Building Stones of Virginia

wooden saplings provided structural support for Native American houses in Virginia
wooden saplings provided structural support for Native American houses in Virginia
exteriors were covered with bark, without use of stone
exteriors were covered with bark, without use of stone
in Tidewater, reeds from local swamps were often used
in Tidewater, reeds from local swamps were often used

For 15,000 years, shelters in Virginia were constructed from local organic materials. Frames were built from saplings, then covered with tree bark or reeds from wetlands. Though Native Americans manufactured pottery from clay, they did not make bricks.

The early English colonists built structures from readily-available wood and reeds, and added clay to the mix. The palisade of the fort at Jamestown was constructed from tree trunks. Structures inside the fort were made from strips of wood covered with clay, known as "wattle and daub." Local reeds were used to create thatch roofs for those structures; even the first church at Jamestown was built with wood, clay, and reeds for the roof.

early structures at Jamestown were built from clay and woven strips of wood (wattle-and-daub), as shown in this reconstruction at Jamestown Settlement
early structures at Jamestown were built from clay and woven strips of wood (wattle-and-daub), as shown in this reconstruction at Jamestown Settlement

The English who settled in Virginia in the early 1600's:1

knew how to build only a brick or timbered house such as he had known in England; and with all the timbers and clapboards to be hewn and split by hand, this was a major undertaking, to be accomplished only by the more industrious and prosperous majority.

In 1686, a Frenchman observed in the newly settled region of Stafford County:2

Some people in this country are comfortably housed; the farmer's houses are built entirely of wood, the roofs being made of small boards of chestnut, as are also the walls. Those who have some means, cover them inside with a coating of mortar in which they use oyster-shells for lime; it is as white as snow, so that although they look ugly from the outside, where only the wood can be seen, they are very pleasant inside, with convenient widows and openings. They have started making bricks in quantities, & I have seen several houses where the walls were made entirely of them.

Whatever their rank, & I know not why, they build only two rooms with some closets on the ground floor, & two rooms in the attic above; but they build several like this, according to their means. They build also a separate kitchen, a separate house for the Christian slaves, one for the negro slaves, & several to dry the tobacco, so that when you come to the home of a person of some means, you think you are entering a fairly large village.

In 1638, the first brick house in Virginia was built in Jamestown by Richard Kemp, Secretary of the colony. Structure 44, marked today by the ruins of the Ambler family's later mansion, was built before the brick church in 1639.


In 2013, Colonial Williamsburg made replacement bricks for repairing the 17th Century tower of the church at Jamestown

The oldest brick house still standing in Virginia was built in 1665 by Arthur Allen in Surry County. It was known originally as Arthur Allen's Brick House, and today as Bacon's Castle. (There is no evidence that Nathaniel Bacon ever visited the site during his 1676 rebellion, but his followers occupied it for three months.)3

Starting in the mid-1700's, gentry on the Northern Neck constructed mansion houses from brick, such as Robert Carter's family home at Sabine Hall. This showed the importance of the family through the permanence (and cost) of the family home. Clay was readily available, but there were few outcrops of stone suitable for building purposes on the Coastal Plain. Where the stone was available, it was soft sandstone, subject to crumbling in the weather.

The vestry members of Pohick and Aquia churches added stone corners known as "quoins" to make their churches appear more magnificent, while George Washington added sand to the paint covering his wood-sided house - which were shaped to look like stone, to make Mount Vernon appear more impressive.

carved wood and sand in pant allowed George Washington to appear to have a house built from stone
carved wood and sand in pant allowed George Washington to appear to have a house built from stone

Aquia sandstone was used on the second Pohick Church built in 1669-74 to provide architectural accents on the corners and around the doors
Aquia sandstone was used on the second Pohick Church built in 1669-74 to provide architectural accents on the corners and around the doors

When colonists wanted to create structures that demonstrated power and wealth, they built out of brick. After Charles II was restored to the throne, his appointee Governor Berkeley returned to the colony in 1662 with plans to build 32 brick houses at Jamestown. Each house was to be 800 square feet, with roofs 18 feet high. Governor Berkeley also built a brick statehouse. That statehouse was burned during Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, but its replacement was roofed with tile and slate before that structure burned in 1698.4

Stone was not used in these structures because Tidewater Virginia is buried under Coastal Plain sediments, with very few outcrops. Freestone Point, now part of Leesylvania State Park in Prince William County, got its name because the rock was soft enough to be quarried easily into desired shapes. The location next to the river channel made it easy to transport heavy stone blocks from the quarry to its final destination.

The most significant quarry in the Coastal Plain was developed on an island in Aquia Creek, where the quarried blocks could be transported via boat. John Tayloe II used iron-rich sandstone from the Northern Neck to build Mt. Airy and Menokin, and imported Aquia sandstone from further up the Potomac River to accent the edges of his house with white quoins. He reversed the color scheme when he built Menokin for his daughter Rebecca and son-in-law Francis Lightfoot Lee, exposing the red sandstone on the quoins and covering it with white plaster on the sides of Menokin.

Mt. Airy sandstone
Mt. Airy sandstone
Mt. Airy sandstone
Mt. Airy sandstone
Sabine Hall brick
Sabine Hall brick
Sabine Hall - river side
Sabine Hall - river side
quoins at Weems Ordinary
quoins at Weems Ordinary
Mt. Airy local quoins
Mt. Airy - local quoins
Mt. Airy Aquia quoins
Mt. Airy - Aquia quoins
Sabine Hall brick
Sabine Hall brick
Gunston Hall
Gunston Hall
Gunston Hall
Gunston Hall
Gunston Hall quoins
Gunston Hall quoins
Menokin quoins
Menokin quoins
Stratford Hall
Stratford Hall
formal brick design - Stratford Hall
formal brick design - Stratford Hall
Stratford Hall - sandstone outbuilding
Stratford Hall - sandstone outbuilding
Weems Ordinary (in Dumfries)
Weems Ordinary (in Dumfries)
(click on images for larger versions)

The site of that quarry has been known as Government Island ever since the Federal government purchased it in 1791, and used stone from that site in the White House and US Capitol. Stafford County bought the site in 2008, built bridges/trails/interpretive signs, and opened it as a public park.

The 100-130 million year old Cretaceous sandstone at Freestone Point and Government Island is barely lithified into rock, and is quite porous. In the winter, water that seeps into the stone can freeze, cracking the surface. To avoid that problem on the stone exterior of the new "Presidents House" in Washington, DC, a lime-based whitewash was applied. After the British burned the building in 1814, the White House was coated in white paint.5

Once colonial settlement reached the Piedmont, natural outcrops provided easy access to building stone. "Potomac bluestone" was quarried on the Virginia side of the Potomac River, as well as in Rock Creek Park in the District of Columbia. In Richmond, granite quarries on Belle Isle provided building material for the locks of the James River and Kanawha Canal.

In the Culpeper Basin, red Triassic-age sandstone west of Centreville was quarried in the 1800's to create a stone bridge over Bull Run, a toll house on the Alexandria-Warrenton Turnpike, and many other buildings. A Maryland quarry supplied that Triassic sandstone for the Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall, and Connecticut quarries supplied material for the "brownstones" in New York City.

a toll house built from Triassic sandstone became the famouse Stone House on the Manassas battlefield
a toll house built from Triassic sandstone became the famouse Stone House on the Manassas battlefield

Immigrants from Scandinavia into Delaware introduced the log cabin design to the Middle Atlantic. Early log cabins were built quickly on the frontier with a minimum of effort. Rather than spending rime to saw off the round edges of logs, mud was used to chink the gaps. Cabins built with rectangular, sawed-off logs (and occasionally some foundation stones to minimize decay) indicate that the location was more settled, with labor and time available to create a more-substantial structure.

mud was used between logs to block wind/water
mud was used between logs to block wind/water
stone chimneys reduced the risk of fire
stone chimneys reduced the risk of fire

In the Shenandoah Valley, exposed limestone was carved into building blocks to construct solid houses such as Abram's Delight in Winchester. Further south in Blacksburg, the school now known as Virginia Tech struggled with the perception that it was a "second-rate vocational school" because its brick buildings resembled contemporary cotton mills and shoe factories.

In 1899, the school started building with blocks of dolomite (calcium and magnesium carbonate), colloquially known as "Hokie Stone." In the 1960's, new buildings were erected without the traditional Collegiate Gothic style and without a skin of Hokie Stone, but since then more-modern structures with the traditional Hokie Stone exteriors have hidden those inconsistent structures. Derring Hall is located on the site of the original quarry, which closed in 1953. Ironically, Derring Hall was built without Hokie Stone, during the era of modernist architecture.

In 2010, the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors mandated that new buildings must incorporate Hokie Stone, maintaining the signature architectural style of the campus. To guarantee a supply of stone at a reasonable price, the university purchased the quarry that provides most of that building stone. Virginia Tech also purchases 10-20% of its Hokie Stone from a private quarry at Lusters Gate, to ensure the right mixture of blocks with light grey, darker gray, brown, and black colors.6 quarries.

Links

one of the quarries used for building stone at Virginia Tech is east of campus
one of the quarries used for building stone at Virginia Tech is east of campus
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

Government Island (Red X) was on a navigable section of Aquia Creek, facilitating transport of stone to Washington DC for building the White House and Capitol
Government Island (Red X) was on a navigable section of Aquia Creek, facilitating transport of stone to Washington DC for building the White House and Capitol
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

log cabin in the Blue Ridge log cabin in the Blue Ridge
log cabins were frontier structures, easy to build with abundant timber
(click on images for larger pictures)
Hokie Stone Hokie Stone
Hokie Stone at Virginia Tech is not just one color of grey
(click on images for larger pictures)

References

1. Abernethy, Thomas Perkins, Three Virginia Frontiers, Louisiana University Press, 1962, p.6
2. Durand de Dauphine, A Huguenot Exile in Virginia, or Voyages of a Frenchman exiled for his Religion with a description of Virginia and Maryland, (Gilbert Chinard, editor), The Press of the Pioneers, New York, 1934, p. 102
3. "The Jamestown Archaeological Assessment: Multidisciplinary Study of Jamestown Island," Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, http://research.history.org/Archaeological_Research/Research_Articles/ThemeTown/Jamestown.cfm?pageNum=5; "Baconís Castle | Historical gem hides in Surry," The Virginian-Pilot, August 3, 2014, http://hamptonroads.com/node/724250 (last checked August 3, 2014)
4. "Jamestown Statehouse: Phases of Development," Virtual Jamestown, http://www.virtualjamestown.org/essays/Statehouse_essay.html (last checked August 1, 2014)
5. "Rebuilding the White House," The White House Historical Association, http://www.whitehousehistory.org/presentations/james-hoban-architect-white-house/james-hoban-architect-white-house-05.html; "Sandstone is Washington buildings came from island on Aquia Creek," Baltimore Sun, September 30, 2002, http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2002-09-30/news/0209300244_1_aquia-creek-government-island-small-island (last checked August 1, 2014)
6. "Hokie Stone + Gothic = Virginia Tech," Virginia Tech Magazine, Winter 2005, http://www.vtmag.vt.edu/winter05/feature1.html; "Upgraded Hokie Stone quarry rolls out more rock," The Roanoke Times, November 22, 2011, http://ww2.roanoke.com/news/roanoke/wb/301442/ (last checked August 1, 2014)

church tower at Jamestown, built before 1702 and restored in 2014 (church in background is a 1907 re-creation)
church tower at Jamestown, built before 1702 and restored in 2014
(church in background is a 1907 re-creation)


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