Cole Digges House
Historic Structures Report
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The present interior is largely a product of the 1925 restoration, and the room shapes and finishes represent both an important pre-Colonial Williamsburg interpretation of how a 17th-century Virginia house would look, and how it should function as a 20th-century habitation. The owner's intense interest in Yorktown led her and the architect to respect what they took to be the structure's early form, and in some ways that form does survive. They were freer with several parts than vigorous preservationists of subsequent decades would be, but far less aggressive than very wealthy remodelers like William duPont had been a quarter-century earlier at Montpelier and that Archibald and Mollie McCrea were several years later with Carter's Grove.

The present first-floor plan approximates the original one, with several exceptions: (1) the addition of a rear vestibule to provide access between the principal front space and the stair passage in the ell (and thus to the new kitchen and upper floor), (2) the enlargement of that passage at the expense of the front right room, and (3) the creation of small ancillary spaces. The upper floor has three bedchambers, as it probably did in the 18th century, but the 1925 plan appropriated some of the space for closets, cupboards, and a bathroom. [18]

Precisely how a 17th-century Virginia interior looked was largely unknown in the 1920s -- as it essentially remains -- but architects and antiquarians believed they knew, based on a sizable number of surviving houses, most of them now thought to date to the first half of the 18th century. The architect John H. Scarff's handling of the Cole Digges House interior was both archaeological and relatively free, resulting in an evocative appearance that deserves care and protection against change. The woodwork combines archaic details with later 18th-century references and some distinctly early 20th-century constructions. It is visually unified by the use of unpainted pine, darkened by subtle stain and patina. [19] Our tour of the house will address both the evidence for its early form and the nature of the 1925 interior. The restoration removed or hid much evidence for earlier alterations inside, but those too will be recorded when found. The tour will move from left to rear right, on all three floors.

Front First-Floor Rooms

Front and rear doors now give access to the large, square, principal room, which in the 1720s was probably called "the hall". It now measures 19' 9" deep, 20' 1" long, and 9' 1" high, although the original height was greater (the floor was about 7" lower), and the precise length is unclear. [20] Just how generous the size of the hall was in the early 18th century is illustrated by the original framing that survives largely intact overhead. Plaster and metal lath has recently been removed, revealing a 8" by 10-1/4" transverse bridging beam, originally one of two resting on the front and rear walls and providing support for a pair of 7-1/2" to 8" by 7-1/2" longitudinal beams, both of which survive, their old joints reinforced by c. 1925 steel saddles. This heavy framework created nine rectangles into which 7-1/2" to 8" by 2-1/2" transverse floor joists were dropped, in favor of attempting to span roughly 20' with only joists. The choice was entirely structural, not done for visual impact, as the overhead framing has always been hidden by plaster, a choice more representative of 18th- than 17th-century Chesapeake houses.

After discussion about visible beams, the remodelers respected this concealment throughout the house, exposing archaic-looking framing only in the stair passage, and there for structural as well as visual reasons. Apparently Paul had raised the possibility of exposed beams in the principal rooms after seeing R. T. H. Halsey's American period rooms at the Metropolitan Museum, and Scarff "consulted more than one authority" before responding that "the plaster ceiling is more in keeping for a Virginia sitting room of the period than the timber, which is used in kitchens or kitchen sitting rooms." Earlier he had specified "structural beams, all showing." [21]

In 1925, both front rooms were entirely fitted out with vertical molded sheathing, which runs from a plain rail below a small and folksy cornice down to a thin architrave-like chair rail. By omitting horizontal returns for the panels, Scarff made reference to early sheathing widely known in Britain and New England and virtually unrepresented in eastern Virginia. On the partition he carried the vertical panels from top to bottom, broken only by a plain rail above head level. Elsewhere in the front rooms he gave the treatment eclectic interest by stopping the panels at a chair rail and using plain flush boards for a wainscot, an approach most common in the Chesapeake on houses of about 1770-1820. For the base he used a plain beveled board. The chair rail acts as a front for flat windowsills inside, and simple and freely interpreted single architraves with ovolo backbands terminate at the sill level. The architect did not attempt historically inspired sash, relying on a standard 1920s-30s solution with wide, flat surfaces and very thin moldings, here nicely boxed with an authentic-looking frame. The architect emphasized the bold quality of the big room by carrying a literally-rendered bolection molding around the fireplace, as was done at the early Lynnhaven House in Virginia Beach and countless British buildings. This contrasts with a more delicate, later-looking (late 18th-century) mantelshelf in the smaller front room. Otherwise, the only distinctions in finish are a round-headed, double-leaf rear doorway in the hall, and a conventional rear door with a whimsically pierced wooden transom in the smaller room. The transverse partition is made to look very thick by placing closets on both sides of a wide, double-leaf door, a distinctly post-Colonial feature that permitted the two rooms to be thrown together like double parlors.

Eighteenth-century paneled doors in the Chesapeake ranged from two to eight panels per leaf, depending on size, expense, location, and date. By mid-century, doors with two panels, one above the other, came to be considered less elegant than those with pairs of panels stacked two or more high. In eastern Virginia and Maryland, then, two-panel leaves are generally found in buildings of the first half-century, or in modest locations. Scarff consciously modeled his interior Cole Digges House doors on these picturesque sources, with a wide lock rail between the panels. He used pairs of two-panel leaves in the hall partition and doorway to the rear lobby, and single two-panel leaves elsewhere on the first floor, reserving a six-panel leaf for the front door. For other exterior doorways he used 20th-century glazed doors, with six panes above a panel. The additional light helped alleviate some of the darkness created by dark walls in the front rooms. [22]

Scarff and Paul selected their hardware with relative care, principally by choosing among hinges and latches available from a producer of period ironwork in a relatively free, arts and crafts idiom. Most of the first-floor doors have visibly hammered HL hinges with round-headed screws (obsessively installed to align with the hinge arms) and a historicist mark stamped into their face. Oversized (1' 6" to 1' 7" by 1' 9") HLs on the double front doors may have been made especially for the house or salvaged from elsewhere and re-drilled. These as well as a diverse collection of reproduction brass and iron rim locks are unmarked. Five cupboards built between the two front rooms have small, thin, stylized versions of archaic foliated H hinges, unmarked but undoubtedly from the same manufacturer. These have marked miniature latch bars on little foliated plates, a kind of latch that must have worked as poorly in 1925 as it does today. [23]

Sometime in the 19th century, probably c.1840-50, the large room was reduced in size when a new partition was added to the left or northwest of the front door to create what was essentially a central passage. This was accomplished by punching studs for the new partition through the hall ceiling and securing them to the new bridging notched into the original joists with mature cut nails. This partition seems to have remained in place until the 1925 restoration.

All the overhead framing in the right-hand room was replaced in 1925, presumably because of structural problems and the necessity to rework the bridging beams and joists when the room's rear wall was moved forward to create a wider stair passage at the juncture of the main block and rear ell. Originally the principal rear wall was continuous for the length of the main block, though the right end was handled with a frame partition. We removed a 1' 10" by 7" area of wall plaster in the stairwell and found the left plate, decayed but still displaying a roughly 8" by 4" mortise pegged for a longitudinal plate that originally sat atop the partition about 4' 2" beyond the present partition. We then opened a 1' 4" by 2' 2" area of plaster in the first-floor toilet and found the vague vertical ghost of the partition on the right wall, just below the ceiling and opposite the telltale mortise.


The vestibule was added in 1925 to create a small space between "the Sitting Room" and the rear garden and to connect the principal front room with the stair passage, giving access to all other rooms in the house without passing through the inner front room. Its large arched entrance seems unlikely as an early feature, but Scarff seemed to describe it when writing to Paul in March, 1925: "A very pretty segmental arch has been uncovered at this doorway, between the Sitting room and rear hall, and I think it gives a decided note of interest, and as it is undoubtedly original, I decided to leave it, and put a pair of doors here in the arch." [24]

Stair Passage

Sufficient framing survives above the hall to indicate the absence of a stair there, and the passage or the front right chamber are the only reasonable locations, the latter only if the stair rose from the hall. The two rear (northeast) joists in the passage are truncated to the right, and a header was secured to their ends with wrought or cut nails, presumably for a stairway preceding the present, 1925 stair. The passage is the most plausible location of the original stair, though the two partial joists represent the only potential direct physical evidence. Moreover, the reason for the rear passage is likely to have been circulation to the second floor as well as to the outside.

A second frame partition originally separating the passage from the rear room appears to have been located several inches forward (southwest) of the present kitchen partition. Original studs were face-lapped and secured with pairs of wrought nails to the front side of the joist. Stud spacing suggests a doorway was centered in this wall. The placement of this partition created a passage that was about 6' wide. This may have been the wall Scarff described as being found with parts of its pine sheathing. [25]

Scarff expanded the passage and gave it additional functions. Moving the first partition forward provided space for a substantial period stair, with a cellar stair below it, and a 4' 7" wide unframed opening to the rear vestibule. He added a toilet opposite the foot of the stair, borrowing a corner from the already reduced front right room to capture modest additional space and a window for the toilet. A second door in the new rear partition entered a space carved from the modern kitchen and since 1925, equipped with a shower. While the placement of this space and the nature of the kitchen might suggest the shower room was intended in 1925 as a cook's toilet, the 1925 first floor plan shows the space as it remains, and the elevated interior window lighting the shower retains its 1925 finish. It is possible that this was designed to accommodate Mr. Chenoweth's wheelchair. [26]

Scarff's stair is a light and freely interpreted colonial revival design, with thin and widely spaced balusters placed on a closed stringer. [27] Hiding the step ends with a stringer was seen as archaic, and the folksy quality was cultivated with acorn-like turnings on the tops and bottoms of the newel posts. Every exposed end -- seven in all -- was turned, giving the stair its maximum number of possible acorns. Enclosed parts of the stair were sheathed with shadow-molded vertical boards. Beaded edges were lapped into adjoining boards with concave moldings and beads, resembling 17th- and early 18th-century English and New England sheathing, and a handful of early Virginia examples. Scarff treated this as secondary to the wall sheathing in the front rooms, and made it the principal finish upstairs. Conscientiousness of room hierarchies was also expressed in using plaster on the principal walls in the passage, kitchen, and second floor. Here the doors and windows were framed with the same single architraves used in the front rooms, but set into white-painted plaster intentionally given a roughly troweled surface. Contributing to this rustic quality are recycled hewn beams used and exposed as bridging and its wall support (somewhat like the carved post supporting floor framing at the partition in Criss Cross in New Kent County), and carrying the wall above the entrance to the rear vestibule. This is the one space in which Scarff played with the image of an exposed timber frame.

As discussed outside, the pair of early sheathed doors were salvaged, apparently from the doorway further forward on the right (southeast) wall, a location to which they may have been moved from elsewhere c. 1900.

Rear First-Floor Room

The 1925 kitchen reflects the general size of the original rear room, with the two right corners given up for a shower and pantry. Literally no pre-20th-century fabric is visible, including overhead joists seen through small openings we cut near the front and rear walls.

The space is finished with an eye to domestic function rather than visual preservation. Like the baths and toilets, it has conventional flat plaster and no historical woodwork beyond the doorways to the passage and exterior. In fact, the pantry door, visible only from the kitchen, has a stock leaf and off-the-rack hardware, unlike the doors in all other spaces. The door and window frames were shellacked or otherwise finished with a hard, clear surface that has dramatically alligatored, apparently from contact with grease and tobacco smoke. Inexpensive pine shelves in the pantry and a window there have the same surfaces. Paint appears to have protected two sets of glass-fronted cupboards above cheaply built counter cupboards and a later sink along the left wall. In sum, the present kitchen is an evocative social document illustrating its backstage role. Its amount of light and well-ordered arrangement of work surfaces and storage spaces show the influence of earlier American women's effort at reforming domestic work rooms. Unlike middle-class kitchens in the late 20th century, this was not intended to be seen by guests. The finish suggests it was space more intended for a hired cook rather than the resident, Mrs. Chenoweth, yet Scarff's drawings show and his correspondence suggests that the Chenoweths expected to eat there. [28]

Second Floor and Root

Upstairs, only the gable ends and much of the roof frame are original, along with parts of early 19th-century dormers, but these are all of some importance, and the 20th-century fabric is also informative.

The front block retains the original overall shape, bounded by the gable ends and knee walls. There were probably two front chambers, their partition roughly above that separating the two first-floor rooms, but any evidence for its framing in the roof is hidden by strata of late 20th-century pink insulation. Five lap joints in a collar reveal that the ell had a stud wall about 1' in front of the present transverse partition, and the rear attic room was about 16' long. In short, the upper floor was probably partitioned into four bedchambers. The roof framing provides no visible evidence for original dormer windows. The present dormers seem to have been inserted in an early 19th-century remodeling and have been much renewed in the 20th century.

While the inner face of both front gables is uninformative, the rear gable and adjoining rafters reveal the original presence of a T-shaped interior chimneystack. Nineteenth-century builders demolished the original interior chimney and replaced it with an exterior chimney. But they left parts of two flues visible in the gable above the roof collars, and three sets of truncated rafters reveal that the stack had a third flue. The stack was 3' 4" wide, right to left (southeast to northwest) as it extended in from the gable, with the rest of the T being 1' 10-1/2" wide. The precise depth is unknown, but the rafters reveal it was at least 3' and less than 4' 6" deep. Most significantly, this indicates there was more than a first-floor fireplace in the ell. The three flues could have served a number of roles: one from a fireplace on each floor, two from a cellar cooking fireplace and one from the first floor, or -- less likely -- two from a large first-floor fireplace and one from the upper floor.

The front roof frame is impressively heavy, with tapering rafters 3-1/2"—3-7/8" by 4-7/8" at the base and 3-1/2" to 4 square near the pegged tenon upper joints, and 2-1/2" to 3-1/4" by 4" collars, dovetail-lapped and pegged. The rear rafters are somewhat heavier, but their collars are only face-lapped and nailed. However, the roof again provides clear evidence that the ell is original, because truncated rafters at the front of the ell sit on the wrought-nailed, butted sheathing used as a base for shingles on both wings, and there are no shingle nails in this sheltered sheathing.

The roof frame consists of tulip poplar so methodically sized and sawn that it makes the observer question a date as early as the 1720s, but it does include enough solid members with bark attached that dendrochronology should provide an answer.

The 1925 restorers were conscientious in preserving the early roof, and its sheathing, and shape. [29] They extensively reinforced it, using some salvaged material, including pit-sawn flooring undercut but not gauged, and painted (along with its long-lost joists) with whitewash.

The second floor underscores the non-family quality of the c.1925 kitchen. Clearly the new upper circulation space and three bedrooms were primarily private, and they are simpler than the front rooms and passage downstairs, but they are emphatically part of the historical presentation. The acorn-laden stair rises unchanged into an L-shaped passage, which leads directly to all the bedrooms and a bath. Shadow-molded vertical sheathing seen downstairs only on the stair enclosure becomes the standard wooden wall finish on the second floor. Linen closets in the passage, closets in the bedrooms, board partitions, and all the doors are handled as shadow-molded sheathing.

It is evident that Scarff was interested in the details of how the sheathing would read as a composition. Doors in the sheathing around three sides of the upper passage are literally sawed out of the walls, with the leaves swinging out and stopped against peculiar big half-round frames in the rooms and closets. Two of the passage doors, to the rear bedroom and bath, are located in plastered walls, and here Scarff employed single architraves like those used on plastered and paneled walls downstairs.

The same combination of cut nails and square nails with hammered, folded heads are used on the first floor and the upper level.

Scarff's choice of hardware contributed to the more rustic, less refined character of the second floor. While he used HL hinges and brass or iron box locks on every sizable first-floor door except on the leaf of the antique exterior door in the passage, here he chose strap hinges and iron latches. These are Craftsman products, and only the full, graspable latches on the bedroom and bathroom doors even approximate genuine early Chesapeake hardware. The smaller doors have miniature latch bars like those on cupboards downstairs. The moveable arms of the strap hinges resemble early American straps, but this version has a large butt hinge-like stationary plate in favor of a pintle driven into the woodwork. Diminutive H hinges are used on small closet doors, and only these lack the manufacturer's marks.

The bathroom maintains the full dress: shadow-molded doors, sawn hanging pegs, hinges and latches, and a well-hammered sliding bolt, sharing space with a very nice Tomlinson/Pelham commode and a footed or "birthday" bathtub.


While the cellar now has a rather undifferentiated, grim, Tony Perkins quality, it began with two spaces of differing quality and had a lively subsequent use, judging from evidence in the walls.

Originally, the front block appears to have been unlighted storage space, the one possible source of light being a relatively early window at the right end. There are brick closers and clear edges that once formed the jambs of a generous, 6'-wide cellar entrance on the back wall, 6' 8" out from the left foundation wall, just as was evident from excavation behind the house, including sockets for wooden nosings that originally finished the edges of brick steps. There is no perceptible evidence for original windows in this space, and its height suggests intended use for substantial storage. The present concrete floor is at or above the original floor level, judging from the rear opening, and an offset for overhead joists is 8' 8" overhead.

As already noted, original access to the front cellar space was through a doorway in the rear wall, an opening blocked with c. 1900 brickwork perhaps contemporary with a doorway cut through the right wall.

The rear room, below the ell, seems to have had two original windows on the right and one on the left, about 3' 2-1/2" wide and 1' 9" high, indicated by closers and one decayed lintel. As observed in the attic, the ell had an interior chimney with three flues, one or two of which may have served a cellar fireplace. The absence of cellar windows in the front space and presence in the ell suggests the latter could be a workspace, quite possibly a kitchen. Cellar kitchens were always an alternative to exterior cook rooms in the slaveholding South, and enough early examples survive in Williamsburg and elsewhere in the Chesapeake to make this plausible for the Cole Digges House. It would have required a partition preceding the present c.1840-50 brick wall, and probably independent access to the outside. The one possible location of an exterior entrance to the rear cellar is in that now occupied by the vaulted coal chute, though no direct evidence is visible. The cellar partition must have been of wood, given the absence of evidence for a brick wall and the necessity of building the present partition.

The status of at least the front space rose sometime in the 19th century, perhaps c.1840-50. If windows had already been cut in earlier in the century, their sills were dramatically lowered. Sizable wells created outside to bring light into the space, although the higher grade would have made the cellar openings more practical than they now seem. A fireplace was cut through the left end wall, then (and still) provided a flue by the present exterior chimney. A wooden floor was raised on joists or sleepers, chair boards were added, and the walls and ceilings were plastered.

It was at this time the front and rear spaces were separated by a brick wall, and a work-size fireplace (4' 2" wide, with 8-1/2"-wide jambs), cut into the rear wall, served by the new exterior chimney, and replacing the original interior chimney. One would expect direct access to the rear room, at least after construction of the fireplace, but there is no clear evidence for one prior to the coal chute. The left wall seems to have been cut through for this entry, not an earlier one.

There was discussion with Scarff about reworking the front space to resemble an early kitchen that could be used for meetings by the Daughters of the American Revolution, but this never came to pass. [30] A solitary acorn on the otherwise rough open stair reveals that ultimately the cellar saw little 20th-century work beyond masonry repairs and an installation of a furnace in 1925. Worth noticing and retaining, however, are two reused 2-1/2" by 3-1/4" handrails, with a convex upper surface, and holes for diamond-set 1" square balusters on 4" centers. These are probably late 18th or early 19th century in date.

All the cellar ceiling framing was said to be deteriorated when the restoration began, and all of it now dates to the upper floor raising. [31]

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Last Updated: 19-Jan-2005