The design principles associated with the Ecole des Beaux-Arts subtly shaped the manner in which a generation of architects viewed the architectural heritage of America's colonial past. Trained to appreciate and emulate the classical detailing, proportion, symmetrical balance, and axiality that they saw in the Georgian architecture of early America, they failed to understand fully the cultural context and social and economic circumstances that produced these buildings. A conflict between fundamental classical ideals and historical reality arose when architects became involved in the restoration and reconstruction of colonial houses and public buildings in the early part of the 20th century. This is clearly illustrated in one of the largest restoration projects ever undertaken in America: the task of restoring and recreating hundreds of early structures in the colonial city of Williamsburg, Virginia. Executing this project was the Boston firm of Perry, Shaw, & Hepburn. In reconstructing the first capitol building in the late 1920s and early 1930s, they ran up against historical evidence that challenged many of their preconceived notions of colonial design. Although the final result is a testament to the architects' skills in handling 18th-century detailing, the capitol now stands as a monument to the near past and tells us as much about the influence of Beaux-Arts design principles on the restoration of Williamsburg as about the architecture of the colonial period.
- Copyright 1990 The Society of Architectural Historians