In a list of objectives and inquiries meant to guide and make profitable the European travel of two young Americans in 1788, Thomas Jefferson noted, "Architecture [is] worth great attention. As we double our numbers ever 20 years we must double our houses.... It is then among the most important arts: and it is desireable to introduce taste into an art which shews so much." Referring both to the large physical presence of architecture, as well as the ability of a structure to reveal its owner’s character, Jefferson articulates the telling relationship in eighteenth-century Virginia between architecture and construction of the self. In Prodigy Houses of Virginia: Architecture and the Native Elite, Barbara Burlison Mooney employs Jefferson’s theory to examine twenty-five great eighteenth-century Virginia mansions, and offer an analytical overview of Virginia’s elite residential architecture from a patronage perspective.

Though it focuses on architectural history, the book concerns itself less with issues of design and construction than with the social and cultural context in which the Virginia gentry commissioned their imposing dwellings. In her examination of such places as Stratford Hall, Carter’s Grove, and Gunston Hall—mansions whose grandeur has become synonymous with the image—if not the reality—of life in Colonial Virginia—Mooney illuminates the fortunes, motivations, and aspirations of the wealthy and powerful owners who built their "homes" with the objective of securing their status and impressing the public. In choosing to spend astonishing sums to provide themselves with grand houses that far exceeded their living requirements—in some cases, by a disastrous measure—the owners of these mansions advanced grand claims to social and political prestige.

Clearly and accessibly written, Prodigy Houses of Virginia will appeal not only to architectural and social historians of the Colonial period but also to the general reader interested in these mansions and the people who inhabited them.

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