Bacon’s Castle: She’s a Brick House
By Joanna Braswell and Andrea Williams
In 1665 when Arthur Allen completed his brick house it stood as a grand testament to his family’s wealth and prosperity. Three hundred and fifty years later, it stands as the oldest brick structure in British North America and is the only example of Jacobean architecture in North America. The site in Surry, Va., became known as Bacon’s Castle after surviving a 1676 occupation by Nathaniel Bacon’s anti-establishment rebel forces. Since the 1970s, Bacon’s Castle has operated as a house museum open for tours under Preservation Virginia’s historic preservation initiatives.
When Preservation Virginia, formerly known as the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, purchased Bacon’s Castle on September 18th, 1973, the organization focused on the architectural significance of the house spanning all three centuries of its history. Dedicating $300,000 to the site’s restoration, Preservation Virginia strove to preserve as much of the original fabric as possible while focusing on the building’s stabilization and security.
Featuring Flemish gables, triple diamond-set chimney stacks, and a cruciform plan with projecting towers, the house demonstrates the owner’s intent to build his home in the European high style. Arthur Allen I, native of Droitwich, England, built the 5,300-sf house, which was the seventh largest house in 17th-century Virginia. Complete with the oldest surviving formal garden in North America, the structure distinguished Allen as one of the wealthiest men in the colony.
The 1665 house stands two and a half stories high with a full basement and a garret space above the second floor. A two-story hyphen connects an 1854 Neo-Classical addition to the 17th-century wing. Visitors experience the transition of time, while touring the entire house separated into architectural “zones.” The neoclassical parlor and dining room served the Hankins family, who owned the house through the Civil War. In the 1665 wing visitors can see the original wood and brickwork from the 17th century in chambers furnished according to probate inventories. Downstairs, modifications of the 18th-century period include the addition of raised paneling in the chamber and an aesthetic transition from the original hall-chamber plan to a central-hall plan. These preserved architectural changes tell the occupants’ stories and demonstrate the evolution of building techniques.
The main house is complemented by several outbuildings, including an 1829 slave quarter modified in the 1840s. The plantation’s original labor force consisted of approximately half indentured servants and half enslaved Africans who lived in the main house. Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 resulted in a shift to race-based slavery, eventually facilitating the construction of separate slave quarters. The clapboard structure is an important element of African American heritage at Bacon’s Castle. Even farther from the house stands one of Tidewater Virginia’s oldest outbuildings, a smokehouse/barn with mortise and tenon construction dating to the early 18th century.
Through the efforts of Preservation Virginia, Bacon’s Castle continues to be a unique learning laboratory as it preserves and discovers more about its history and architecture. Preservationists are working to repoint the stair tower brickwork and soon will replace the weathered cedar shingle rook with a new cedar shingle roof. Maintaining and preserving the oldest brick home in North America depends on funding from independent supporters. Bacon’s Castle is open to visitors and hosts an annual symposia/lecture summer series resuming May 2014 with the Historic Architecture Symposium. Visit Bacon’s Castle, a unique architectural testament to colonial Virginia’s Old World origins.
Joanna Braswell earned her masters degree in American Studies from The George Washington University and specializes in historic preservation in Smithfield,Virginia.
Andrea Williams earned her masters degree in History from The College of William & Mary and is an emerging cultural resource management professional in Northern Virginia.
Loth, Calder. “Notes on the Evolution of Virginia Brickwork from the Seventeenth
Century to the Late Nineteenth Century.” Association for Preservation
Technology Bulletin 6, no. 3 (1974): 82-120.
Lounsbury, Carl. Essays in Early American Architectural History. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011.
Murdoch, Angus. “Restoration.” In Bacon’s Castle, edited by Stephen B. Andrews. The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities: 2001.
Roth, Leland. A Concise History of American Architecture. Boulder, Colo.:
Westview Press, 1979.
Upton, Dell. “Vernacular Domestic Architecture in Eighteenth Century Virginia.” Winterthur Portfolio 17, no. 2/3 (Summer-Autumn, 1982): 95-119. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1180893.
Vlach, John Michael. Back of the Big House. Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993.