Treasures, eagles’ nests and the Queen: The life of Williamsburg architect Carlton Abbott

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Carlton Abbott stands beside a large-scale drawing he made called "Norfolk Docks." The drawing is hung in the Sentara Williamsburg Regional Medical Center off Mooretown Road. (Sarah Fearing/WYDaily)
Carlton Abbott stands beside a large-scale drawing he made called “Norfolk Docks.” The drawing is hung in the Sentara Williamsburg Regional Medical Center off Mooretown Road. (Sarah Fearing/WYDaily)

Williamsburg architect and artist Carlton Abbott stood quietly inside the Jamestown Archaearium, observing politicians and other elected officials out on the lawn through the building’s large, glass windows.

Abbott was excited, but he had not been able to tell anyone what was about to happen – not even his wife. He was going to meet the Queen.

Moments later, Queen Elizabeth II came into the room, built on the same soil as the first English settlement in the New World. Even more exciting, he was meeting the Queen in a building he had designed himself.

“So the Queen comes in and she was only scheduled to stay 12 minutes,” Abbott said. “But she stayed 48 minutes looking around. I shook her hand. She was with [former vice president] Dick Cheney, who asked me a lot about the building.”

Over 10 years after meeting the Queen and dozens of projects later, Abbott, 78, has focused his life around art and preservation, working closely with various federal, state and nonprofit agencies to design buildings and outdoor spaces to accompany – not destroy – nature.

His architectural projects span throughout the historic areas of Virginia – including the Yorktown Riverwalk Landing, Jamestown Archaearium and Colonial Williamsburg Visitor Center – but also stretch to Norfolk’s Ghent Square, Botanical Garden, and visitor center.

Abbott’s projects also have been built in Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina, and other areas of Virginia.

In the family

Art and architecture run in Abbott’s blood.

Abbott was born in Salem, Virginia, when his father, Stanley Abbott, served as superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway. During that time, his father supervised its construction.

Years later, the Abbott family moved to the Williamsburg area, where Abbott’s father became superintendent of the Colonial National Historical Park. There, he oversaw the construction of the Colonial Parkway from Williamsburg to Jamestown.

After Abbott graduated from the University of Virginia in 1963, he returned to Williamsburg and opened an architectural firm with his father, where they worked together for 10 years until his father’s death.

Carlton Abbott stands beside a large-scale drawing he made called "Norfolk Docks." The drawing is hung in the Sentara Williamsburg Regional Medical Center off Mooretown Road. (Sarah Fearing/WYDaily)
Carlton Abbott stands beside a large-scale drawing he made called “Norfolk Docks.” The drawing is hung in the Sentara Williamsburg Regional Medical Center off Mooretown Road. (Sarah Fearing/WYDaily)

“We worked on amazing things, many of them places that never got built,” he said. The duo worked on projects throughout the state, specializing in state and national parks.

Abbott continued to work out of an office on Duke of Gloucester Street in Colonial Williamsburg, which he closed about three years ago.

“One thing through my professional career, I’ve been a lot of places and built my inventory of knowledge,” Abbott said. “I’ve left little footprints in many places with my work.”

Nature

Much of Abbott’s work has focused on preserving nature and historical sites.

From eagles’ nests on Jamestown Island to battlefields, Abbott has molded his designs to not disrupt sensitive environments. His designs have required input from archaeologists and environmental groups and commissions.

“They’re very sensitive,” Abbott said. “You learn to thread the needle with all those constraints.”

His career has also occasionally turned up real-life treasures.

When Abbott was designing Chischiak Watch, a small neighborhood in Yorktown, he uncovered a brass belt buckle emblazoned with the number 23.

Later, after seeing the same buckle in a window in Colonial Williamsburg, Abbott discovered it was from a British unit that passed through Yorktown.

From painting and drawing to sculpture, jewelry-making, and more, Carlton Abbott, 78, has found success in many mediums. (Courtesy photo/Nancy Abbott)
From painting and drawing to sculpture, jewelry-making, and more, Carlton Abbott, 78, has found success in many mediums. (Courtesy photo/Nancy Abbott)

Versatility

Abbott’s passions don’t just end with architecture.

From painting and drawing to sculpture, jewelry-making, and more, Abbott has found success in many mediums.

His artwork is displayed at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art in Richmond and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Virginia Beach.

Among dozens of architecture and art awards, the 78-year-old has also written or co-written five books and is working on more, he said.

“The reason I did artwork was so I could do something today, have it finished, and exercise my creative talent,” Abbott said. “Architecture – you can’t just get it done overnight.”

Recognition

Abbott recently won the 50 for 50 Arts Inspiration Award for his work.

The award was given by the Virginia Commission for the Arts to an artist who has “played an exemplary, visionary and critical role in Virginia as ‘Arts Inspirations,’” according to a commission for the arts news release.

Abbott was recognized in the “outstanding artists” category for using his “talents to benefit” Virginians.

“It came to me as a surprise,” Abbott said. “I didn’t know I’d been nominated by the local affiliate of the commission of the arts.”

From painting and drawing to sculpture, jewelry-making, and more, Carlton Abbott, 78, has found success in many mediums. (Courtesy photo/Nancy Abbott)
From painting and drawing to sculpture, jewelry-making, and more, Carlton Abbott, 78, has found success in many mediums. (Courtesy photo/Nancy Abbott)

For Abbott, the award recognizes artistic contributions to the community; not necessarily paintings or sculptures, but, instead, a support and push for the arts in the region.

“I think art, for any person, is really very constructive,” he said. “There are just so many

As part of the award, Abbott’s artwork will be displayed at the Stryker Center in Williamsburg from September through the end of November.

The display includes Abbott’s drawing, “Norfolk Docks,” which is now hung on the first floor of Sentara Williamsburg Regional Medical Center.

For now, Abbott plans to continue creating – whatever medium it might be.

“You learn from everything you do. You learn from materials, the people you work with. It’s a changing slideshow, you might say, and I’ve loved doing it.”

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