Cole Digges House
Historic Structures Report
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A close look at the exterior masonry normally visible at the Cole Digges House tells much of the building's evolutionary story. The character of the masonry is consistent with a 1720s date, although some similar brickwork can be found earlier and it continued to be built, selectively, through the end of the 18th century. [7] Here a regular Flemish bond with glazed headers was used everywhere above present grade, and the brickwork along the edges of the gables was manipulated to create a diagonal line of glazed headers paralleling the roof slopes. (Some of the glazing is now obscured by paint, and some bricks close to modern grade have lost their glaze, but virtually all sizeable areas of unglazed brickwork above the water table are replacements.) This sort of treatment rose to prominence in the early 18th-century Chesapeake and declined from favor in the third quarter of the century. The lined joints were carefully executed and small closers were used with enough consistency that they help define the extent of original openings. There is modest brick rubbing at the edges of these openings and at the building's corners. The only distinction in the brickwork of the two street-front walls is the use of rubbed and gauged, beveled bricks with thin putty joints capping the water table, contrasting with ordinary brick on the four left and rear walls.

A tour of the exterior quickly affords an understanding of the building's original form. We will begin with the front wall and move clockwise. The house faces southwest. This report will employ right and left, front and rear directions for simplicity and will use the cardinal directions only when needed for clarity.

Front Wall

Sizable portions of the original front wall survive in spite of its partially painted and shopworn appearance. The major area of missing masonry is all that between the two left windows. This, combined with the absence of evidence for original jambs for these openings, suggests that the house may have initially had a three-bay front, with a central door flanked by single windows roughly centered on the wall to either side of the doorway. [8] The right opening began as a window. Closers along its left edge reveal this as an original jamb, and one closer as well as courses once butted against now-lost closers indicate that the window rose to the top of the wall, much like the two present left windows on the facade. The opposite side of the right window is cut through original brickwork, and so began as a narrower opening. The top of the opening was lowered to create a doorway, perhaps during a late 18th-century remodeling as a shop, and was closed by the time an engraving of Main Street was published in Frank Leslie's illustrated Newspaper on November 1, 1879. [9] (drawing 1) The present window dates from c.1925.

A partial column of closers likewise defines the left jamb of the front doorway as original, although originally it was lower and thus had no transom. Again, the right jamb is cut away, so that the opening was originally narrower. The doorframe, like the front window frames, now has single architraves with narrow quirked backbands. These are 1925 additions, as are the frame door reveals with flat recessed panels, and all other window and exterior doorframes. We suspect the door enlargement was part of a of a c. 1840-50 conversion.

Brickwork between the two left windows is also c. 1840-50, and it is entirely possible that the largest room of the house did not receive two front windows until that remodeling.

Parts of two courses immediately above the water table are damaged by concrete apparently laid over much of the yard when a cement firm named the American Cement Company owned the property c.1915.

The present window shutters and their wrought iron shutter keepers date from the 1925 restoration. Scarff took pains to point out that early shutters were stored "in the lean-to" and that they had been attached to the frames with wrought-iron hinges. [10] Those shown in pre-1925 photos appear to be part of the 19th-century improvements.

Happily, substantial portions of early woodwork survive on the front eaves and dormers. Part of the fascia, soffit, modillion band, modillions, and bedmold are early -- dating from either original construction or c. 1800-20. The cornice looks very academic for the 1720s, but apparently the Brush-Everard House had a comparable one in 1718 or '19, and there is no visible evidence for earlier eaves finish at the Cole Digges House. The dormers are early 19th-century in form and detail. Parts of the cheeks, cyma moldings, and tympanums survive from this period.

The National Park Service installed the present shingle roof in 1993, replacing a slate roof installed in 1925. Paul and Scarff discussed the choices of wood and slate. After initially considering shingles, Scarff recommended slate. Paul responded in a characteristic way, with desire for a venerable appearance and interest in the cost. [11] Employing a picturesque method often used on Olde English-style suburban houses of the 1920s, the restorers applied the slate in consciously rough-coursed manner, with chipped corners and varied lengths. They were applied to the sides of the dormers as well as the roof slopes.

Left Wall

The left end wall has also sustained much alteration, and this incorporates elements from several construction periods. Originally, a central exterior chimney seems to have risen in line with the ridge. This was rebuilt, probably c. 1840-50, resulting in the present chimney which corbels toward the rear. [12] Presumably the change was intended to remove an unnecessarily large c. 1720s chimney and perhaps to provide more light by inserting new windows, one centered in the gable and two flanking the chimney. The stack seems to have been rebuilt late in the 19th century. Both first-floor windows were cut in after the initial construction period. Closers and associated brickwork at the right jamb of the right window indicate that originally there was a smaller aperture, narrower and only seven or eight courses tall, like those seen in comparable Chesapeake brick houses and frame houses with brick ends, of c.1720s. We assume all evidence of a matching original window on the left was obliterated by insertion of its larger successor c.1840-50. The present gable window was probably associated with the c.1840-50 arrangement, though we see no evidence for an original attic fireplace. It is possible, then, that a smaller attic window existed behind the earlier chimney stack. The corbeled chimney probably developed structural problems, and by c. 1900 supporting brickwork was later carried up from grade to the rear (northeast side) of the stack.

Rear Wall of Main Block

Substantial and informative early fabric remains visible on the rear wall in spite of alterations and partial removal, as well as obstruction by finish inside the vestibule added in 1925 to link the large left room with the stair passage. The best-preserved original brickwork is now sheltered by a 1925 porch roof, replacing an old one described as collapsed in 1924. [13] Up high, the brickwork just right (northwest) of the vestibule is remarkably intact and unweathered, providing an opportunity to see how the walls of the entire building looked originally: a relatively dark range of brick with nearly black splotches, all glazed headers, random glazing on the stretchers, very white (high lime content) mortar, and relatively thick and uneven mortar joints, deeply struck with a finishing tool.

An area 5' 9" wide and 5' 3" high above present grade was originally enclosed by a long-demolished shed-roofed cellar entrance, and it retains the whitewash finish applied to the interior of this structure. The original cellar entrance may have been demolished when steps were added to the right of the main block, adjoining Read Street, apparently late in the 19th century. To the right is a later doorway into the largest room, the opening apparently cut in the mid-19th century as access to a rear wing of that date, an addition that coexisted with the old cellar entry. As elsewhere, the door and doorframe were remade in 1925. The brickwork above this doorway is largely original, spotted with remnants of yellowish, 19th-century plaster; that to the right is 18th-century, patched c.1840-50; the work to the left dates from c.1840, 1925, and c.1720s. Crude water table courses below the door date from 1998.

Left (Northwest) Wall of Ell

The left wall of the ell also retains much of its original brickwork, although 19th-century whitewash softly obscures some of its coloration, and sizable areas have been removed or hidden by the 1925 vestibule and a 19th-century coal chute. The masonry is of the same quality as that in the rear wall, though much of it below the window includes lighter, rosy brick. The window opening retains its original width (3' 5-1/2") and its approximate original height (5' 1/2"), though the head and upper jamb were rebuilt in 1925. Just above present grade are two original water table courses, constructed of ordinary brick. Double headers just left of the vestibule may indicate that the original masons were approaching a doorway in the stair passage. Also adjoining the vestibule is the ghost of a shed-roofed space higher than the coal chute, with the outline of a roof extending about 4' 5" to 6' 6" above the water table and roughly 3' out from the 1925 water table. The foundations of this structure were observed recently by Colonial Williamsburg archaeologist Dwayne Pickett, who interprets it as an 18th-century addition. Under the level of the long-lost 18th-century rafters are many layers of whitewash.

The coal chute was added in the second half of the 19th century to serve a furnace in the ell. This relatively modern function was accommodated in a brick dog house-like structure with a barrel-vaulted top and a parapet, with an appearance reminiscent of early 19th-century buildings in Charleston, South Carolina.

Rear (Northeast) Wall of Ell

The rear gable wall of the ell is much altered, its doorway and pantry window cut through in the 1920s and the present 4' 9" by 2' 5" chimney apparently built in the mid-19th century. The chimney brickwork, consistent in color and brick size, does not match other mid-19th-century masonry in the house so we assume it was built as a different stage. Much of the original gable survives, however, with parts of original brick jambs on both attic windows. There is no direct external evidence for an earlier chimney serving a second-floor fireplace, and fragments of framing for a second-floor hearth, assembled with mature cut nails, suggest the fireplace there was rebuilt or inserted in the mid-19th century. However, the two gable windows suggest that there was a rear chimney, reinforcing the clear evidence visible inside above the collars.

Here again we see a plain water table, partially rebuilt in the 20th century.

Right (Southeast) Wall

The right wall is richly illustrative of the many changes the building has sustained. The most extensive original brickwork is in the gable, in the first-floor wall just right of the present doorway into the front room, and across most of the ell. Sufficient brickwork survives at the juncture of the main block and ell to make it evident that the two sections were constructed at the same time. There appears to be an original left (southwest) jamb for a central first-floor window, long blocked, and the left jamb of a gable window, serving the present aperture. Convincingly early closers reveal the presence of a cellar window, also centered, visible within the present exterior stairwell. There is debate among the team members over the vintage of the cellar window, however, and it could have been inserted early in the 19th century when other cellar windows were cut, before construction of a mid-century chimney.

The famous 1863 Mathew Brady photograph of Main Street (photograph 1) offers a glimpse of the Cole Digges House, and appears to show an exterior chimney centered on this end. Much of the brickwork has been cut out at the center of the first floor and below the gable window, so it seems likely that the right chimney was added, probably during the Greek Revival remodeling, and was removed by the late 19th century. Views of the street in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, November 1, 1879, and October 1, 1881 (drawings 1 and 2), and contemporary photographs show a spindly exterior chimney that replaced the old addition, the later one associated with stoves rather than fireplaces and located sufficiently far to right to leave the gable window unobstructed. The exterior stairway to the cellar appears to have been excavated at the same time, and an end doorway into the first floor was cut in at the corner, just beyond the new stair. This would seem to have made a front doorway to the south room redundant, and the illustrations show that the latter was closed by the late 19th century. Charlottesville architects Browne, Eichman, Dalgliesh, Gilpin and Paxton recommended extending the exterior stair toward the front to meet building code requirements, and this was done in the summer of 1998, necessitating addition of a larger masonry wall, iron railing, and comparable ironwork blocking the doorway at the head of the steps. [14] Correspondence indicates a 19th-century side porch incorporating the cellar steps was removed during the restoration, but the photograph from D. W. Griffith's film America shows it already removed (photograph 14). [15]

Both openings in the right side of the ell are alterations. The doorway was created or enlarged c. 1800 and the window looks to have been cut in the same era. The present doorway serves the rear passage, and one would expect an entry in this location. It is quite possible, however, that exterior access to the street was originally limited, and that the only external doorway to the passage was on the opposite wall facing the yard. There is a short column of closers relatively high on the wall between the two present openings, indicating an original window just to the right of the present doorway. If so, it is sufficiently close to help suggest the present doorway is an addition.

A pair of double-sheathed door leaves with horizontal boards up to 1' 6-1/2" wide inside and studded with wrought nails appear salvaged, apparently from the end doorway at the front right corner, as the January 26, 1925 plan calls for the shift: "Doors from Opening C recommended." [16] This was not their original location, however, as late 19th-century views show a glazed door in that location.

Lower Walls

Excavations around the Cole Digges House in preparation for waterproofing the foundations in July and August, 1998, revealed almost all of the 18th-century lower walls and the alterations they have sustained. (photographs 32-35) The chief revelations are that the grade was originally much lower, and the cellar was quite substantial in height. This cellar seems to have been dark, except in the ell, having a single exterior entrance -- in the rear wall of the main block.

Twentieth-century grade has always been roughly even with the top of the building's water table. This, combined with insertion of higher first-floor joists and some concrete paving, has left the beveled upper course in battered condition. It is nevertheless evident that this course on the front and right sides was rubbed and gauged to a degree that allowed the use of thin putty head joints. In the absence of specialized arches, the upper water table course has the best quality of brickwork in the house. The less public faces (left end, left side of eli, and rear wall of main block and ell) had cheaper caps with conventional mortar joints.

Access to the cellar was made more public late in the 19th-century by removing an original rear bulkhead, blocking its doorway through the foundation, and excavating new steps to a new cellar doorway beside Read Street.

Front Wall

On the front wall, thirteen courses (3' 3") of the English bond below this cap course have scored joints, and carefully sized closers extend down twenty-eight courses, to the top of a 1998 concrete step footing. We interpret this to indicate that the masons executed their masonry with relative care below grade, but that they began to strike lines in the joints only at or just below grade, 3' 3" below the beveled water table cap.

There is no evidence for original cellar windows or doorways in the front wall. The two openings, roughly 6' high, were cut through otherwise unspoiled brickwork, and provided with deep window wells lined with brick. Both windows appear to have been cut in two stages, first as relatively small and conventional cellar windows perhaps early in the 19th century, and then as very deep openings, probably c.1840-50. Related window wells are most evident in early 20th-century photographs of the front. The right 3' 5" opening was blocked at a relatively early date, perhaps late nineteenth century, with handmade brick and lime mortar, while the left opening was filled with brickwork matching that inserted when the main floor level was raised in 1925.

Left Wall

Likewise the two extant windows in the left cellar wall were cut through eighteenth-century brickwork in two stages. They remain open, with c. 1925 frames and sash replaced by the National Park Service in 1993.

Closers at the corners descend the full depth of the foundations. The mortar is more degraded, but the lining appears to have descended thirteen courses, indicating original grade was lower here as well. The existing chimney, 5' 7" by 2' 6" at present grade, sits on six or more courses of a 6' 1-1/2" by 3' 1/2" base extending 3' below the top of the water table. [17]

Rear Wall of Main Block

At the outer (northwest) end of the rear wall the upper six courses of the water table are battered and pushed out of shape, perhaps for a now-lost 19th-century porch, but the brickwork below it is in very good condition. Again, scored joints extend down thirteen courses, and closers carry on past them.

Archaeologist Dwayne Pickett recently uncovered the original English bond cellar entrance well, with substantial (brick and a half thick) walls, 8' 7" wide and 6' 10" deep (exterior dimensions). While the joints are uneven, the walls enclosing the cellar entry are at least partially keyed into the rear wall, and the original opening, 6' wide, extends through the wall, now blocked by machine-made brick and Portland cement mortar. Pockets for wooden step nosings remain in each cheek, those on the left (southeast) descending from roughly nine courses below present grade to the bottom of the wall. This could suggest that the original grade was slightly higher at the rear. The interior of the bulkhead was whitewashed above the steps, emphasizing the outline of the steps indicated by nosing slots in the brickwork. The whitewash carries up to a point, roughly 4' 10" above the water table, and its upper edge is flat, where a shed roof terminated.

Left Wall of Rear Ell

On the exposed left (northwest) side of the rear ell is a white-painted area higher than that in the bulkhead, with the outline of a shed roof extending about 4' 5" to 6' 6" above the water table and roughly 3' out from the 1925 projection that houses a connection between the 20th-century parlor and rear passage. Dwayne Pickett found the foundations for this space, and he interprets it as an 18th-century addition. The cellar wall here has scored joints on the thirteen upper courses of the water table.

Rear Wall of Rear Ell

Part of the rear wall of the ell below grade is covered by the deep foundations of the 20th-century porch and c. 1870-80 foundations of the rear chimney, and much of that to the northwest was cut away for a boiler installation. Nevertheless, we see scored joints descending at least nine courses below the top of the water table. The lower chimney foundations are built of reused brick, many of which still retain soot and white paint surviving from their earlier life.

Right Wall

Below grade as well as above, the right wall has no seam between the main block and the ell, illustrating that the ell is contemporary with the front of the house. A late 19th-century stairwell along the right wall damaged and caused repointing of much masonry from the front corner to the junction with the ell. When the rear of the wall was briefly glimpsed during the waterproofing, it appeared that original joints were scored at least seventeen courses below the top of the water table, raising the possibility that the right end's location beside Read Street may have exposed the wall to a greater depth than in other areas. As already mentioned, there are two closers and associated brickwork on both sides of an early cellar window opening about 3' 3" wide and 1' 11" high, eight courses (1' 10") below the top of the water table and directly centered below the right gable. The opening seems to have been filled in the middle of the 19th century, presumably when the right chimney was constructed.

The lower right wall of the ell remains relatively intact, and here too the scored joints extend twelve to thirteen courses below the top of the water table. There may have been a late 18th-century cellar window just behind (northeast of) the door in the ell, where we see a 19th-century patch about seven courses high, above a row of soldier bricks, ten courses below the top of the water table. A later window, patched in August, 1998, below the right window in the ell was chopped through, with no evidence of an earlier opening.

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Last Updated: 19-Jan-2005