded blockhouse was replaced by a city that looked much like those of Holland. Most of the buildings were brick with steep tile roofs and stepped-up gable ends facing the street. These steps were useful to chimney sweeps, who would otherwise have had to climb on the perilously slippery roof tiles. Similar houses were built in Albany and other larger settlements. None of these early Dutch townhouses has survived. The earliest Dutch farmhouses were built in the same style, but they tended to have straight gables at the sides.

Dutch Farmhouses. Dutch farm settlements in the lower Hudson River valley, northern New Jersey, and western Long Island usually had houses of stone or wood, or the two combined. The still-popular Dutch colonial style with its double-hipped, or gambrel, roof had its origins in these settlements. Buildings in this style are not found in the Netherlands, and it may have been derived from a combination of Dutch and Flemish construction techniques adapted to suit the weather and available materials of the region.

Swedish and German Settlements. The major contribution of the first settlers of New Sweden, established in the Delaware River Valley in 1636, was the log cabin. Such houses constructed of round logs notched at corners and with projecting ends were unknown in England, Holland, and France. Some historians believe that the German settlers of Pennsylvania brought similar construction

traditions with them from the Old World, but others think the Germans may have learned cabin building from their Swedish neighbors. In either case the Swedes and Germans are responsible for teaching settlers of other nationalities how to build the housing that dominated western frontier settlements for all of the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth as well. Later German farmers in Pennsylvania built beautiful, practical stone houses and barns. Though they were not unconcerned with aesthetics, even the most prosperous of the so-called Pennsylvania Dutch were antagonistic to the aristocratic pretensions that led eighteenth-century southern planters and merchant princes of the New England and mid-Atlantic colonies to build houses that rivaled those of the English gentry and lesser nobility.

The Dominance of British Architecture. While colonists of several nationalities contributed to American architecture, housing styles in the English colonies were predominantly based on British models. Yet architectural trends were slow to reach the New World and were often modified to meet the demands of colonial life, including extremes of temperature uncommon in England and a scarcity of craftsmen sufficiently skilled to fashion ornate architectural details. Colonists also modified plans to suit available construction materials. For example, wood was far more plentiful in North America than in England or on the Continent, while the lack of a plentiful source for the lime used in mortar in New England and coastal areas of Virginia made brick buildings expensive in those regions.

The First English Settlements. The earliest settlers of Jamestown in 1607 and New England in the 1620s and 1630s built simple shelters in the primitive folk tradition of the English peasant class. Using tree branches to frame a small, one-room cabin or a wigwam of bent poles, they often made walls of woven wattle (willow rods or slender branches from other trees) and covered them with daub, or mud. Typically the thatched roof had a hole in it to let out the smoke from a stone hearth in the center of the earth floor. Occasionally such a structure had a mud-and-stick chimney. In Connecticut, Philadelphia, and eastern Long Island the earliest English colonists shelters were dugouts in banks with roofs and walls formed of brush and sod. Some buildings, such as the church at Plymouth and houses in the English settlements of eastern New Jersey, were of palisade construction, sawn planks driven into the ground. The English most often used this construction technique for forts and churches.

Seventeenth-Century New England. The first fullscale houses in New England were built for ministers and important officials, such as Gov. John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony soon after the colonists arrival. These houses were modeled after the half-timbered, thatched-roof houses of England, with heavy hewn-oak frames filled with clay and straw, wattle, or sun-dried brick and covered with clay. This sort of house was warm enough and sturdy enough for the temperate climate of England, but not for the cold winters and harsh storms of New England. The colonists soon began covering the exteriors of such houses with weather boards and then adapted their methods to build timber-frame houses. The earliest surviving New England houses are of this type. Though some thatched roofs continued to be used until the end of the seventeenth century, wood shingles, which had become too expensive for general use in England, were the most common form of roofing throughout the English colonies well before that time. While most surviving New England houses are two stories high, historians point out that preservationists have nearly always concentrated their efforts on saving bigger houses. In fact most New Englanders of the seventeenth century probably lived in one-story or one-and-a-half-story wooden houses.

Saltboxes. Two rooms wide and one room deep, the surviving examples of New England houses from the seventeenth century typically have a second story that extends beyond the first in front, creating a slight overhang. The heavy ceiling beams are exposed while the spaces between the vertical timbers in the walls are filled with insulating materials such as clay and straw, wattle and straw, or unfired brick. The interior walls were then covered with plaster or wooden wainscot. Some larger houses have single-story lean-to rooms on the back. In cases where the roof line is continuous these dwellings came to be named after the wooden boxes in which the colonists kept their salt. This saltbox style became more common later in the seventeenth century, and lean-to rooms were also added to existing houses. Sometimes extra gables were added to create more space under the roof. For windows small, diamond-shaped panes of glass were held together with strips of lead. Because window glass was heavily taxed and imported from Europe until after the Revolution, windows were usually small. Most seventeenth-century windows did not open. Those that did open were hinged at one side. The earliest surviving New England house is probably the residence of Jonathan Fairbanks, begun in 1636 in Dedham, Massachusetts. Because the house has been altered by later renovations and additions, however, other, slightly later houses are better examples of seventeenth-century New England architecture. In Massachusetts such houses include the Whipple House (1640) at Ipswich, the Scotch-Boardman House (circa 1650) at Saugus, the Turner House (1668) at Salem (Nathaniel Hawthornes House of Seven Gables), the Parson Capen House (1683) at Topsfield, and the John Ward House (1684) at Salem. Among the notable seventeenth-century houses in Connecticut is the faithfully restored Stanley-Whitman House (circa 1660) in Farmington, one of the best-preserved and most-typical examples of the framed-overhang, saltbox houses in New England.

The Meetinghouse. The first public building in the New England village was the meetinghouse, which served as both church and town hall. The only surviving seventeenth-century building of this sort is the Old Ship Meeting House, built in 1681 in Hingham, Massachusetts, which got its name because its roof looks like a ships hull turned upside down. The structure of its interior has been compared to the great halls of medieval Europe, butin keeping with its builders Puritan beliefsits stark furnishings and simple exterior seem to have been modeled on churches in Protestant Holland, not on the Gothic-style Anglican churches of England. Other New England towns are known to have built similar meetinghouses during the seventeenth century.

Seventeenth-Century Southern Architecture. While early Virginians built wooden houses similar to those in New England, the only surviving seventeenth-century houses in Virginia, and most seventeenth-century houses found throughout the South, are brick. (One notable exception is Bond Castle, a wooden house built in Calvert County, Maryland, during the last quarter of the century.) In most areas throughout the southern colonies, settlers had adequate supplies of lime for mortar, and consequently brick construction was more common there than in New England. While documents from the period reveal that most colonial southerners lived in wooden houses, as in other parts of the country, the nicest houses have been those most likely to survive. Like New England houses of the same period, the earliest southern houses were only one room deep. While New Englanders usually put the chimney at the center of the house for maximum warmth, southerners tended to put them at either end, with a central passageway for ventilation during hot weather. This differentiation became more pronounced as time passed. In general Southern architecture of the seventeenth century was more varied than that of New England.

Bacons Castle. One of the most unusual and interesting southern houses is Bacons Castle in Surry County, Virginia. Built of brick around 1655 by Arthur Allen, it gets its name because followers of Nathaniel Bacon used it as a fortress during Bacons Rebellion of 1676. With a style of shaped gable that came to England from the Low Countries just before 1600 and three diamond-shaped chimney stacks at either end, a style dating from earlier in the sixteenth century, Bacons Castle resembles some houses that were built in England during the first forty years of the seventeenth century. This style of architecture is uncommon in North America, but in its cross-shaped layout the house does have some similarity to other southern buildings of the period, notably the

fourth Virginia statehouse, constructed at Jamestown in 1685 and destroyed by fire in 1698. Newport Parish Church (Saint Lukes), begun in 1632 at Smithfield, Virginia, also has architectural features similar to those of Bacons Castle. This church, which also bears some resemblance to the ruined brick church built in 1647 at Jamestown, has been compared to the many rural churches built in England during the late-medieval period.

The Georgian Period. While folk tradition continued to influence colonial building practices in the early eighteenth century, there was a move toward the use of classical motifs in architecture and furniture, a style that came to the colonies from England and first became apparent in the homes of the wealthy, who created plans for their houses by consulting architectural illustrations in design books imported from England. An eighteenth-century colonial gentleman might have several such books in his library. Virginian William Byrd of Westover owned ten design books published before 1730, and by 1750 several other design books could be found in the colonies. Among the earliest and most influential were Vitruvius Britanniens (1715), examples of classical-style British architecture compiled by Scottish architect Colin Campbell, and The Architecture of A. Palladio (1715), by Venetian architect Giacomo Leoni. Leonis book was called an English translation of Quattro Libri delF Architecttura (1570), by Venetian Andrea Palladio, who is often credited with launching the revival of classical-style architecture on the Continent. In fact, Leoni altered Palladios designs to suit his own tastes, and the English architects who wrote design books put their own stamps on the style, which is widely known as Georgian. (Some architectural historians, recognizing that the use of this style in England predates the ascension of George I to the throne in 1714, call it Anglo-Palladianism.)

New World Classicism. Owing in large part to the various Navigation Acts passed between 1650 and 1775, which restricted importsincluding books and furniturefrom countries other than Great Britain, wealthy colonists of the eighteenth century, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds, looked to British models when they built new homes to display their affluence and refined tastes. Some of these houses have classical design elements but are not trulv Palladian. Stratford Hall in Westmoreland County, Virginia, built by the Lee family in 1725-1730, has the symmetrical floor plan favored by classicists but seems to owe more to an earlier English Baroque tradition. Westover, the circa 1730-1735 home of the Byrd family in Charles City County, Virginia, has an unbalanced floor plan and classical-looking door frames. It also has two features that appeared for the first time throughout the colonies in the eighteenth century: dormers and sash windows. The Ionic-style door frame at Whitehall, the Newport, Rhode Island, house remodeled for George Berkeley in 1728-1731, is possibly the first truly Palladian feature in America. The first completely Georgian, or Anglo-Palladi an, house in America is Drayton Hall, near Charleston, South Carolina, built by John Drayton in 1738-1742. This house seemed to signal the arrival of the new style that would dominate American architecture for the rest of the century, but at the same time the wealthy Hancock family of Boston built a mansion that hearkened back to an Anglo-Dutch style that had been popular in England during the previous century.

Church Architecture. The greatest influence on eighteenth-century colonial church architecture was Sir Christopher Wren, who designed fifty-one churches to replace those destroyed in 1666 during the Great Fire of London. Wrens steeples, which differed from earlier Gothic-style towers, were widely copied in the colonies and sometimes added to existing churches. The second Saint Philips Church in Charleston, constructed in 1711-1723 and destroyed by fire in 1835, had a steeple that was a shorter version of the one Wren designed for the Church of Saint Magnus the Martyr in London. Christ Church, or Old North Church in Boston, designed by William Price and begun in 1723 with a spire added in 1741, was influenced by two Wren churches, Saint Jamess, Picadilly, and Saint Lawrence Jeweryas was Trinity Church in Newport, Rhode Island, designed and built by Richard Munday in 1725-1726 with its spire also added in 1741. In addition to these Anglican churches, the Congregationalist Old South Church of Boston, designed by Robert Twelves and built in 1729-1730, has a traditional, almost square New England-meetinghouse shape, but its external architectural elements are similar to those of the Old North Church and its spire resembles the one Wren designed for Saint Mary-le-Bow in London.


Marcus Whiffen and Frederick Koeper, American Architecture, 1607-1976 (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1981);

Louis B. Wright, George B. Tatum, John W. McCoubrey, and Robert C. Smith, The Arts in America: The Colonial Period (New York: Scribners, 1966).


views updated May 18 2018



European Designs. The structure and size of European houses varied widely throughout North America and changed dramatically as the period wore on. The first settlers brought the construction methods they had known in the Old World and adapted them to the materials and requirements of their New World environment. English builders of the first generations patterned dwellings on the English hall and parlor plan, in which each house had two equal-sized main rooms separated by a single fireplace. Dutch and French farmhouses shared this same basic floor plan, though their external appearance differed according to styles preferred by their countrymen. Both rooms had multiple uses. The parlor usually served as a bedroom as well as for various work and family functions. The other room in Dutch dwellings was called a groot kamer, or best room, and served for social occasions as well as sleeping. In the hall general-purpose activities occurred such as cooking, eating, and work. For English and French settlers it was often the core room of the house and was used for entertaining as well as work and eating. Many residents built lofts for additional sleeping or storage, and as a family grew, it might add rooms to house a separate kitchen, bedchamber, or storeroom. These floor plans encouraged communal living. Whole families commonly slept in the same room, the parents in a large bed and the children in a smaller one or on pallets by the hearth. Overnight guests often shared the family bed with their hosts. Even when family members slept in separate rooms they had to pass through one to reach another, and they carried out most of their daily activities in close proximity to each other. Dwellings in the Spanish borderlands varied considerably from region to region according to the climate and building materials available. In Saint Augustine a distinctive long, rectangular house emerged; inhabitants of New Mexico constructed long adobe houses only a single room deep.


People staying overnight in colonial inns or private houses often found themselves sharing their rooms and even their beds with total strangers. The traveling doctor Alexander Hamilton woke up one morning in a New York country inn to find

two beds in the room, besides that in which I lay, in one of which lay two great hulking fellows, with long black beards, having their own hair, and not so much as half a nightcap betwixt both of them. I took them for weavers, not only from their greasy appearance, but because I observed a weavers loom at each side of the room. In the other bed was a raw-boned boy, who, with the two lubbers, huddled on his clothes, and went reeling downstairs, making as much noise as three horses.

Source: Alexander Hamilton, Itinerarium, edited by Robert M. Goldwyn (New York: Arno, 1971).

Adaptations. As the seventeenth century wore on, house structures changed somewhat. New England builders came to locate the fireplace consistently at the center of the house, where the warmth of the chimney would heat the interior more efficiently, a practice also common in New France. Builders further south tended to place fireplaces at the ends, where the heat would be carried away during the hot summers, or even to build separate summer kitchens so that daily cooking would not make the main house intolerably warm. Timber, which had been scarce in England, was plentiful in America. Builders took advantage of this abundance by siding homes entirely in wood and roofing the houses with wooden shingles instead of thatch or slate. Almost no first-generation English settler had ever seen a log cabin, but by 1700 settlers in frontier

New Hampshire were building log houses sided with clapboards, and settlers in the Middle Colonies were imitating the log-cabin design introduced to America by Swedish settlers. Dwellings in the Spanish borderlands of the Southwest were built of adobe or stone where available and were commonly adapted for purposes of defense in this thinly populated region. Inhabitants of towns commonly built their houses close together around a central plaza so that their outer walls could double as a fort. Haciendas were structured the same way for similar reasons, with dwellings and outbuildings arranged in squares around central patios.

Genteel Architecture. By 1700 wealthier English colonists were importing new European fashions in house design as they built larger, more formal structures planned by professional architects. The gentry wanted to display their wealth, importance, and civilized tastes in large structures graced with elegant, symmetrical lines and brick construction. They desired ornamental exterior woodwork and beautifully finished interiors. They forsook the simple hall and parlor floor plan for multiple rooms with specialized uses, separated by corridors to allow for greater privacy. Children and parents began to sleep in different rooms, and bedchambers were often located on the second floor, away from the parlors and halls where guests were entertained. Ordinary colonists gradually began imitating the symmetrical Georgian exteriors of gentry homes and began fulfilling a newfound desire for privacy with specialized rooms separated by corridors and partitions. Some mid-eighteenth-century gentry also built great houses that incorporated various features of the Palladian style, with large porticos and modular, symmetrical plans.

African Americans. The dwellings of a growing population of Africans, the great majority of whom were slaves, contrasted sharply with the houses of great planters, though less so with those of many free white family farmers. In the eighteenth century many slaves built their own dwellings from materials provided by their masters. Whether they used English or African construction methods, slaves often organized their dwellings in patterns that supported communal ways of life they had known in Africa. Single-room structures were often built around a common central area where slaves could interact, share household work, and play together when time permitted. Free African Americans tended to adopt European designs in their housing.


James Deetz, In Small Things Forgotten: The Archeology of Early American Life (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1977);

James Early, The Colonial Architecture of Mexico (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994);

Robert Lionel Séguin, La Maison en Nouvelle-France (Ottawa: National Museum of Canada, 1968);

Mechal Sobel, The World They Made Together: Black and White Values in Eighteenth-Century Virginia (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987);

Dell Upton, Common Places: Readings in American Vernacular Architecture (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986).

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