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Obituary: Orlando Ridout

by Anne E. Bruder | May 09, 2013

Orlando Ridout, an architectural historian of the buildings and cultural landscapes in the Chesapeake, died on April 6 in Annapolis, Maryland.  His career could be summed up by something Henry Glassie once said, “books may not tell us, but buildings always will.”[1]  He graduated from the University of Virginia in 1977 with a B.A. in Architectural History.  That year, Orlando returned to Maryland and began his career as an architectural historian by conducting the survey of Queen Anne’s County’s buildings.  This formed the basis for the Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties, which is the state’s inventory of historic buildings.  When Maryland architectural historians use those forms for a National Register of Historic Places eligibility determination, they do not need any revisions.  We have always been able to depend on his thorough and careful building descriptions and assessments of what he saw forty years ago. 

Orlando was someone who looked long and hard at buildings because he understood that while the archival record was helpful, the building would always tell him more.  He used the evidence he found on-site to talk about how the buildings of the Chesapeake had been constructed and used.  He was most interested in the buildings of the “middling” colonial farmer, such as the eighteenth century Queen Anne’s County (MD) tenant farmer who promised a portion of his tobacco crop the following November in return for assistance from the landowner.  As Orlando observed in his most recent publication, The Chesapeake House, (Cary Carson and Carl Lounsbury, 2013), this was not someone who would leave any directly written records of himself or the farm’s buildings for posterity.  Given the nature of the buildings, it was left to the willing architectural historian to travel to the smaller farms to find forgotten outbuildings that would help tell the unheard story of the majority of the local eighteenth century population.

Orlando was a founding member of the Vernacular Architecture Forum (VAF), when the organization started as “The Friends of Friendless Farm Buildings,” in the late 1970s.  Orlando had grown up on a farm outside of Annapolis, Maryland, and had watched as the farms disappeared when they were converted to suburban housing developments in the 1960s.  His seminal 1982 paper, “Re-editing the Past:  A Comparison of Surviving Physical and Documentary Evidence,” helped us understand that the people who had populated the Chesapeake region had not been just the wealthy but also the ordinary farmers whose outbuildings in all their variety stood as testimony to the hard work and survival skills necessary to succeed in the eighteenth century in the Chesapeake.  Orlando was working on revisions to the “1798 Lecture” as he called “Re-editing the Past” when he died, but including it in a forthcoming publication has been proposed.

One of his publications, Building the Octagon (1989), was the result of his structural investigations regarding William Thornton’s design for John Tayloe III’s townhouse in 1799.  The book was part of the Octagon House Museum’s exhibition about the house in 1989, and he received the VAF’s Abbott Lowell Cummings Award in 1990 for his analysis.  Orlando also presented his work about the Octagon House in 1990 at the Society of Architectural Historians’ annual meeting. 

Orlando taught at George Washington University.  The catalog described his field methods course as an “exploration of research methods based on building fabric and physical landscape rather than published archival sources,” and students should plan to “work in the field.”  His students remember hot days in tobacco barns or cold ones in a house’s attic and recall Orlando’s rigorous engagement of the building’s fabric while processing the information to make a cogent argument for the design and significance.  In the late 1990s when Orlando purchased part of Ridout Row in Annapolis and invited friends to look at the building as it was investigated and restored. 

He mentored many of us in our careers in the Chesapeake.  A quick question could turn into an hour-long discussion of the building’s history and help spark that same rigorous engagement in the questioner.  What will last for those of us who worked with him is his kindness and willingness to share what he knew.  Fulfilling his legacy will be that rigorous engagement of any building that we encounter. 

Anne E. Bruder, Senior Architectural Historian, Maryland State Highway Administration

[1] Henry Glassie, “Eighteenth-Century cultural Process in Delaware Valley Folk Building,” Dell Upton and John Vlach, eds., Common Places: Readings in American Vernacular Architecture, Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1986, pp. 394-425


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