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Slave House Architectural Drawings

Enslaved people were multi-dimensional, complex human beings like you and me. They were mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, daughters and sons. They had families and family is what gives us strength, no matter how you define your family. Their families lived in houses like our families do, making a slave house like every other American home – a sacred place.

On the surface slave houses appear to be simple, straightforward buildings. But upon close examination you find that they are actually as complex as the people inside. A slave house was where family was, so it was a place where enslaved people found strength and comfort from one another; but at the same time, it was a place that imposed physical limitations and psychological trauma. A slave house simultaneously embodies suffering, yet perseverance and strong family bonds. Extant slave houses show us that even though enslaved people were given inadequate resources to build their homes with enslaved carpenters knew how to build their houses so that aesthetically they were within the accepted social hierarchies of slavery, but at the same time they were inconspicuously constructed with the finest craftsmanship. Enslaved builders used the details in buildings as hidden messages of resistance, strength and perseverance. They incorporated survival mechanisms into the architecture, discretely showed off their unrivaled carpentry skills, and left behind personal signatures. When designing a slave houses all of these elements must be incorporated into the design in a way that is appropriate for each specific site.

Design Process:

Research and Analysis

  • Review all known documentary and archaeological (if available) evidence that may be relevant to the proposed recreated slave house.
  • Use the documentary and archaeological evidence to place the dwellings into a regional and temporal context that can be used to identify similar structures from the surviving architectural and documentary record.
  • Survey regional precedent sites with extant slave houses. Ideally ten (10) sites would be surveyed and one full day (10 hours) would be allowed at each site to collect information.

Architectural Drawings

  • Produce construction document level drawings including plans, elevations, building sections, and details of the doors, windows, hardware and select framing members.
  • Any design challenges, such as those presented by archaeological evidence, will be resolved using an interdisciplinary approach that utilizes historic building techniques and materials, attention to detail and a deep understanding of the skills of enslaved workers.
  • If the slave house is being built the architectural drawings will be coordinated with all other construction team members such as contractors, structural engineers and stone masons.

Sample Reconstruction Projects:

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello: “Hemmings Cabin.” The recreation included a mud and log chimney and a subfloor pit.

Mulberry Row “servants-houses”
Hemings Family Tour
Slavery at Monticello Tour

James Madison’s Montpelier: South Yard Slave Houses.

Montpelier Tours
Montpelier’s Enslaved Community

James Madison’s Montpelier: Field Quarter Site 1, Slave House.

Log Cabin Workshop

Onsite Consultation & Evaluation

The primary goal for an onsite consultation and evaluationof a slave house is to examine the existing structure to identify surviving physical evidence within the building that provide clues as to how it was used historically. Specifically, changes made to the building, an estimated timeframe for these modifications and possible variations in function associated with these physical alterations to the structure. Close attention is payed to architectural features, physical details, incidental details and personal markings (if any) that indicate that the building was used as a living space and that can help put the building into historical context. This examination may require doing some selective demolition of modern materials if a significant amount of the original building is hidden behind modern additions. In this case I will work with a local contractor of your choosing to identify the best areas and methods for selective demolition.

Onsite fieldwork also involves documentation of the structure which includes: creating sketches with critical detail measurements and notes; photographically documenting the current conditions of the structure; recording architectural information and collecting GIS coordinates of all relevant structures; and taking overall measurements.

In addition to examining and analyzing the construction and physical details of the structure documentary research, and when available archaeology, needs to be completed in order to get a complete picture of how and why the building functioned historically and the impact it had on the people living inside. Construction and physical details, incidental details and personal markings (such as carvings and drawings), ex-slave narratives, plantation management records, census data, tax documents, Bills of Sale and probate records are all used to interpret a space. Details from these sources provide insight about the number of people who lived in each house and for what length of time. Plantation management records are used to interpret quality of life situations for enslaved people. “Slave Rolls” list the names of individual people and help humanize the people who lived and worked in these buildings. Birth records provide ages of individuals and sometimes parentage, as well as shed light on breeding strategies. Records of work schedules, food rations and clothes, cloth and shoe distributions are used to interpret what activities took place outside the slave houses, what was cooked in the hearths and personal chores that had to be done within the house in order to survive.

Because each project will have its own budget and timeline restraints, I offer different options for the Onsite Consultation & Evaluation services:

Option 1: Building Condition Assessment

Building Condition Assessment (Option 1): For Option 1 only an onsite evaluation of the structure will be completed without any supplemental archival research. Therefore, the final product is limited to only a building condition assessment report.

Option 2: Condition Assessment & Historical Context

Condition Assessment & Historical Context (Option 2): Option 2 includes an onsite evaluation of the structure and some supplemental archival research. The archival research will be limited in scope to only the documents you provide to me. The final product for this option is a building condition assessment and my conclusions on how the building was used historically based on the physical evidence and selective documentary research.

Option 3: Condition Assessment & Historical Context & Interpretation

Condition Assessment & Historical Context & Interpretation (Option 3): This the recommended option and yields the most insightful and interdisciplinary results. For this option the archival research will include the documents you provide me, but also allow me to do my own research and utilize unconventional resources. If available archaeology will be completed at the site and the findings will be considered during the analysis. The report will discuss my conclusions on how the building was used historically based on the physical evidence, documentary research, archaeological evidence (if applicable) and a comparative analysis with similar structures and similar living arrangements for enslaved people. And finally, the structure will be put into historical context and there will be a discussion on how it compares to other documented regional precedent sites.

Fieldwork: Slave House Surveys

The purpose of fieldwork is to shed light on questions such as: How many slave houses exist? What condition are they in today? What can they tell us about the people who lived there? What insight can they provide about the people who built them? And how can they assist with preservation efforts?

A primary goal of fieldwork is to expand our understanding of the emotional and physical impacts slave houses had on human beings. There is no substitute for standing in a slave house and visualizing the space and how it was used by the actual enslaved inhabitants who lived and worked there. Large scale fieldwork involves: identifying and locating existing slave houses; gaining permission from property owners to survey the slave house(s) on their property; photographically documenting the current conditions of the surviving structures; recording architectural information and collect GIS coordinates of relevant structures; and taking measurements.

Interpretation Consulting

Slavery is ingrained in the national psyche of the continental United States. It is decisive and complex with compelling and tragic consequences. It can be personally and collectively difficult to acknowledge, assimilate and accept accountability for slavery. An authentic portrayal of slavery in our nation’s history has the potential to further collective growth toward cultural self actualization and allow us to build on a momentum for change to the benefit of all. It honors the undeniable and immeasurable contribution of enslaved people to our country’s success and gives disenfranchised people a voice.

Interpretation of slave house architecture, in combination with details from the historical record and stories from actual inhabitants, offers an opportunity to more fully understand and authentically interpret the lifeways and settings of an enslaved people in America. It is critical to interpret a slave house from the inside out, revealing the sacred space in which the enslaved could exercise some degree of control over their lives.

This process should be a dialogue that includes all stakeholders (when possible) including: the hosting museum/organization, descendants, and scholars. The primary goals for interpretation consulting are to identify:

  1. Messages/Themes,
  2. Platforms,
  3. Timelines,
  4. Resources and
  5. Methods for sustaining an interpretive program and when/how to update it.

The final product is set by the needs of the client.


The typical presentation is an overview of slave house research, slave narratives, fieldwork efforts, and new methods of interpretation, but the presentation can be customized. Presentations are given as PowerPoint presentation, last for 45-60 minutes and includes a Q&A session.