I have been active in the VAF since its beginning in the late 1970s when I was still a graduate student. I have remained an active member because it has nourished my intellectual development by exposing me to some of the best scholars and research in the field and has made me less provincial-minded than I would have been otherwise. Early on, we sometimes saw ourselves as young iconoclasts who were eager to throw hand-made bricks through the glass walled boundaries of academic architectural history. Well maybe, but we certainly felt that we were uncovering a new world down every farm lane we traveled doing survey work for state historic preservation offices. Even as the VAF was in its infancy, there was the FFFB—colloquially known as the Friends of Friendless Farm Buildings, an informal gathering of surveyors from Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina who met periodically in Richmond, Williamsburg, and Annapolis to find out what lay in someone’s patch of the woods on the other side of the river and keen to establish what kind of buildings, materials, structural joints, and molding profiles we had in common and develop a set of drafting conventions. I became swept up in this group of prospectors that included Cary Carson, Bernie Herman, Ed Chappell, Willie Graham, Dell Upton, Orlando Ridout, perhaps a stray archaeologist or two, and others who shared this passion for discovery. The VAF allowed us to find that there were other like-minded folk beyond the Chesapeake.
I’ve attended every annual VAF conference since the first proto-conference at George Washington University in 1979 and over the past forty years have seen hundreds if not thousands of buildings in places that provide a nice contrast with the those in the Chesapeake where I have spent my career with my colleagues at Colonial Williamsburg. The highlight of those early years for me was the special tour that Abbott Cummings arranged for a number of us after the 1981 conference in Sturbridge. He showed us a number of those early framed houses that he had written about in his book published two years earlier. His boundless enthusiasm in explaining the structural details of these timber-framed buildings sparkled and made it one of the most delightful days in the field for all of us.
In the early years of the VAF, I was a member of the board when Abbott was the president and was involved in organizing the conference in Winston-Salem in 1982 and again for the Williamsburg in 2002 after a proposed site fell through at the last moment. I had the privilege to serve as the VAF president in the mid-1990s before there were cellphones, email, and a generous endowment to cover conference overruns and slip-ups. I’ve helped do the fieldwork for a number of others, including the Valley of Virginia in 1988, Charleston in 1994, Annapolis in 1998, Newport in 2001, Savannah in 2007, Durham in 2016, and Alexandria in 2018. At the heart of all the conferences have been the field tours, which over the years has allowed me to examine how and explore the reasons why regionalism (that all-embracing theme in American architecture) has manifest itself across the country. They have taken me to places that I would never have thought of going to such as St. Pierre and Miquelon, Butte, Fresno, Lawrence, Duluth, and points in between.
My involvement in the VAF has been repaid many times over by the friendships that I have made over the past forty years. These turned a budding professional organization into something more personal. I now have colleagues whom I can call on for advice or a spare bedroom when traveling. I have also watched with pride as many of them have become leading experts in preservation technology, influential teachers, and museum directors who have rewritten the history of our field of study.
I have taught seminar courses, surveys, and field schools at William and Mary for many years. During that time, I have enjoyed my interactions with students. If there is anything that we can pass on to those who follow is the fact that buildings tell many different kinds of stories about the past. I see that emerging out of the new scholarship presented each year in conference papers and the field guides. People are looking at buildings in ways that we didn’t even think of when I was starting out in the 1970s. That’s so rewarding—learning from my students and those younger scholars who have become VAF members over the past couple of decades. I think it was one of the reasons I accepted the job three years ago to become one of the co-editors of Buildings & Landscapes. I believed that I needed to be more fully engaged with this new scholarship. It has been rewarding and I catch glimpses of the same enthusiasm that motivated me in those early days to travel northward out of North Carolina to meet up with the FFFB, another group of young researchers eager to share their discoveries.