The Rappahannock Region's Forgotten Architecture: Part 1: The Old Brick Mansions
Kenmore—Stratford Hall—Berkley Plantation—these and many other substantial brick residences were designed to last and impress. The style was called Georgian, in honor of the English kings of the period. Later similar houses built after the American Revolution would be patriotically dubbed Federal. This article briefly looks at some common characteristics of the houses' exteriors.
Treading, Molding, and Firing
The colonial Virginia bricks were made by slaves, indentured servants, or poor and unskilled freemen from clay that was typically dug nearby. Water was added to the raw clay, and it was mixed by barefoot stomping, called treading. The clay was then cleaned of debris and molded into wooden forms. The bricks were then fired in a sealed kiln for six days. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has more information, including photos at their site.
Once the bricks were made, they would be laid out and mortared into place. Mortaring was a bit of an art and a science. Again, the weather conditions could spell disaster for a builder. The mortar could not be allowed to freeze or dry out too quickly. The patterns used were called bonds. English bond is a more usual one today in which bricks are laid so that only the long sides showed. With Flemish bond, long sides (stretchers) and short sides (headers or bonders) alternate. Often the headers would be glazed a darker color to make the pattern more obvious.
Bricks could only be made in warm months when the ground was soft enough to dig the clay. Although it was only available for part of the year, brick was preferred to wood by those who could afford it. Termites, fire, and rot—all of these might attack wood, but a structure made with brick might well last for centuries.
When looking at Georgian mansions, you might also notice these architectural features:
Brick belt: a distinct band of bricks around the house at the 2nd floor level
Water table: towards the bottom of the house, the brick work may jut out significantly from the house's main line. The water table gives additional strength to the foundation and forces the water away from the house.
Lintels: a block of solid stone that appears over a window or doorway to support the weight of the building overhead.
Dentils: a row or more of rectangular wood carvings spanning the house near the roof line.
Cornice: an ornamental roof molding where the roof joins the house.
Jack arch: a fan of bricks over the windows. If the middle one is larger or central to the design, it is called the keystone.
Transom: usually refers to a rectangular window positioned above a door.
Porches: Georgian mansions had no porches or very minimal ones. If you see a prominent porch on a Georgian mansion, odds are for that it was added later.
Not a Mansion, but also Noteworthy
Across the street from the Fredericksburg branch of the CRRL is a most unusual example of colonial brickwork. Believed to have been Fielding Lewis' store, this building has, in addition to jack arches and keystones, quoins (pronounced koin or kwoin) prominent and decorative pieces of stonework at the building's corners.
You can delve deeply into old architecture with your library card. These books are owned by the Central Rappahannock Regional Library, and most of them may be reserved for home use.
American Colonial: Puritan Simplicity to Georgian Grace by Wendell Garrett
Brickwork: Architecture and Design by Andrew Plumridge & Wim Meulenkamp
Colonial Architecture of the Mid-Atlantic: From Material Originally Published as the White Pine Series of Architectural Monographs edited by Russell F. Whitehead and Frank Chouteau Brown
Houses Virginians Have Loved by Agnes Rothery
Porches and Portals of Old Fredericksburg, Virginia by Virginia Carmicheal
Homes in Colonial America by Mark Thomas
Under Every Roof: A Kid's Style and Field Guide to the Architecture of American Houses by Patricia Brown Glenn
Learn More Online:
- Characteristics of Virginia Georgian Architecture
- Additional details on chimneys, roofs, and windows. Links to examples.
- Preservation: Architectural Glossary
- Historic Richmond Foundation's resource gives illustrated examples of common architectural features by period.
- Residential Design Glossary
- A useful resource for architecture aficionados.
- The Stylistic Evolution of the American Front Porch
- A quick overview of front porches, from colonial times through Romanesque architecture (1875-1895).
- WPA Survey Report: Nottingham
- An interesting example of a survey report for a Georgian mansion. Built about 1774 by Governor Spotswood's heirs.