© 2020 by Sheryl Davis.

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Lessons from An Architectural Timepiece in Rural Virginia

Updated: May 22, 2018

Today marks the beginning of Poplar Forest's annual Architectural History and Restoration Field School! It was one of the best learning experiences I could've ever hoped for as I began my journey in historic preservation. I always think fondly of it this time each year.


June 2009 - At the Col. William Cabell Home (c. 1791) known as Spring Hill or "Montezuma," in Norwood, Virginia, I was able to carefully reach back in time with my fellow classmates and professional mentors to "read" the story of this beautiful late-18th-century house (a notable example of Piedmont Virginia Federal architecture with potential Jeffersonian ties), one of the finest and few remaining from the remarkable collection of Cabell Family homes along the James River. The structure was in a rare, pristine form with having little modernization or minimally invasive means for electricity, indoor plumbing, heating and cooling. It was an architectural timepiece, an instrument of measuring time through the 200+ years of layers it kept. I felt transported and was so honored to be a part of documenting it for the first time. From our findings we published an historic structure report that was used in the selling of the home to owners who lovingly and sensitively restored it. The project was successfully completed in 2010 - 2011.

June 2009- Me at the Cabell home on the last evening of a long three-day documentation process.


Linking up the unique provenance of a building’s evolution is thrilling. It's the best and most rewarding kind of treasure hunt! My first real experience with this happened at the Cabell home. In the library room I opened the bottom door of the bookcase and with my flashlight caught the first traces of a printed crate. We were able to determine that the bookcase was made of crates from the honey dew melons the family sold during the Civil War!


When reflecting upon our finished report and then my own accounts, I'd learned that the details surrounding an intimate moment of real discovery like this one were a precious gift that would not necessarily be recounted in official reports for others to read but that which I'd always have for my own in connection to a suspended place and time. A detailed architectural report is payment for the “privilege of learning and using facts which no other man may ever have.” –Charles Peterson, father of the historic structure report. 


Below is my field school "diploma", a facsimile of Thomas Jefferson's drawings (plan and elevation) for his country retreat Poplar Forest with parting sentiments scribbled on by my classmates. -Sheryl