Fredericksburg's Architectural History
Architectural styles illustrate specific periods in history because building construction reflects contemporary fashion, available technology, and political circumstances. Consequently, the built environment conveys a great deal of information about a community's evolution. Certain buildings, for example, reveal when Fredericksburg evolved from a port town. Others show the effects of industrialization. Yet others hint at times of prosperity or decline. The formal symmetry of Georgian buildings reveals the efforts of a self conscious Virginia aristocracy to establish and maintain a well-defined social order in a new land. The abundance of early to mid-nineteenth century buildings in Fredericksburg, as another example, mark a period of considerable local wealth. The repetitive symbols of the Art Deco style of architectural detailing remind us of the time when machines and mechanization held such promise for the future.
Yet architecture is rarely a pure rendition of any one style. Most buildings invariably change over time as owners add on and adapt them to contemporary use. A builder may also have used many types of architectural features during construction, creating a vernacular type of architecture. In addition, later owners often modify earlier structures with newer elements. Each building thus has its own history which, in turn, relates to the larger community. By understanding the components of the various architectural styles as well as the context which gives them their significance, we can more fully appreciate the buildings which comprise Fredericksburg.
The following architectural guide will help to identify key elements of each style.
Colonial Vernacular: 1700-1800
Colonial Vernacular buildings represent the construction efforts of
early colonists who were building in a new environment. Constructed usually
of timber or brick, their dwellings included steeply pitched roofs and
small casement windows that were typical of their homelands in Europe.
Other characteristics, such as large central chimneys and few decorative
features, were practical adaptations.
The Virginia aristocracy deliberately copied popular English architecture for their own commercial and residential uses. The symmetrical facades and plans of the Georgian buildings they constructed are also thought to reflect their desire to establish a semblance of order and balance in a disturbingly untamed New World. Generally constructed of brick, these buildings were typically rectangular in plan, two stories high, capped by a hipped roof, and enclosed by interior end chimneys (as fireplaces were moved to provide warmth to additional rooms).
Georgian buildings have flat facades and a horizontal orientation. Windows were generally double hung sash whose additional lights reflected the increased wealth of the occupants. Entryways maintained the flat appearance by being small, although they were embellished with classical details such as pilasters and fluted columns. Decorative quoins and raised English basements marked by a water line were additional features that gave Georgian architecture a solid, symmetrical appearance.
Following the American Revolution, the confederation of states that had established their independence from Europe sought to develop a political system suitable for the young nation. In this heady, self conscious time, there emerged a style of architecture called Federal. This type of construction is often characterized as being more delicate than Georgian, but like any transition from one style to another there is considerable overlap. Federal style details, such as moldings and columns, for example, are often smaller than Georgian. On the other hand, certain structural components, such as windows, are larger.
Federal buildings often had a gable roof with dormers rather than hipped roofs. Flared lintels are also a strong characteristic. The smaller entryways often included slender sidelights as well as elliptical fan lights. In urban areas, where rowhouses were being constructed, the Georgian center hall plan was modified to a side entrance hall, with a double parlor.
During this period, end chimneys enclosed in the exterior wall became popular in Fredericksburg. With the introduction of stoves, such as those of Benjamin Franklin's design, these chimneys also became smaller. Hand wrought nails quickly became replaced by cut nails, once these began to be manufactured locally in Falmouth, in the early 1800s.
Fredericksburg is known for its Federal architecture, which dominates much of the downtown commercial district and its surrounding neighborhoods. By the 1820s, however, a more classical style of architecture was emerging and many of these buildings are a combination of Federal and Greek Revival construction.
Greek Revival: 1810-1860
Elements of Federal and Greek Revival styles are generally combined in one building, so few pure examples of either type exist in Fredericksburg. Greek Revival architecture, however, can be illustrated by its own important stylistic features which reflect the classical Greek temple as a base form and employ details from one of the three Greek orders, Doric, Ionic or Corinthian to add decoration.
One of its most acknowledged elements is a classic portico supported by enlarged columns. Roofs are emphasized by wide trim and the entry doors are elaborately decorated with sidelights and transom lights. The windows are topped by square lintels.
The Greek Revival style became the architecture of the nation's western movement during the 1830s, 40s and 50s. Dimensional lumber available from saw mills meant that these structures could be made quickly and relatively cheaply, marking the onset of a transition from a craft economy to a mechanized one. The classic colonnaded mansion is sometimes called Southern Colonial, but this is a misnomer because they were built after the American Revolution which emphatically ended the Colonial period.
Typical features of the Greek Revival style, including the portico supported by columns, elaborate doorways, and the square lintels, can be seen throughout the forty-block Historic District.
Gothic Revival: 1830-1870
The Gothic Revival style grew out of a European interest in the medieval architecture that was being destroyed by industrial growth. While Americans also admired the style, many could not afford the related stonework. Invention of the jigsaw, however, allowed similar decorations to be made out of wood and led to the building of what are called Carpenter Gothic structures.
Embellished by the use of lancet windows and trefoil designs, Gothic Revival included a cruciform plan capped by steeply pitched roofs reminiscent of the medieval period. The pointed arch was used both for doors and windows, while towers were off-center and either square or octagonal shapes. The lancet windows were sometimes covered by hood moldings and often contained leaded stained glass.
Architects stressed that Gothic Revival homes were suited to rural areas. Fredericksburg citizens built few residences in this style but did hire an architect to use it in creating their public courthouse. The stone gate guarding the City Cemetery also has Gothic Revival characteristics. Many churches, such as the Fredericksburg United Methodist Church, also adopted Gothic forms.
Romanesque Revival: 1840-1900
The Romanesque Revival style was used mainly for churches and civic buildings. The style's rectangular plan adapted well to these functions while the vertical profile gave the style an impressive appearance. The facade is often flanked by square or polygonal towers of differing heights, covered with various roof shapes, and set in a framework of rusticated masonry. Decorative elements include wall buttresses and hood moldings above the windows. The best example of Romanesque Revival architecture in Fredericksburg is St. George's Episcopal Church built c. 1855.
A new style of architecture known as Italianate copied the shape and plan of rural Italian farmhouses. These buildings had low pitched roofs with wide eaves decorated with double brackets, tall windows, and sometimes included prominent off-center towers. Attempting to extend living into nature, they emphasized walk-through windows and prominent verandas into the gardens.
With better heating possible from the coal shipped along canals and railroads, this style could incorporate higher ceilings. Flatter roofs were also possible through the mass production of slate and roof metals which shed water well and which could be sealed with products of kerosene and tar. The boom in lumber production meant that wooden decorations could also be used abundantly throughout the buildings. The availability of cast iron to make storefront facades, like the one featured on the Free Lance-Star building at 305 William Street, also occurred during this period. The shape of the Italianate style can also be seen at 2010 Fall Hill Avenue, although the building has been stripped of its decorative moldings and bargeboard.
Italianate houses are not common in the South because the Civil War and its aftermath were not a time of innovative construction. By the time the Southern economy had revived, newer building styles had become fashionable.
Second Empire 1860-1885
The primary difference between the Italianate and the Second Empire styles is the mansard roof. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Napoleon III (1852-1870) leveled sections of Paris and initiated an ambitious building program. Due to taxes on additional stories, however, the French created additional living space by manipulating the roof to create the mansard roof. Parisian expositions in 1855 and 1867 helped spread the architectural style to the United States where it was used extensively during the Grant Administration. It quickly faded as a construction style following the financial panic of 1873.
The mansard roof may be decorated with multi-colored slates, as well as metal shingles. Like roofs found in the Italianate style, the mansard roofs were often crested with Chinese designs and can include dormer windows. The prominent projecting and receding surfaces of the Italianate are still featured along with the double brackets supporting the overhanging eaves, the tall windows, and high ceilings.
Colonial Revival: 1876-Present
Interest in America's eighteenth century heritage revived during the Philadelphia Centennial celebration of 1876. Early English and Dutch styles reappeared, but with very liberal interpretations. First, the Colonial Revival house often combines Colonial style features with contemporary elements. Historical details such as an eighteenth century style pediment or a Flemish brick bond may be found on a house with large single-light window sash and stained glass. Secondly, the historical design is often interpreted with new materials, as when the wooden tracery of eighteenth century sidelights is interpreted with leaded panes from the twentieth century. Lastly, Colonial architectural elements are considerably enlarged. A pediment, for example, may be twice as large in a Colonial Revival residence than ever appeared in the eighteenth century. The Revival style is basically the same design as the Colonial style except for the modern adaptations.
Queen Anne: 1880-1920
While the Queen Anne style became popular during the 1860s in England, the American audience did not adopt this type of architecture until after the 1876 Centennial Exposition. The style is a medieval revival which used rural English houses as models with their steep roofs, irregular facades, prominent chimneys, and variety of materials. Closely associated with the Victorian period, the Queen Anne Style uses many elements in new ways.
The asymmetrical floor plan of the Queen Anne style is reflected in
the complex facade and the multi-gabled roof and is composed using a variety
of forms, textures, materials and
This style benefitted from development of the jigsaw which could cut the repetitive gingerbread woodwork which appeared not only on the porches, but also along the eaves. A growing railroad network was also able to make pre-cut construction materials available throughout the nation.
The elaborate details on Queen Anne structures included roof-cresting, finials and pendants, carved wooden panels and machine-turned or sawn ornaments. The use of mixed building materials, textures, patterns and colors often meant that each story could be decorated differently with timbering or relief decorations. Queen Anne windows sometimes had small square panes of stained glass in upper window sash, while the style also employed dormers of various shapes to increase the light and to attach an additional decorative element.
Two adaptations of the Queen Anne style should be briefly mentioned because architectural elements from them are sometimes found in Fredericksburg. The Stick Style (1860-1890) emphasized a vertical orientation through the placement of exposed beams, studs, and diagonal X braces over the wooden siding. These details were designed to simulate the underlying structure.
The Shingle Style (1880-1900) was popular in New England and at beach resorts and resembled the Queen Anne form, but used shingles as a surface material. This uniform use of unpainted wooden shingles on the exterior gave the style its name.
Neo-Classical/Beaux Arts: 1890-1930
From the end of the nineteeth century until the economic depression of the 1930s, architecture was dominated by architects who had studied at what was then the most prestigious school of architecture in the world, France's Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Its American graduates concentrated on correct historical interpretations rather than the freer styles of the preceeding Victorian period and their buildings were favored by the prominent businessmen of that era.
The Neo-Classical style derives from both the Greek and Roman styles, and therefore is often used for civic and governmental buildings. The monumental proportions of the style are typical. The facade is usually symmetrical with no projecting or receding wings and is topped by a hidden roof surrounded by a prominent cornice. Each story is clearly separated through the use of a belt course, as well as different window and surface treatments. The arcade and rusticated ground floor contrasts with the smooth and finished upper story, while the windows vary in height from story to story with small windows in the top story.
Beaux Arts is also a classical style and is characterized by decorative details on wall surfaces. The symmetrical facades can also include quoins as well as exagerated masonry joints.
The most prominent example of these styles in Fredericksburg is the First Virginia Bank at the corner of William and Princess Anne Streets.
American Foursquare: 1900-1930
The square shaped form of this type of building gives the American Foursquare style its name. These square, two story buildings have a full width one story porch, a hipped roof with a wide overhang, and a prominent dormer. This type of architecture can be seen throughout the Fairview subdivision located on the site of the colonial era Fairgrounds east of Littlepage Street.
The Bungalow style originated in British India (Bengal) as one story pavilions surrounded by verandas. These types of dwellings became popular worldwide and first appeared in America between 1900 and 1940. They were economical to build and had an open, informal floor plan. The affordable bungalow buildings became synonymous with workers housing as merchants ceased to live above their stores and factory workers began to drive to work from newly established neighborhoods.
Typically a low-pitch gable roof extends over the porch, which is supported by short squat columns. For a decorative effect, rafters and ridge beams extend beyond the wall and roof. The chimneys are often of rubble, cobblestone or rough faced brick while the shingles are left in their natural state or treated with earth tone stains. Small eyebrow dormers peek out above the roof line and typical windows include three-over-one sash. Fredericksburg has many neighborhoods with bungalow houses, such as those along Prince Edward Street, Fall Hill Avenue and in Fairview Heights.
Art Deco: 1923-1935
The 1923 Art Deco display in Paris emphasized motion and repetition and initiated the first architectural style that embraced the age of mechanization. Art Deco was not an evolution in plan, however, but rather a decorative cover around existing architectural forms. Using a repetition of symbols to evoke the repetition of machines, the style employed chevrons, flowers, vegetation and dart motifs as well as highly glazed terra cotta tiles. Characterized by a linear or angular composition, the Art Deco style uses low relief ornamentation around door and window openings, along string courses, and along the edge of parapets.
While few surviving examples of the Art Deco style exist in Fredericksburg, good examples can be seen in the 900 and 1000 blocks of Caroline Street.
Streamline Moderne: 1930-1945
Created by unemployed industrial designers during the Depression, the Streamline Moderne architectural style also resulted in redesigned products for the mass market, such as fans and toasters. From seeing the air glide over and around airplane wings (the streamline effect), architects began designing buildings with rounded corners and rounded windows.
This style is characterized by soft or rounded corners, flat roofs, smooth wall finishes without surface ornamentation and horizontal window bands. The streamline effect is emphasized by the use of curved windows that wrap around corners. The glass blocks and chromo/stainless steel which gave the architecture a then-modern touch were new materials during the 1930s and 1940s.
Many examples of the Streamline Moderne style are becoming obscured with new additions. Three buildings in Fredericks-burg, however, prominently display the rounded corners typical of this style: the commercial building at 500 Lafayette Boulevard, the Colonial Electrical Distributors at 417 Jefferson Davis Highway and the garage at 1101 Lafayette Boulevard.
International Style: 1945-1960
During the period between World War I and II, Americans exhibited a strong preference for architecture that emphasized past traditions. Many Europeans, on the other hand, tended to be more avant-garde in their tastes. Their International style included steel frame buildings distinguished by smooth surfaces, corner windows, and minimal decorative elements. Following World War II, American tastes shifted from period designs to modern styles, especially as suburbs exploded across the landscape.
Go toAppendix B: Glosssary of Terms
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