Architecture in Virginia

trees were converted into framework timbers through hard work
trees were converted into framework timbers through hard work
Source: National Park Service, Lumber and Wood Production (Sidney King painting)

The English who settled in Virginia in the early 1600's:1

...knew how to build only a brick or timbered house such as he had known in England; and with all the timbers and clapboards to be hewn and split by hand, this was a major undertaking, to be accomplished only by the more industrious and prosperous majority.

The easy access to timber made it cheap to build houses and forts from wood, using the traditional styles brought from England. Large timbers were used to create the framework for a house. Smaller branches were placed between the timbers, then covered with clay. At Jamestown, the first roofs were made from local reeds, mimicking the thatch roofs used across the Atlantic Ocean. The "mud and stud" buildings were constructed without a stone foundation, and their life expectancy was short.

in 1680, Jamestown's frame houses resembled Tudor homes in England and were not log cabins
in 1680, Jamestown's frame houses resembled Tudor homes in England and were not log cabins
Source: National Park Service, Another Jamestown House-Structure 123 (Sidney King painting)

Through the 1800's, many interior walls were made with an updated version of mud and stud. Wooden lath was covered with clay mixed with straw to create a wall strong enough for separating interior rooms. A final thin coat of plaster on the surface would be whitewashed to make the interior brighter, since exterior walls have small windows in order to conserve heat and simplify construction.

lath (on left) was covered with mud, then plaster which would be whitewashed (right)
lath (on left) was covered with mud, then plaster which would be whitewashed (right)

Even in 1686, a Frenchman observed in the newly settled region of Stafford County:2

Some people in this country are comfortably housed; the farmer's houses are built entirely of wood, the roofs being mae of small boards of chestnut, as are also the walls. Those who have some means, cover them inside with a coating of mortar in which they use oyster-shells for lime; it is as white as snow, so that although they look ugly from the outside, where only the wood can be seen, they are very pleasant inside, with convenient widows and openings. They have started making bricks in quantities, & I have seen several houses where the walls were made entirely of them. Whatever their rank, & I know not why, they build only two rooms with some closets on the ground floor, & two rooms in the attic above; but they build several like this, according to their means. They build also a separate kitchen, a separate house for the Christian slaves, one for the negro slaves, & several to dry the tobacco, so that when you come to the home of a person of some means, you think you are entering a fairly large village.

Cabins made from horizontally-placed logs were introduced to North America by Swedes who settled along the Delaware River starting in 1638. Starting in the 1720's, German-speaking immigrants migrating from Pennsylvania into the Shenandoah Valley brought the log cabin to Virginia. Scotch-Irish immigrants coming at the same time quickly adopted the technique, since building with logs was easier than using their traditional stone or mud-based techniques.

Construction included stripping the bark off logs used in most buildings. Bark was removed because it provided a hiding place for insects which were not welcomed by people living inside log cabins.

when settlers migrated into valleys west of the Blue Ridge in the 1700's, wood was the most available material for housing and fences
when settlers migrated into valleys west of the Blue Ridge in the 1700's, wood was the most available material for housing and fences
Source: "The Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Directory, Containing an Illustrated History and Description of the Road," A Virginia School-House of the Olden Time (p.328)

The logs might be left in their original round shape to minimize labor, or sides could be slided off (hewn) with an axe to create more-rectangular edges. The logs were placed on top of each other, with notches were chopped into them at the corners of the buildings. Notches locked the logs together into a stable framework and reduced the spaces between each log. To retain heat inside the cabin, the remaining gaps between each log were chinked with small stones and mud. Small poles were used to create a solid roof which could then be covered with bark, turf, or split shakes for more-permanent structures.

Settlers built cabins that reflected the circumstances of their location, including the available labor and wood at the time of construction. Traditions and construction expertise varied among settlers, and cabin styles were not consistent throughout the Shenandoah Valley, Piedmont, or Southwestern Virginia. Chimneys, roofs, and even the pattern of notching the logs varied at initial construction, and as cabins were rebuilt and expanded. 3

the first cabins built on the western fringes of settlement took advantage of locally-abundant wood - but could be destroyed easily by fire
the first cabins built on the western fringes of settlement took advantage of locally-abundant wood - but could be destroyed easily by fire
Map Source: National Park Service, Valley Forge National Historical Park Geologic Resources Inventory Report

The myth of the log cabin being the original form of housing built by the first colonists evolved after the 1840 election. Supporters of President Martin Van Buren sought to diminish his opponent, General William Henry Harrison, by portraying him as a too-simple-to-be-President man interested primarily in drinking hard cider and sitting quietly in a log cabin.

The tactic backfired, and Harrison's supporters flooded the country with inaccurate images of him as a humble frontiersman with a common touch. Voters liked the concept that someone not from the elite could rise up and become president, as they had shown in the 1828 election of Andrew Jackson. Van Buren was defeated, and an inaccurate portrayal of early colonial history was created.4

the myth of the log cabin as traditional housing for the first European colonists emerged during the 1840 campaign for president
the myth of the log cabin as traditional housing for the first European colonists emerged during the 1840 campaign for president
Source: Library of Congress, "Harrison & Tyler" campaign emblem

In Tidewater, where colonization of Virginia began, log cabins were not a typical structure. West of the Blue Ridge, they were so common that they were described as a "Virginia house." Construction required few tools or skill, and could be completed quickly.5

on the edge of colonial settlement west of the Blue Ridge, log cabins were common in Virginia
on the edge of colonial settlement west of the Blue Ridge, log cabins were common in Virginia
Source: Porte Crayon, Virginia illustrated

log cabin reconstructed at Ephrata Cloister in Pennsylvania, from which Gernan immigrants moved to Virginia
log cabin reconstructed at Ephrata Cloister in Pennsylvania, from which Gernan immigrants moved to Virginia

in the 1930's, structures in the Blue Ridge economized on construction of foundations
in the 1930's, structures in the Blue Ridge economized on construction of foundations
Source: Library of Congress, Cornerstone of church at Nicholson Hollow, Virginia (by Arthur Rothstein, 1935)

Clay was as available as wood, so brick was also an early building material. In Jamestown, there were brick townhouses but no log cabins.

by the mid-1600's, brick buildings were common in Jamestown
by the mid-1600's, brick buildings were common in Jamestown
Source: National Park Service, A Typical Residence (Structure 6) (Sidney King painting)

On the Coastal Plain, building stone was a rare material. When Confederate soldiers had to construct winter quarters at Manassas in 1861, they used wood. Excavating red Triassic sandstone from the quarries used to build manor homes such as Liberia and Ben Lomond, and for the stone bridge over Bull Run for the Alexandria-Warrenton Turnpike, would have required too much time.

the Confederate winter quarters at Manassas in 1861-62 were constructed of wood, not stone
the Confederate winter quarters at Manassas in 1861-62 were constructed of wood, not stone
Source: National Archives, Winter Quarters of the Rebel Army at Manassas, Virginia

Using stone in construction was a show of wealth. When Christ Church was built in Middlesex County in 1735, 352 limestone pavers were installed as the floor. The pavers had to be imported from southern England, since there were no rock outcrops or quarries for building stone in the Coastal Plain of Virginia. That display of rare stone demonstrated the wealth and influence of the Christ Church members, especially Robert "King" Carter.6

George Wythe house in Williamsburg
George Wythe house in Williamsburg

In the Shenandoah Valley, German-speaking immigrants invested more heavily in constructing their barns than their houses:7

The Pennsylvania "bank barn" - with variants known as the "Swiss" or "Switzer" barn - is regarded as one of the most important, distinctive types of barns built in North America in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was characterized by being built into the side of a hill or a rising, with the ground floor, which housed cattle and farms animals, opening to barnyard on the south where the sun warmed the animals in winter. There were often rooms next to the embankment on the ground floor used for storage of vegetables, particularly root vegetables. The second floor, accessed from the higher ground on the north side, often featured an overhanging "forebay" or "overshoot" on the south side, and its unbroken floor space was used for threshing, storage of hay and flour, and even for farm chores such as spinning in the summer months.

two-story bank barns were built into hillsides, allowing ground level access to both stories
two-story bank barns were built into hillsides, allowing ground level access to both stories
Source: Rob Shenk, Red & Gold in the Shenandoah

Building Stones of Virginia

Courthouses in Virginia

Executive Mansion in Richmond

Fences in Virginia

Governor's Palace in Williamsburg

Green Building in Virginia

Native American Structures in Virginia

State Capitol Buildings

in the 1700's during the reigns of George I, George II, and George III, the Virginia gentry built symmetrical brick mansions such as Woodlawn (constructed in 1805)
in the 1700's during the reigns of George I, George II, and George III, the Virginia gentry built symmetrical brick mansions such as Woodlawn (constructed in 1805)
Source: Some Old Historic Landmarks of Virginia and Maryland, Woodlawn, the Home of Nellie Custis Lewis (p.81)

Barrett Hall and other buildings at the College of William and Mary are made of brick laid in Flemish bond, with alternating stretchers and headers
Barrett Hall and other buildings at the College of William and Mary are made of brick laid in Flemish bond, with alternating stretchers and headers

Links

some sawmills in the colonial era were powered by windmills and water wheels, but much of the lumber used in construction was cut by hand
some sawmills in the colonial era were powered by windmills and water wheels, but much of the lumber used in construction was cut by hand
Source: Architect of the Capitol, Washington's Farewell Address, 1796

References

1. Abernethy, Thomas Perkins, Three Virginia Frontiers, Louisiana University Press, 1962, p.6
2. Durand de Dauphine, A Huguenot Exile in Virginia, or Voyages of a Frenchman exiled for his Religion with a description of Virginia and Maryland, (Gilbert Chinard, editor), The Press of the Pioneers, New York, 1934, p. 102
3. C. A. Weslager, "Log Houses In Pennsylvania During The Seventeenth Century," Pennsylvania History, Volume 22, Issue 3 (July 1955), https://www.jstor.org/stable/27769605; Christopher C. Fennell, "Log House Architecture in the Eighteenth-Century Virginia Piedmont," 2003, http://www.histarch.illinois.edu/harper/demoryarch.html (last checked June 4, 2019)
4. "Razing the Log Cabin Myth," Washington Post, November 6, 1984, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1984/11/06/razing-the-log-cabin-myth/5afa5de3-f8b9-4cc2-ac3b-1527bdd814a5/ (last checked June 4, 2019)
5. Charles E. Kemper," Some Valley Notes," The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Volume 29, Number 21 (January 1921), p.416, https://books.google.com/books?id=6tQRAAAAYAAJ (last checked June 4, 2019)
6. Marcus M. Key, Jr., Robert J. Teagle, Treleven Haysom. "Provenance of the Stone Pavers in Christ Church, Lancaster Co., Virginia," Quarterly Bulletin of the Archeological Society of Virginia, Volume 65, Number 1 (2010), https://scholar.dickinson.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1298&context=faculty_publications (last checked February 12, 2019)
7. "'A Most Excellent Barn:' A Pennsylvania-German Barn in Lovettsville," Lovettsville Historical Society, September, 2021, http://www.lovettsvillehistoricalsociety.org/index.php/newsletter/ (last checked September 4, 2021)

George Washington was a creative builder, covering Mount Vernon with faux stone and constructing an innovative two-story barn to winnow wheat
George Washington was a creative builder, covering Mount Vernon with faux stone and constructing an innovative two-story barn to winnow wheat
Source: Some Old Historic Landmarks of Virginia and Maryland, Washington's Sixteen-Sided Barn (p.73)

life in 1900, before air conditioning, involved spending time on the front porch
life in 1900, before air conditioning, involved spending time on the front porch
Source: National Park Service, Archeology in the Prince William Forest Park


Virginia Places