Architectural historians and preservationists have many responsibilities. Research, writing, and programming are just some of the day-to-day tasks the Architecture and Historic Preservation department at Montpelier tackles. One of the best assignments we are confronted with is fieldwork. Specifically, architectural fieldwork. So what does this mean, and why is it something we do at Montpelier?
One of the largest projects happening at Montpelier currently is the reconstruction of the South Yard. This space, just south of the mansion, is the site where the domestic enslaved community lived and worked. We know of several outbuildings and quarters that existed in this space, but in order to reconstruct the buildings, we need a lot more information. Visitor accounts do not mention the appearance of the outbuildings, despite their close proximity to the main house. Using the archaeological data uncovered by the Montpelier Archaeology team, we are able to get a better sense of things like building size, material, and foundation. By looking at additional artifact distributions, we can learn about things like building use, and the material culture associated with each space. The iron uncovered during the excavations has been especially helpful, sometimes even revealing architectural hardware associated with a building. Despite this wealth of information, there are still a lot of questions that need to be answered before a reconstructed building design can take shape.
The reconstructed buildings of the South Yard are a product of both archaeology and architectural fieldwork.
This is where fieldwork comes in. Fieldwork is a type of hands-on research where you visit a site that is relevant to your research question. During this site visit, the objective is to collect as much useful information as possible, without disturbing or disrupting the architecture or property owner. For the Architecture and Historic Preservation department, this means looking at buildings that are similar to what may have stood in the South Yard. Beginning in 2015 with the Rubenstein initiative, the AHP has visited dozens of sites across the state of Virginia and the greater mid-Atlantic in order to better understand the building types we are researching, and inform the design decisions we need to make.
So what does a site visit look like?
Research- Conducting fieldwork begins long before the day of the site visit. First, hours of research are conducted to identify the most historically, geographically, and architecturally relevant examples we would like to look at. Once these sites are identified, we begin to reach out to their owners, and establish relationships. Fieldwork often involves being invited to someone’s home or property. For this reason, it is essential to establish good relationships with the property owners, and clearly state our willingness to involve them in the research, and share with them our findings.
Equipment- On the day of a site visit we make sure we are prepared with the necessary equipment so that we can quickly and efficiently gather as much information as possible. Cameras, tripods, extra batteries, flashlights (many of the buildings we visit do not have electricity), measuring equipment, and notebooks are all important items to have at the ready.
Process- Arriving on site, our first action is to speak with the property owner if they are available. Typically, owners have a wealth of information about their property already, and enjoy being involved in the process. At the site, we begin by walking through and taking a general survey. We may jot down notes of things that stand out, or anecdotal information the property owner shares. Photos are also taken at every opportunity, because you can never have enough. Conducting fieldwork with several people is ideal. After the initial walk through, the preserve Montpelier team will typically split up and take on several tasks. One of us will measure and draw either the building, or specific architectural details. Another person will take precise photographs. This includes interior and exterior overall shots, details, and other photographs needed that may require set up such as lighting or a tripod. Finally, a third person will take notes, and assist with measurements or photographs.
Organization- After a site visit, there is always a great deal of information to sort through. Field notes are scanned and filed, along with any drawings made. Digital photographs are downloaded and organized for easy reference. This is also when we like to address transparency in our research, and share our notes and findings with the property owners. It is very important that in addition to thanking them for the access, we distribute our scholarship so that significant places have an up to date and relevant historical record.
Conducting fieldwork allows us to envision what the buildings of the South Yard may have looked like. By looking at many examples from similar time periods and geographic regions, we start to see patterns. These patterns either confirm or debunk our design assumptions. By dedicating time to thorough fieldwork, we can ensure that our reconstructed buildings are as historically accurate as possible. We hope that by reconstructing buildings to this level of detail, we can provide the visitors to Montpelier the closest thing to an authentic experience as possible.
For more behind the scenes looks at the AHP team conducting fieldwork, follow @preserve_montpelier!
Elizabeth Sweeny, MA
Former Montpelier Architecture and Historic Preservation Specialist
Elizabeth Sweeny is a former architectural historian in the Architecture and Historic Preservation Department at Montpelier. Her research focuses on agency and identity as it is expressed through the built environment.