Virginia Historic Homes
Virginia's historic homes are some of America’s great cultural treasures. Not only do they tell us much about domestic life and agrarian economy in our country's formative years, but they give us a glimpse of the environment into which many of our greatest leaders were born, the environment that nourished them materially, intellectually, and spiritually. The James River plantations, particularly the houses and their landscaped settings, also constitute a great artistic heritage.
Many of Virginia's historic homes represent the highest level of America's architectural achievement in the colonial, Federal, and antebellum periods. These fine Albemarle houses illustrate the most exacting standards in design, craftsmanship, and materials, and their settings show the attention given to siteing and garden layout.
The term plantation is used loosely not only in Virginia but throughout the South. In its historical sense, a plantation was an agricultural unit of hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of acres on which one or more cash crops were grown. The crops required tending and harvesting by a large labor force, which before emancipation was provided by slaves.
A Virginia plantation was distinct from a family farm; in its strictest sense the latter was a much smaller unit producing a broad range of foods and other agricultural products to meet the direct needs of the owning family, whose members provided the labor. The owner of a Virginia plantation was called a planter but did no planting or manual labor. He served as the chief executive officer of what was for its time a complex form of agribusiness.
In Virginia, applying the term plantation to a property's name is primarily a modern practice. A place was called merely Westover, for example, not Westover plantation. A small plantation, particularly during the early colonial period, was most often called by the name of the owning family, such as 'Thoroughgood's. Also, except in rare instances, only the land was named, not the house. Indeed, a majority of plantation names allude to sonic physical characteristic of the land: Berry Hill, Belle Grove, Poplar Forest, and the like. Many other names honored places in the British Isles from which the settlers or their ancestors came: Brandon, Brompton, Wilton.
The establishment of the Virginia plantation system came on the heels of John Rolfe's successful cultivation of tobacco in 1614. Tobacco provided the fledgling colony's first marketable cash crop, and a highly popular one at that. England's craving for tobacco placed immediate demand for production on the colonists, who prior to that time were mainly coping with survival.
Meeting the demand required labor, which was supplied by more colonists and, very soon, slaves. The year 1619 saw the first importation of African laborers, who came initially as indentured servants and later as slaves. Before long nearly all of the colony's efforts were geared to tobacco growing and the tobacco trade. With the tremendous popularity of the snuffs and smoking materials made from the pungent weed, prosperity came quickly.
Some of Virginia's plantations, especially those in the immediate vicinity of Jamestown Island, such as Chippokes and Brandon, are among the oldest identifiable agricultural units in the country, having been farmed for over 350 years. As with any frontier society, priorities among the settlers did not include artistic achievement but were focused on taming the wilderness and then making one's fortune. Many of the earliest settlers became very prosperous but did not express their wealth in elegant architectural surroundings.
Prosperity throughout most of the first century of settlement was counted in the number of acres and slaves one owned, not in the size or beauty of one's house. Hence the earliest Virginia historic homes were generally rather rude affairs: clapboard-cladded structures supported on wooden posts driven directly into the ground. As such, they were temporary buildings, and thus none of this earliest form of housing, employed consistently throughout the seventeenth century, has survived.
The few brick Virginia historic houses of the first century or so of settlement, such as Bacon's Castle, the Adam Thoroughgood House, and the Lynnhaven House, give a false impression of the typical housing of the period. These brick structures were uncommonly well built, and have therefore lasted while the scores of their post-framed neighbors have all rotted, burned, or been replaced with more substantial structures.
More than a century passed before the upper more refined abodes, ones with consciously considered aesthetic qualities. Such architectural pursuits were probably inspired by the construction of the Governor's Palace in Williamsburg in the first decade of the eighteenth century. The palace represented Virginia's first truly elegant, architecturally up-to-date residence. It gave the leaders of colonial society something to emulate.
The completion of the palace coincided with the beginning of the age of the great plantations. Unlike the seventeenth century in Virginia, which was marked by small settlements and relatively small plantations, the early eighteenth century was characterized by the development of huge establishments such as the Lee family's Stratford and the Page's Rosewell, vast manors worked by scores of slaves. These large plantations were essentially self-sufficient communities trading directly with the mother country. This direct trade inhibited the development of towns and cities. Thus, except for Williamsburg, colonial Virginia had practically no towns, and nothing resembling a city such as Philadelphia or Boston. Many historic Virginia plantations were isolated along the great tidal rivers that provided transportation arteries and the harbors necessary for direct trade with England.
Probably Virginia's first really great plantation house was that at Corotoman, home of Robert Carter, who owned so much land and held so much political and economic power that he was referred to as "King" Carter. Corotoman was early destroyed by fire, but many of Carter's relatives followed his example by erecting houses that the English gentry would not find uncomfortable or inelegant. Surviving Carter family homes include Shirley, Sabine Hall, and Carter's Grove. "King" Carter's descendants married into practically every important colonial family, and the taste for fine houses multiplied. Thus, in the eighteenth century, leading families such as the Beverleys, Burwells, Byrds, Harrisons, Lees, Randolphs, and Tayloes, whose various members, were related many times over, all developed impressive family seats on their sprawling estates. They knew one another's homes well and frequently shared designers and artisans.