Louis P. Nelson

Professor; Vice Provost for Academic Outreach

Personal Website

Louis Nelson is Professor of Architectural History and the Vice Provost for Academic Outreach in the Office of the Provost. He is a specialist in the built environments of the early modern Atlantic world, with published work on the American South, the Caribbean, and West Africa. His current research engages the spaces of enslavement in West Africa and in the Americas, working to document and interpret the buildings and landscapes that shaped the trans-Atlantic slave trade. He has a second collaborative project working to understand the University of Virginia as a landscape of slavery. Nelson is an accomplished scholar, with two book-length monographs published by UNC and Yale University Presses, three edited collections of essays, two terms as senior co-editor of Buildings and Landscapes--the leading English language venue for scholarship on vernacular architecture--and numerous articles. He is also a celebrated teacher, having won a university-wide teaching award in 2007 and serving as the 2008 UVA nominee for a state-wide Outstanding Faculty Award. Nelson's teaching and research focuses on the close examination of evidence-both material and textual-as a means of interrogating the ways architecture shapes the human experience. The majority of his work focuses on the early American South, the Greater Caribbean, and the Atlantic rim. His early work on colonial religious architecture is best realized in his monograph, The Beauty of Holiness: Anglicanism and Architecture in Colonial South Carolina (UNC, 2008). Winner of the 2010 SESAH Best Book of the Year Prize, The Beauty of Holiness examines the ways Anglican churches in colonial South Carolina-the nexus of many social landscapes-express regional identity, social politics, and divergent theologies of the sacred. "Sensing the Sacred: Anglican Material Religion in Early South Carolina," published in the Winterthur Portfolio, was also recognized for its contributions to the field of architectural history; it was named the 2008 SESAH best article of the year. His interest in the colonial South then led him past the "sacred 13" colonies. For a decade her served as the director of a summer field program in Falmouth, Jamaica, popularly referred to as the Falmouth Field School. One by product of this work is the Falmouth Project, a GIS-based data information system used as a repository for ongoing work in Falmouth. Working together with more than one hundred students over more than 10 years, his fieldwork in Jamaica and the Leeward Islands has resulted in some of the first systematic recording of eighteenth and nineteenth-century architecture in the British Caribbean.

In the summer of 2011, Nelson chaired the annual meeting of the Vernacular Architecture Forum in Falmouth. His commitment to the value of the object as evidence and the necessity for first-hand examination of the built environment has resulted in numerous trips with graduate students across the American South and the Caribbean.  Working together with archaeologists, Nelson is interested in using buildings to explore Afro-Caribbean culture through the transition from slavery to freedom. The work of the decade-long Falmouth Field School in Historic Preservation has recently appeared in Falmouth, Jamaica: Architecture as History, a volume published by the University of the West Indies Press. In addition to individual short illustrated student-generated essays on nearly 100 buildings in the community, this collection introduces the history of the town, the significance of its architecture, and the complicated impact of heritage tourism on its preservation. His most recent book, Architecture and Empire in Jamaica (Yale University Press), an intensive examination of the architecture of the island, has been awarded the  2017 John Brickerhoff Jackson Prize and the 2017 Abbott Lowell Cummings Prize. Framed around the themes of violence, empire, and identity, the book's nine chapters carefully investigate the power of architecture in everyday life and Jamaica's place in the burgeoning British empire of the eighteenth century. 

With the examination of Jamaica now published in two volumes, Nelson is turning his research and writing interests to the maritime edges of the Atlantic, examining the southern American colonies as a componet of the interconnected early modern Atlantic rim ranging from West Africa to the Caribbean and the port cities of Britain. His current research interests are best exemplified in his recent article, "Architectures of West African Enslavement," winner of the 2015 Bishir Prize for excellence in Vernacular Architecture and Cultural Landscapes. Appearing in Buildings and Landscapes, this article examines the spaces that collectively produced the commodity of "the slave." His work to document and preserve spaces of enslavement in Africa has led to his work in partnership with Sites of Conscience at the House of the Slaves in Senegal. Listeners can find a radio interview about his work here

He is also coeditor of a forthcoming volume on the spaces of slavery at Thomas Jefferson's Academical Village and has been a vocal supporter of the intiative to erect a monument to the Univeristy's enslaved populations; for a brief public speech on this subject see this video. In the Fall of 2015 he taught an intensive Field Methods course on the spaces at the University for this project. 

But Nelson's research scope is wide-ranging. He has also edited, together with Maurie McInnis, Shaping the Body Politic: Art and Political Formation in Early America (Virginia, 2011) an examination of the role of visual culture in the formation of a national body politic.  And he is also engaged in research and teaching on theories and practices of sacred space. In this field, he has published American Sanctuary: Understanding Sacred Spaces (Indiana, 2006), a collection of essays that examines the place of the sacred in the American landscape and a number of articles and essays in scholarly journals.

Nelson's courses include World Vernacular Architecture, Early American Architecture, Sacred Space, Field Methods in Historic Preservation, and Arts and Cultures of the Slave South, among others.