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Soldier, Statesman, Architect

"Rules of architecture are calculated, I presume to give symmetry and just proportion to all the Orders and parts of a building in order to please the eye. Small departures from strict rules are discoverable only by the skillful Architects, or by the eye of criticism."  George Washington, 1798

The term architect rarely appeared in colonial America and architects, in the modern sense of the word, did not appear until quite late in the 18th century. Instead of a formal design process carried out under the direction of a single professional, a number of different artisans combined their talents to create structures. In the absence of “architects” the final responsibility for a building’s design usually rested with the owner, often in concert with a “master builder” hired to oversee construction.

Architect (ar ki-tekt) n. 1. One who designs and supervises the construction of buildings or other large structures. 2. A planner or devisor. From the Greek arkitekton, master builder.

Washington drew his inspiration from a variety of sources. Perhaps most important were the homes and public structures, and their associated gardens and other landscape features, that he saw in his travels throughout Anglo-America. Washington was exposed to a wide range of building styles as a consequence of trips he made to Newport, Charleston, and Barbados, and from lengthy stays in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Williamsburg. English pattern books, which Washington appears to have consulted with regularity, were virtual catalogues of architectural elements, as well as contained practical information about the framing of buildings and other details of construction. Together these books, structures, and landscapes depicted the wide variety of aesthetic and stylistic options available to the ambitious builders of the period.

As a middle son, George Washington’s inheritance from his father was modest when measured against the estates of upper-class first-born sons. Those limited resources forced young Washington to embark on a professional career. Seeking both a steady income and social standing, he turned his talents to surveying, a profession that offered its practitioners a status and livelihood roughly equal to that of a doctor or lawyer. Appointed surveyor of Culpeper County at the age of 17, Washington completed his first survey within two days of his swearing in. Living and working on the frontiers of Virginia, Washington assisted on the survey of Lord Fairfax’s lands in the Shenandoah Valley and then helped to lay out the town of Alexandria, Virginia. With his keen eye and attention to detail, Washington soon became a skilled professional, completing nearly 200 surveys covering more than 60,000 acres of land by the time he was twenty. While Washington soon gave up surveying for other pursuits, the skills he developed -- a sense of proportion and scale and the ability to visualize complex relationships, in addition to draftsmanship – would serve him well in his later building projects.