The Rappahannock Region's Architecture: Part 2: Forgotten Cottages

Old postcard view of the Mary Washington HouseThe big brick mansions such as Kenmore, Gunston Hall, and Carter's Grove grab the attention of most tourists to the Old Dominion but equally historic if considerably less lauded are the clapboard, plaster, and brick cottages that were homes and gathering places for everyday people in colonial Virginia towns. This type of architecture, often called vernacular architecture, springs from traditional, practical building methods and the use of abundant local materials.


Some common features of Southern cottages were:

Floors: the earliest and simplest would have had a dirt floor. Later, wood might have been used. Typically, early cottages were two rooms wide and one room deep.

Exterior walls: A frame of wood was filled in with plaster or brick nogging (rough brick masonry). Weatherboards might be added for additional protection.

Roofs: shingles would most often be made of hand-cut wood. Early cottages might have roofs thatched with rushes or other grassy materials. Many of these thatched cottages have had their roofs replaced with tin. Most often it would be a steeply-pitched gable roof. The simplest cottages would not have had dormer windows (link), but later they were included to give the upper half-story extra light.

Fireplaces: unlike more northerly cottages which might have the fireplace central to the house, the better to heat both rooms, residents of southern climes were concerned with maintaining a breezeway—a passage between rooms to make the most of summer breezes. Large chimneys therefore would be located on the far walls of the cottages.

Shutters: essential in the early cottages which lacked glass windows.

Where to See Colonial Cottages

Originals are scarce but not impossible to find in most towns with a past dating to the 1700s. No original Virginia cottages survive from the first half of the 17th century. However, there are some ones to see from the latter half, and Jamestown has created reproductions of earlier cottages at their site.

The Starter Cottages

Like Western homesteaders in later times, it was necessary for settlers to build quickly on the land they acquired from the British government to retain title during the colonial period. These cottages served as sturdy, reasonably comfortable living quarters for both gentlemen and tradesmen.

In Fredericksburg, several cottages still visible today were remade into more spacious quarters as colonial bachelors married and started families. The St. James House began life as a gentleman's cottage, owned by both George Washington and his brother-in-law Fielding Lewis, but was it was expanded when fellow patriot James Mercer bought the property and wanted more spacious quarters for his family. Likewise, the Charles Dick House, now expanded and serving as a charming bed and breakfast, was once a simple building whose additions enabled it to increase its usefulness.

Nearby, the Mary Washington House—the last home of George's mother—followed the simple cottage design. And indeed it was a two-room craftsman's cottage when he purchased it for her in 1772. But her son significantly improved it for her. He made it more spacious both inside and out. After her death in 1789, the house and its furnishings fell into other hands. It served as a boy's school, was expanded to accommodate its new function, and eventually fell into the care of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities.

Old postcard view of the Rising Sun TavernThe old postcard view of the Rising Sun Tavern, minus the signature porch, shows its colonial structure more plainly. Built in 1760 by Charles Washington, brother to George, it was used as a residence and later as a tavern.

Miles away in Tidewater proper, Yorktown's Philip Lightfoot House (not to be confused with his much larger house in Williamsburg) dates to the early 1700s, and its history is a good example of how cottages were adapted to their times. This brick cottage is now used as office space by the National Park Service at Yorktown. During the Civil War, it had a frame extension added so that it could serve as housing for Union soldiers. After the war, the extra space allowed the structure to be used as a hotel. The addition was removed in the 1930s. The expansion of simple cottages to more commodious dwellings was a common feature in Virginia architecture. In addition to the Philip Lightfoot House, the Archer cottage is the only early structure surviving near the wharf area—although it, too, was rebuilt after a fire in 1814.

Images in this article come from Dee Scott's postcard collection, available to browse at Ms. Scott has also written numerous books on the Fredericksburg area and its residents.

Books on Early Virginia Vernacular Architecture
Books marked with an asterisk (*) are available to read in our Virginiana Room. The others may be reserved by our patrons for check out at any of our branches.

American Colonial: Puritan Simplicity to Georgian Grace by Wendell Garrett

Home Building and Woodworking in Colonial America by C. Keith Wilbur

*Tidewater Towns: City Planning in Colonial Virginia and Maryland by John W. Reps

*Virginia Architecture in the Seventeenth Century by Henry Chandlee Forman

Online Resources:The Hugh Mercer Apothecary Shop

Architecture in Virginia ... from Virginia, A Guide to the Old Dominion (1940)

The Architecture of New England and the Southern Colonies as it Reflects the Changes in Colonial Life

Colonial Historic Sites and Buildings: Williamsburg

Colonial Williamsburg Carpenters Construct Buildings of the Past

Colonial Williamsburg: Carpentry Tools

The Frontier Culture Museum of Virginia

Historic American Building Survey: Virginia Catalog

Notions of Comfort in the Early Colonial Chesapeake

JSTOR Articles
The Central Rappahannock Regional Library subscribes to the JSTOR database of scholarly journals. These articles are available to our in-house and remote patrons via the Articles & Databases page. You just need your CRRL barcode to access the articles. 

Building in Wood in the Eastern United States: A Time-Place Perspective, by Fred Kniffen; Henry Glassie Geographical Review © 1966 American Geographical Society

Carpentry in the Southern Colonies during the Eighteenth Century with Emphasis on Maryland and Virginia, by Peter C. Marzio Winterthur Portfolio © 1972 Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, Inc.

"In Happier Mansions, Warm, and Dry": The Invention of the Cottage as the Comfortable Anglo-American House, by John E. Crowley Winterthur Portfolio © 1997 Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, Inc.

Vernacular Domestic Architecture in Eighteenth-Century Virginia, by Dell Upton Winterthur Portfolio © 1982 Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, Inc.