Nicholas Lewis House – Charlottesville, Virginia

Michael Bednar, School of Architecture

University of Virginia, February, 2002

Site and Landscape

 

In 1735, Nicholas Meriwether obtained patents from King George III to approximately 19,000 acres in Albemarle County east of Charlottesville. One parcel of 1020 acres was located west of the Rivanna River, the area which now is the Locust Grove and Belmont neighborhoods. It became known as “The Farm” because it was the one cleared area in a virgin forest.[1]

 

A main house and out buildings were built at “The Farm” on the hill facing the river to the east. The house burned after a couple of decades. Nicholas Lewis, grandson of Meriwether, inherited the property in 1762 and built another main house facing the river around 1770.  It was described as a place of beauty surrounded by a garden of roses, shrubs and fine fruit. It could have been built on or near the foundations for the first house. A listing in The Mutual Assurance Society of Virginia records from 1805 may describe the house.[2] It was a wooden dwelling two stories high, 48 feet long and 22 feet wide. There is an active spring down the hill a couple of hundred yards to the south.  All that remains is the kitchen or cook’s house. It now is in the middle of a middle class housing subdivision facing Twelfth Street. It is still surrounded by mature hardwood trees and retains its view of Monticello. Nicholas Lewis was buried on his property in a cemetery on a hilltop overlooking the river where his gravestone says January 19, 1734 to December 8, 1808.

 

 

 All that remains of "The Farm" is the kitchen or cook’s house. It is now in the middle of a middle class housing subdivision facing Twelfth Street. It is still surrounded by mature hardwood trees and retains its view of Monticello. 

Primitive oil painting of Lewis House (west side circa 1970)

(Collection of Michael Bednar)

Architectural Description

 

The present structure is an example of pre-Revolutionary vernacular, utilitarian architecture. It is the kitchen out building or cook’s house for either the Nicholas Meriwether  Plantation (1735) or the Nicholas Lewis Plantation (1770). Initially, it was a two-room, one-story, hall and parlor type house with two outside chimneys. It is built of hand made brick laid in American bond with varying coursing. The roof rafters are pit sawn with mortise and tenon joints with pegs and no ridge board.[3] The most prominent feature of the exterior is the huge double ramp chimney on the south side, characteristic of early Virginia houses.  The cornice is decorated with modillions formed out of bricks brought forward from the wall plane. The interior features a large cooking fireplace with a flanking bread oven.

 

Sometime during the middle of the 19th century, it was enlarged by extending the walls higher and rebuilding the roof to create a second floor. Perhaps this was done when Thomas L. Farish bought the property and added to the Davis House. A stair was added to reach the two additional rooms under the sloping roof. A small fireplace was added in each of the upstairs rooms.

 

In 1826, John A. G. Davis built his grand house 80 feet to the south of the Lewis House. In 1832, he acquired the Lewis property and probably used the structure as a summer kitchen and slave quarters as indicated by the remnants of a walkway between the two houses. When Thomas L. Farish acquired the property in 1848, he probably used the structure for the same purposes.

 

In 1909, George R. B. Michie bought the property from the Farish family and used the structure as an out building for his small farm, possibly to house horses as indicated in photographs from the 1920s. When he died in 1938, his widow Haidee Michie had the house remodeled as shown in drawings dated Sept. 15, 1939 by associated architects Charles Baker and Henderson Heyward. A small one room one story addition was built on the north side; there was a roofed sleeping porch on the second floor. The interior was remodeled with a bathroom and two bedrooms on the second floor, a living room, dining room, study, utility room and kitchen on the first floor. Old paneling on the second floor ceilings and the south bedroom walls was retained. New paneling was added in the Study. Handsome wood plank and batten doors were added on the exterior and interior. The exposed brick walls in the living room were retained along with the exposed floor joists. A new stair was added with flat cut-out balusters. The east elevation was extensively changed by adding two eyebrow dormers with casement windows on the second floor and two sets of four panel French doors on the first floor. All new window sash was installed.

 

Charles Lupton owned the house from 1949-1952 before it was acquired by Eugene Beagle, Charlottesville postmaster. He added a garage utilizing brick walls from an earlier out building. He also enclosed the breezeway between the garage and house.

Aluminum siding and window trim was added to cover all exterior wood surfaces. All exterior doors and windows also received aluminum storm panels.

 

The house deteriorated until the end of the century when it was acquired by architect Michael Bednar in the year 2000. The exterior metal roof and brick walls were repaired and painted. The interior was also repaired and painted. New bathroom fixtures and kitchen cabinets were added. The chimneys were relined. The most extensive change was the addition of a new floor to the living room to replace the decayed old one. Random width, tongue and groove longleaf heart pine, from the 1894 Merchants Cold Storage Warehouse in Providence, Rhode Island was nailed to two layers of plywood which were “floated” on the existing concrete slab.

 

The Nicholas Lewis House iss listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

 

View from the east, 1926

(Prints Collection, The Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia Library)

View from the west, 1926

(Prints Collection, The Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia Library)

Living Room before restoration (Michael Bednar)
 
 

Living Room after restoration (Michael Bednar)

Historical Background

 

The first plantation house was built by Nicholas Meriwether about 1735 where he died in 1744. Sometime before the Revolutionary War, the house burned and Col. Nicholas Lewis, grandson and heir of Meriwether, built a second main house which has since disappeared. Colonel Nicholas Lewis (1728-1807) (uncle of the famous explorer Meriwether Lewis) was a surveyor who served in several public roles including sheriff, surveyor and magistrate.[4] The 1782 tax records indicate he owned 33 slaves, 80 cattle and 17 horses.[5] His   neighbor and friend Thomas Jefferson paid tribute to him in his writings for bravery in fighting the Cherokee Indians in 1776:[6]

 

“This member of the Lewises, whose bravery was so usefully proved on this occasion, was endeared to all who knew him by his inflexible probity, courteous disposition, benevolent heart, and engaging modesty and manners. He was the umpire of all the private differences of his county, selected always by both parties.”

 

As a neighbor and trusted friend, Thomas Jefferson entrusted Nicholas Lewis with his financial affairs while he was minister to France in 1787.[7]

 

Col. Lewis married Mary Walker (1742-1824) in 1758, the eldest daughter of Dr. Thomas Walker of Castle Hill. She was a splendid nurse who cared for both the wounded British and American soldiers in her home. A British officer who died became the first grave in the Lewis family cemetery.[8]

 

In late April of 1781, British General Charles Cornwallis moved his army from North Carolina into Virginia and occupied Richmond. Thomas Jefferson was governor of Virginia and ordered the legislature to leave the city and reconvene in Charlottesville.

Cornwallis sent his young cavalry officer, Col. Banastre Tarleton (The Green Dragoon) and a detachment of green jacketed horsemen to pursue and capture the governor and legislature. The force of 250 men left Richmond on June 3, 1781. They stopped to rest in Louisa and then again at Castle Hill, the ancestral home of Mrs. Nicholas Lewis. The following morning, they thwarted a militia force at the Rivanna River and stormed into Charlottesville burning goods and seizing firearms.[9] Tarleton dispatched Captain McLeod to Monticello who arrived just after Jefferson had escaped. Monticello was left unharmed.

 

Jack Jouett, a militiaman and Albemarle native saw Tarleton’s detachment passing through Louisa and immediately realized their intention. He mounted his horse and set off in the night for Charlottesville to warn the Governor of the approaching British dragoons. Arriving at Monticello at 4:30 am, he awoke Jefferson. Then he went into Charlottesville to warn the town of the approaching British forces. Jefferson and members of the legislature managed a narrow escape. Jefferson’s opponents considered this episode an example of his lack of leadership and cowardice for not confronting the enemy.[10]

 

Col. Tarleton and his dragoons camped the night of June 4, 1781 in Charlottesville at “The Farm”. There they imprisoned in the coalhouse one delegate who did not escape, namely Captain Daniel Boone. Tarleton and his men rode up to the house through the rose garden and exclaimed to Mrs. Lewis, “What a paradise!”  She retorted, “Then why do you disturb it!”[11] Mrs. Lewis was hostess to Col. Tarleton, and ever after preserved the chair (originally Meriwether’s) he had used. When they left the next morning, his soldiers took her flock of ducks. She ordered a servant to take the veteran drake to Tarleton with her compliments since it was no longer of use to her. After this episode, she became known as “Capt. Moll.”[12]

Plaque on the Nicholas Lewis House (Michael Bednar)

Portriat of Col. Banastre Tarleton

(Prints Collection, The Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia Library)

Endnotes

 

[1] Woods, Edgar, Albemarle County in Virginia, Charlottesville, The Michie Company, 1901, p. 270-271

[2] Mutual Assurance Society of Virginia, 1796-1867 Policy Index, Special Collections, Alderman Library, University of Virginia, Albemarle Reel 4

[3] Lay, K. Edward, Architecture of Jefferson Country, Charlottesville, University Press of Virginia,  2000, p. 50

[4] Woods, op. cit., p. 252

[5] Magazine of the Albemarle Historical Society, Volume 23, p. 43

[6] Bergh, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson Volume 18, pp. 140-142

[7] Malone, Dumas, Jefferson and the Rights of Man, Boston, Little Brown & Company, 1951, p. 204

[8] Meriwether, Nelson Heath, The Meriwethers and Their Connections, Baltimore, Gateway Press, reprinted in 1991, p. 520

[9] Moore, John Hammond, Albemarle, Jefferson’s County 1727-1976, Charlottesville, University Press of Virginia, 1976 p. 65-66

[10] Britton, Rick, “Tarleton and Jouett,” Albemarle Magazine, April-May, 1995 p. 65

[11] Ibid., p. 68

[12] Rawlings, Mary, Albemarle County, Charlottesville, Michie Company, 1925,  p. 16

 

View of existing house from Twelfth Street. (Michael Bednar, Photographer)