Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Prodigy Houses of Virginia: Architecture and the Native Elite • Barbara Burlison Mooney • Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008
Reviewed by Carter L. Hudgins, Hofer Distinguished Professor of Early American History and Historic Preservation at the University of Mary Washington.
The large, classically inspired houses that Virginia’s wealthiest eighteenth-century planters built for themselves and their families have excited both popular imagination and scholarly inquiry since the middle of the nineteenth century when Anne Pamela Cunningham launched her effort to save George Washington’s Mount Vernon for posterity. Architectural historian Barbara Burlison Mooney has assembled for this book a study group of twenty-five houses constructed between 1720 and 1770, many of which survive, such as George Mason’s Gunston Hall, while others are known only archaeologically, such as Governor Alexander Spotswood’s Germanna,. Celebrated as aesthetic achievements, sometimes criticized as symbols of wealth built on slavery, and so familiar that they have achieved iconic status, these houses are certainly the nation's most closely studied. Mooney’s analysis of the builders of these "prodigy" houses explores modern understanding of what has long been assumed was the eighteenth-century maxim that grand architectural gestures propelled personal and political advancement. Her application of what she calls a “material culture approach” and her innovative application of gender analysis challenge several cherished notions about why elite eighteenth-century builders set themselves apart architecturally.
Mooney deftly explores how wealth and kinship gave Virginia's elites access to transatlantic trends in design and ornamentation and the challenges faced by planters who eschewed timber to build in more stylish brick. Mooney’s treatment of these themes leans heavily on insights garnered from the scholarship of Rhys Isaac, Carl Lounsbury, Dell Upton, and Camille Well, among others. Mooney agrees that wealth and intellectual capacity combined with rising social and political expectations to make architecture an "active agent in legitimizing the social order the wealthiest planters envisioned” (p. 10). Mooney breaks, however, from accepted analytical equations and is more broadly interested in whether large houses made families than she is in how families shaped their houses. The builders in her sample confirm that wealthy Virginians eagerly bore the price in emotional as well as capital resources to acquire what certainly by the middle decades of the eighteenth century were deemed necessary social tools. Were they necessary for social and political advancement? The experience of Mooney’s sample group suggests that the construction of new stylish houses was not a prerequisite for securing office, titles, or privileges. If, as Mooney suggests, wealthy planters invested in architectural gestures to maintain prestige once they had gained it, we should read their houses more as victory laps than game plans.
Mooney devotes two important chapters to a long-ignored aspect of Virginia’s eighteenth-century prodigy houses—female agency in financing, designing, building, and furnishing elite houses. In what she terms a "gynocentric" analysis, Mooney corrects the long-standing male bias that builders imposed on construction and that modern scholars have imposed on the interpretation of eighteenth-century houses. By exploring the role dowries played in the construction of houses that heretofore scholars have most commonly interpreted as artifacts of male ambition, Mooney breaks important new ground. The evidence that privileged eighteenth-century women expressed their architectural wishes and exerted their architectural preferences is thin and sometimes ambiguous, and Mooney turns by necessity to seventeenth-century English examples to support arguments she makes about eighteenth-century Virginia. She does find in her sample a suggestive corollary between date of marriage and date of construction, one clue that Virginia's aspirant architecture reflects the economic relationships forged in dynastic marriages. More intriguing is the implication that her analysis sheds light not only on the dynamics that shaped Virginia’s largest and most stylish buildings but also the dynamics of marriages and marital partnerships forged by eighteenth-century Virginia’s power couples.