North American architecture represents the foundations and eclectic mixtures of European architectural styles, influences, and practices. The initial beginning of American architecture stems back to the colonial heritage of the United States and the practices that developed as the result of the emigration of European cultures. As the American melting pot grew and construction and design practices evolved, the birth of the colonial style became the first step in the architectural development of the United States. The first of this style emerged in Williamsburg, Virginia during the sixteenth century with the construction of the British Governor’s Palace (Fig. 1-2). When the Palace was completed in 1722, it had no architectural equal in colonial America. The residence of the royal governor was a magnificent structure compared to the small wooden houses that dotted Virginia’s Tidewater landscape and lined Williamsburg streets. From the Palace’s mere size, it was a clear statement of power with impressive gates, grounds, and chambers. Since the Governor’s Palace incorporated dominant European architectural elements, historians pondered the exacted origin of these architectural forms. In recent years, Graham Hood and Nancy Halverson Schless have analyzed the Governor’s Palace and determined that its ultimate origin and style is Dutch Palladianism of the seventeenth century. The result of this determination explained the origin of American architecture and its focus on the balance of classical ideals and Gothic forms.
The term "Palace" was first used for the governor's house about 1714. Whether the term was used as an ironic reference to its expense, or simply to designate an official residence, is debatable. In 1724, Hugh Jones described the grandeur and ornamental detailing of the Governor’s Palace.
"From the Church," he said, "runs a Street northward called Palace Street; at the other end of which stands the Palace or Governor's House, a magnificent structure built at the public expense, finished and beautified with gates, fine gardens, offices, walks, a fine canal, orchards, & c. . . . This likewise has the ornamental addition of a good cupola or lantern, illuminated with most of the town, upon birth-nights, and other nights of occasional rejoicings (Hood 26)."
Through Jones’ perceptions of the Palace, it is clear that the structure conveyed prestige and honor on the colony through its mere size, and elaborate ironwork, formal gardens, and architectural detailing. The Palace was located at the end of a broad, imposing green that provided the primary north-south axis of Williamsburg. The residence’s high visibility and architectural setting instilled respect in the colonists for executive power and prerogative of the governor and British crown.
The Governor’s Palace was not only an impressive model of executive power, but it acknowledged the architecture style of similar European monuments such as Gloucestershire (Fig. 3). By having such a strong correlation in both elevation (Fig. 4) and plan (Fig. 5) to European structures, the true architectural identity of the Governor’s Palace was questionable. Scholars, such as Nancy Halverson Schless claim that based on the original building’s central corridor, symmetrical façade, a pair of identical outbuildings flanking a forecourt, and formal gardens that the Palace is designed in the English and Netherlandish Dutch Palladian style (Schless 254). To further expand on the explanation of Dutch Palladianism, the building’s design was a combination of sixteenth-century Italian classism and an older Netherlandish tradition characterized by steep-pitched roofs and red brick walls (Schless 254). The Italianate tradition was established throughout Europe by the writings and drawing of Andrea Palladio (Schless 254). The Dutch ideas came to England through commercial connections strengthened by the marriage of William, Stradtholder of Holland, to Mary, an English princess, and their joint succession to the English throne in 1689 (Schless 254).
The combination of styles, now called Anglo-Dutch Palladianism, dominated English architecture in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. With the “concept of tight, symmetric planning” being the governing principle in the new style, the rigid and mathematical ratios used in construction represent similar Palladian principles used in the designs of his villas such as Godi Porto, Lonedo, and Angarano (Schless 258). Although in England there were no buildings identical to the Palace and strict Palladian principals, its general plan and appearance poses many parallels in the modest but comfortable residences of prosperous merchants, country gentlemen, and clergymen. In representing the status of nobility, the Governor’s Palace was required to be a contemporary English status image and represent a personal reaction to colonial Virginia.
Although the Palladian style was not a dominant principle used in England, the relationship between the Palace and Dutch architectural elements were remarkable. Schless argues that the Governor’s Palace and the Dutch house, Ganzenhoef (Fig. 6), are alike in that “the sweep of the roof and the expanse visible to the observer has been brought into successful harmony” (Schless 267). Between both structures the eye moves across the façade with the regularized window bays, sharp pitch roof, and finally to the distinctive and ornamental Dutch lantern. The most characterized Dutch element of the Governor’s Palace is the lantern (Fig. 7)—an “elongated, narrow, nervous, hexagonal” copula structure (Schless 257). In having such a dynamic and stylized architectural element, the expectation of the Dutch influence emerges as a plausible answer to Schless suggestion for the design of the Governor’s Palace.
Although the Dutch influence was exhibited on the exterior of the Governor’s Palace, the interior presented itself more towards British interior design. To recreate the look of the interior, three surviving inventories of personal property attest to the elaborate furnishings of the household. The interior itself was notable for its fine woodwork (Fig. 8). The wide entrance hall, most of the passages, and several smaller rooms are fully paneled similar to many English mansions. In other rooms the wall surfaces and some of the woodwork have been painted in the original soft shades of gray-green, yellow, and blue. The walls of the library, directly above the entrance hall, are covered with antique Spanish tooled leather. Furnishings and interior decoration, chiefly in mid-eighteenth-century style, embraced the interior of the Governor’s Palace (Fig. 9). As mentioned by Lord Botetourt, coronation portraits of George III and Queen Charlotte, by the court painter Allan Ramsay, hang against the pale blue walls of the large and stately ballroom, flanking the door to the music room (Hood 170).
By the mid-1750s, however, its design was passé. New styles gave a new look to room decoration, furniture, fabrics, and accessories. Striving to keep up with current fashion, the colony significantly altered the Palace: several fireplace surrounds were replaced, the forecourt on Palace Green probably was reorganized, and ballroom and supper rooms were added to the north elevation (Fig. 10). Life styles had changed too. Well-bred people even in provincial communities were learning to enjoy large “assemblies” or “routs,” as they called evening parties. The Palace hosted the colony’s fashionable society and finest entertainments. The October 31, 1771, Virginia Gazette reported:
"Last Friday night being the anniversary of our Most gracious Sovereign's Accession to the Throne, his Excellency the Governor gave a Ball and an elegant Entertainment at the Palace, to a numerous and splendid Company of Ladies and Gentlemen” (Hood 169).
For being a seat of government in colonial America, the Governor’s Palace embraced its political power to exhibit the Governor’s power through lavish balls and ceremonies. Nevertheless, the Grand Ballroom and the formal gardens created a common architecture and design vocabulary between the spaces. The gardens were roughly square in plan, embraced by a large canal and fishpond along the western edge (Fig. 11). There were ten separate gardens including box, fruit, and kitchen gardens, a maze, and a bowling green—their rectangular forms thickly set in eighteenth-century fashion with trim hedges and walks in intricate geometrical patterns (Hood 46). Through this connection, it can be seen that the English influences emerged both inside and outside the Governor’s Palace.
The elegant yet imposing Governor’s Palace served as the official residence of seven British governors and the executive mansion for the first two governors of the Virginia Commonwealth, Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson. The Palace symbolized the power and authority of the British crown in colonial Virginia. While the British crown is the primary reason the Governor’s Palace was constructed, this architectural landmark allowed scholars and visitors alike to discover the origin of eighteenth century colonial architecture practices. The Palace still remains the most beguiling glimpse of how modern Williamsburg imagines the eighteenth century. What is known about the Palace and what can be said about its role in eighteenth-century Virginia has now been extended dramatically by Graham Hood and Nancy Halverson Schless. Visitors certainly have a richer experience of the Palace after understanding the reasoning behind the structure. Scholars from many disciplines will find The Governor's Palace in Williamsburg valuable, not only as a model of a close study of a single house, but also for what it suggests about the relationship between artifacts and ideas.