by Harley Cowan
I am an architect by profession but an interest in film photography led to a research fellowship in HABS/HAER photo documentation. I attended University of Oregon’s Preservation Field School in 2017 and have been a historic preservation groupie ever since. I have worked with historians and preservationists to document and interpret heritage sites in the Northwest as well as lecture and demonstrate large format photography. Then in May, thanks to the Access Award, I traveled from Oregon to Virginia to attend my first VAF conference.
My wife Carrie is an elementary school teacher and the true history buff in our house. I did not do myself any favors by posting the riverboat journey and the evening reception at Mount Vernon on Instagram. Upon my return to Oregon, let’s just say that I was lucky to find that the locks on my house had not been changed. Next time, I doubt I will be headed to the conference alone.
I had never spent time in an American city with the sheer density of built history that was present in Alexandria--haunts of the founding fathers, people from history lessons, at every turn. And I appreciated the degree of access we were afforded, in what I understand to be true VAF nature, climbing into the attic of an apothecary or a crawling around the cellar of a tavern, seeing methods of construction, touching brick and timbers. Certainly as an architect, it was a pleasure to go behind the scenes. But more than that, it made the history lessons and those people real, palpable. The VAF conference is a marathon, full of content; with each event, at every bus stop, upon rounding each corner, we encountered the breadth and depth of American experience.
One warm evening, Sotterley Plantation encapsulated all of this, with its collection of fine and ordinary facilities spanning three centuries. We dined in the barn, walked through the fields and gardens, past farm sheds and corn cribs, a gatehouse, an outhouse, a smokehouse. I was glad that we had the luxury of time, to sit in the sun and watch it set, feel the air cool, and be present. It was a chance to wonder about the people who lived here and worked the plantation. What was this place like for them?
It is difficult to pack all of that into a single frame, but for me this photograph of the stair railing in the main house comes close. It is one character defining feature of the house, a privilege of wealth, class, and taste. Its design and craftsmanship are exquisite. Intricate in its detail and compound curvature, its method of fastening or joinery is wholly invisible.
Even less evident though is that this railing is the product of slave labor. Literally a shout away in the gulley next to this beautiful house is a humble slave quarters, no more than perhaps a hundred-fifty square feet, dirt floor, low ceiling, with a narrow, scrap lumber ladder to the sleeping room in the attic space above. As many as nineteen people, owned by the plantation, lived in this structure.
After the tours, the paper sessions, and the energetic, sometimes heated discussions that followed, my impression is that this is what makes VAF special: it’s for people who want the whole picture.