Cole Digges House
Historic Structures Report
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This study, like any historic structure report worth its salt, has two purposes: (1) explaining the building's character and evolution and (2) providing assistance in preserving its distinctive qualities. The two are intertwined because thoughtful preservation is best grounded in comprehension of what is being preserved, and vital, dramatic interpretation is possible only if the fabric of the building is conscientiously protected.


Historians have long believed that ferryman and tavern-keeper Yorktown's lot 42, in 1699, and that it was this house to which he referred in 1703 as "my house & Lott in Yorktown". [1] While surviving Virginia buildings of this character and general plan were often attributed to the 17th century when first extensively studied in the 1920s, most have in the last two decades been reassigned to the second and third quarters of the 18th century. Dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) offers the best prospect for a precise construction date, and samples of the original framing timber taken in April, 1999 are likely to provide a date for the house. [2] In the meantime an approximate date of the 1720s or later seems more plausible, based on the nature of the building's plan, brickwork, and framing, and on the history of the property's ownership. Pending dendrochronology, the successful merchant Cole Digges (1691-1744)) is the likely builder of the house. Digges became a member of the Council in 1720, several years after being appointed as a "visitor and Governor" of the College of William and Mary. He owned two plantations, a warehouse, a storehouse, wharf, and this property as well as other Yorktown lots in 1744. This elite association offers the best context for the building's interpretation -- it is a sizable, refined residence, yet without the lavish appearance and extent of accommodation provided by larger and more expensive houses like that built by Thomas Nelson a block southeast on Main Street. His son, Dudley Digges, is the principal alternative, but the son apparently built the house that now bears his name c. 1760.

The building apparently began life with two first-floor rooms and no passage in the main block, together with a narrow passage and a third first-floor room in the rear ell. This is a familiar means of arranging three main rooms and circulation to the upper floor in 18th-century houses from Virginia to as far away as Bermuda. Three or more bedchambers were located upstairs in this case, and there was extensive space intended for storage in the cellar, probably for merchants' goods. The rear cellar room may have been a workspace. An exterior chimney was centered on the left end, serving the hall or largest room, and an interior one at the rear of the ell provided fireplaces for the first-floor room and at least one other space, above or below it.

There were substantial changes in the 18th and 19th centuries, some associated with use as a store. While it was called "the old brick Store house" or "the Brick Store House" as early as 1784, we see no physical evidence of it being constructed to house commercial or storage space, with the significant exception of its generous cellar. [3] The dormer windows are part of a c.1800-20 upgrading, and more substantial changes about 1840-50 appear domestic in nature, though old photos show glazed exterior doors that could date from early in the 19th century, and the building was back in commercial use by the end of the century. [4] It was returned to residential use by a very interesting restoration in 1925, planned by owner Helen (Mrs. Carroll) Paul and John H. Scarff from the prestigious Baltimore architectural firm of Wyatt and Nolting, prior to the reclamation of Virginia's colonial capital nearby. Scarff was an antiquarian, and his work among early Maryland buildings affected his designs for the Cole Digges House. [5] Paul was an actively engaged client, always urging Scarff to recognize and cultivate the building's picturesque qualities, while insisting that he think practically, as when selecting roof materials and arranging a kitchen. [6]

Scarff attempted to bring visual order to the outside, making it appear to be an intact colonial Chesapeake house, in a general way, in favor of removing later elements and trying to return it precisely to its initial form. In spite of his obvious effort to create an archaic, pre-Georgian interior, both architect and client thought of the house in a romantic way. They did not, for example, study the brickwork and attempt to re-create original doorways and windows.

The combination of 18th-century and 1925 fabric, with small fragments from the first half of the 19th century, now characterize the building. Yorktown's Main Street and the adjoining area of Read Street have been raised since the 18th century, hiding much of the originally exposed cellar walls and reducing the apparent size of the house. As a result, our tour of the building will begin with what is normally visible outside, then look at masonry evidence uncovered in 1998-99, and conclude with assessment of the interior. The scale of the present project has been kept relatively modest, based primarily on observation, without much intrusion into the fabric. We did remove some very small areas of 20th-century plaster to check for evidence of early partitions, stairs, and ceiling finish, most extensively in the present "living room" (original hall). Recording was intentionally confined to photographs, three measured plans suggesting periods of construction, and this text.

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Last Updated: 19-Jan-2005