You are here

Prodigy Houses of Virginia

Architecture and the Native Elite
Barbara Burlison Mooney

BUY Cloth · 400 pp. · 7 × 10 · ISBN 9780813926735 · $69.50 · Feb 2008

In a list of objectives and inquiries meant to guide and make profitable the European travel of two young Americans in 1788, Thomas Jefferson noted, "Architecture [is] worth great attention. As we double our numbers ever 20 years we must double our houses.... It is then among the most important arts: and it is desireable to introduce taste into an art which shews so much." Referring both to the large physical presence of architecture, as well as the ability of a structure to reveal its owner’s character, Jefferson articulates the telling relationship in eighteenth-century Virginia between architecture and construction of the self. In Prodigy Houses of Virginia: Architecture and the Native Elite, Barbara Burlison Mooney employs Jefferson’s theory to examine twenty-five great eighteenth-century Virginia mansions, and offer an analytical overview of Virginia’s elite residential architecture from a patronage perspective.

Though it focuses on architectural history, the book concerns itself less with issues of design and construction than with the social and cultural context in which the Virginia gentry commissioned their imposing dwellings. In her examination of such places as Stratford Hall, Carter’s Grove, and Gunston Hall—mansions whose grandeur has become synonymous with the image—if not the reality—of life in Colonial Virginia—Mooney illuminates the fortunes, motivations, and aspirations of the wealthy and powerful owners who built their "homes" with the objective of securing their status and impressing the public. In choosing to spend astonishing sums to provide themselves with grand houses that far exceeded their living requirements—in some cases, by a disastrous measure—the owners of these mansions advanced grand claims to social and political prestige.

Clearly and accessibly written, Prodigy Houses of Virginia will appeal not only to architectural and social historians of the Colonial period but also to the general reader interested in these mansions and the people who inhabited them.


"Mooney's study offers a valuable and new insight into some of Virginia's and also Colonial America's most visible remains, the great houses of Virginia. It is a book that will revolutionize the study of early American architecture through its close look at both the buildings and the people who paid for them.

Richard Guy Wilson, University of Virginia

"Some of the most popular and enduring images of early American architecture are the colonial houses of Tidewater Virginia. For the past century, antiquarians have extolled the virtues of the families that built these plantation houses; garden clubs and promoters of tourism have turned them into pilgrimage spots; and historians of various stripes have analyzed their architectural pedigree, linking their forms to design trends in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Britain and Europe. Barbara Mooney has shed new light on very familiar territory and offers a much-needed corrective to certain misconceptions about the origins and design of Virginia’s great houses. Prodigy Houses of Virginia is no mere gloss of old stories, but a thoughtful and probing account of the background, social and political standing, and motivation of some two dozen individuals who went to extraordinary lengths to build houses that more than accommodated basic needs—ones that promised a more tangible and lasting legacy. This is not a history of the buildings but a collective history of the patrons who commissioned them—a study of why and how the colonial elite chose to construct monumental houses. It is essential reading for those who wish to understand the dynamics of gentry culture in colonial Virginia.

Carl Lounsbury, Architectural Historian at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, is the author The Courthouses of Early Virginia: An Architectural History (Virginia), among other books

About the Author(s): 

Barbara Burlison Mooney is Associate Professor of Art and Art History at the University of Iowa.

Interested in this topic?
Stay updated with our newsletters:

Related Books