Bacon’s Castle was built by Arthur Allen in 1665 in Surry County, Virginia. It is the nation's only surviving High Jacobean structure and the oldest surviving brick dwelling in the United States. Its English formal garden is one of the oldest in North America.
Architectural Drawing of Bacon's Castle in 1665
To understand the architectural origins of Bacon’s Castle we best start with a history of what has come to be called the “Virginia house.”
Ever since the early 17th century Virginia’s houses had employed a single story, single-pile (one row of rooms) design consisting of two chambers. By the mid-17th century a second story of rooms was added to mirror the two chambers on the ground floor. Although larger than these early simple houses, Bacon’s Castle follows this early design; it is a single-pile house with two full stories (plus an attic and a cellar).
One reason it stood apart was its relatively large size. It may have been smaller than Jacobean mansions in England, but it was by comparison still bigger than most wooden framed houses in Virginia.
More important were two other characteristics that make Bacon’s Castle unique. One was the application of Tudor and Jacobean elements to the design of the house. The other was the use of all brick in the construction.
Even though Bacon’s Castle evolved from the basic layout of the Virginia house, its cruciform plan is distinctive. Remains of a cruciform shaped house likely built in the 1660s have been found at the Richneck Plantation in Denbigh, but few colonial houses employed such a design.
Many of the facade and interior design features of Bacon’s Castle are taken from patterns found in Jacobean architecture. For example, the centered arched doorway and Flemish style gables on the east and west elevations are Jacobean in origin. However, the terminating stacked chimneys with clustered flues are more Elizabethan than Jacobean, which may reveal a bit of a nostalgic lag in taste. Historian Thomas Waterman believes that the interior ceiling girders and molded chamfers are more reminiscent of Tudor than Jacobean England.
The interior of the original house was plainer than what we see today. The brick walls were covered with whitewashed plaster, and the oak beams were exposed. There were no baseboards, chair rails or any kind of woodwork except for the fireplace lintels. The doorways were framed in oak. The only significant ornamentation was the carved compass roundels placed at the intersection of the girders on the first floor.
Bacon's Castle prior to Restoration
Bacon’s Castle started out, in the words of Angus Murdoch, the director of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities that oversaw the restoration of the house in the 1970s, as a “crude but robust Tudor gothic statement of wealth and authority. However, over the years it was changed dramatically, ending up in the 1850s as a “heavily disguised neo-classical manor house.”
The first major alteration of the house occurred in the 18th century. In the 1720s a partition was added to create a central passage between the first floor Hall and Chamber. The single 17th century opening on the north wall was replaced with two new window openings. Original window openings were likely altered in the 1740’s. There was a succession of wooden porches on the front of the house, at least two of them, that were renovated about the same time the window openings were altered.
In addition, a doorway was installed from the hall into the central passage. In the Hall and Chamber the whitewashed plaster walls were built over with raised panel woodwork. A window replaced a closet in the hall next to the fireplace, and the 17th century single window on the south side of the hall gave way to two new windows flanking the central panel. Closets or small rooms were built, likely around 1740, against the north façade and adjoining the west side of the stair tower. In the Chamber an original window was likewise removed and a doorway put in its place leading to small room in the back (north) side of the house.
Artist's rendering (from StudyBlue) of Bacon's Castle with framed wing
Sometime in the 18th century—definitely before 1815 (and possibly around 1800)--a wooden frame wing was added to the east side of the house. It had a small single-storey hyphen-like frame building connecting the larger wing to the main house.
In 1851, John Hankins moved the wood frame addition to another location on the grounds. In its place he built a neo-classical wing of brick and connected it to the main house this time with a two-storey hyphen. It took him two years to complete, and he may have contemplated building another similar wing on the west side. But he never did it. In addition, Hankins replaced many of the window frames in the old house, installed new plaster walls and made repairs. Hankins neo-classical wing remains at Bacon’s Castle to this day.
In the 1970s after the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities purchased Bacon’s Castle, a major restoration of the old mansion was undertaken. The APVA’s basic philosophy was above all to stabilize and secure the old property. It was a very wise decision, because the house today is extremely well preserved.
As with all houses in colonial Virginia, the purposes of Bacon’s Castle’s rooms changed over time. In 1665 the large chamber on the first floor (Hall) was an all-purpose work room. It was a place of bustling activity not only for dining, sleeping and working, but for meeting guests and visitors. The master of the house could be found at his desk working on plantation balance sheets, or reclining on a day couch for reading or an afternoon nap. All meals were taken in the Hall, for both family and guests. Toward the end of the 17th century the master or mistress of the house could have used to the room to serve tea to guests.
The sociology of room purposes in the 17th century is well known. In 1660s it was common for guests to enter the front door directly into the hall. There was less formality then and guests would immediately witness whatever activity—the master working at his desk or even someone resting—that happened to be occurring at the time.
This started to change in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Life became more formal and orderly. Masters and families wanted more privacy, not only from the prying eyes of slaves and servants, but from guests entering the house. Rooms were shut off and servants’ passageways were increasingly separated from the rest of the family.
These gentrifying trends are definitely reflected in the evolution of the Hall at Bacon’s Castle. A partition was added to separate the entrance passageway from the Hall in the early 18th century. New formal paneling, which was applied about the same time, lent a more dignified air to a room. Whereas before the Hall had been an all-purpose room, it was now intended almost exclusively for entertaining. The addition of the passageway between the Hall and the Chamber separated servants from the family and its guests.
Today the Hall is furnished as it would have looked in the 18th century, in keeping with the paneling from that period. It displays the finest furniture in the house that would have been used for entertaining, eating and socializing with friends and family. The furnishings are based on the 1755 inventory while Elizabeth Allen lived at the house.
The smaller chamber opposite the Hall on the first floor served a number of purposes. It was likely the house mistress’s principal bedroom, at least for Alice, Arthur Allen’s wife. In the 1665 house there were likely two or more beds, including an expensive bedstead that could have been used by the master, wife, or both. The Chamber was also a room where the mistress could entertain female friends and family in private.
Above all, however, in the early years of the house the Chamber was the mistress’s main workroom. From here she oversaw the activities of the household. These ranged from dispensing daily instructions to the servants to overseeing (and watching over) the distillation of highly coveted spirits. She also stored household items in locked trunks and boxes. The 1711 inventory, for example, registers such valuable items as table cloths, napkins, pillow cases, as well as a spice mortar and sugar box.
South Side of Chamber
As with the Hall, the Chamber evolved into a more formal area in the 18th century. Paneling was added and tables could be set for tea. A large bedstead remained in the room, which meant that the chamber still doubled as a bedroom. In later years it was used as sitting room and possibly as an office, as tables and chairs were arranged for leisure or cerebral activities such as reading and writing.
On the second floor of Bacon’s Castle are two large rooms, called respectively Over the Hall and Over the Chamber. They were used as bedchambers as well as places for entertaining special guests in an intimate surrounding. Seeking quiet and privacy, the master or the mistress could have invited family members and special guests into these inner sanctums for tea and conversation.
The Over the Hall was a mirror image in size of the downstairs Hall. It was most likely Arthur Allen’s principal sleeping chamber, as well as a place where he and later masters of the house could retreat to work or rest if the downstairs Hall became too crowded or busy. Seventeenth century life tended to mix up activities in rooms, and Allen may have conducted business and done work in both the downstairs Hall and in this bedchamber. By the early 18th century paper work likely moved to the downstairs Chamber, while the next door Hall evolved into the typical parlor for public entertainment.
The Over the Chamber, named for its location above the downstairs Chamber, was one of the dwelling’s principal bedrooms. In the early days of the house it was likely a bedroom for children and guests. At other times it may have been used by the master and mistress of the house.
The room's 1711 inventory revealed a very expensive bed worth £10, which suggests that it may have been reserved for guests. As with most beds of the time, it was not the value of the bed itself, but the expensive textiles (“bed furniture”) in the hangings that were costly. Curtains were commonly made of rare painted Indian cotton called calico. Also driving up the cost were richly fabricated valences, linen sheets, a quilt, pillows and pillow cases, blankets and a bed rug.
Today the room reflects the way it may have appeared in the 17th century. The furnishings are based on inventories taken at the time of Major Allen’s death. They are functional and not lavish, showing that the room was a less formal space for working, eating and socializing. There’s a bedstead in the room as well which could have been used for guests. The old chest is English and from the 17th century.
Second Story Porch Interior South Side
Bacon's Castle had two porches on the north and south sides of the house. The one on the south side was the main entrance and had a wooden porch and stairs leading up to the front door. On the north side the porch contained a indoor staircase in a tower.
The front entrance porch was retained when the wooden extension was added in the 18th century, but it was later closed when the brick neo-classical wing was built.
The main entrance was then placed in the hyphen connecting the two main wings of the house. A back porch was also constructed at the rear of the new wing with two sets of stairs descending in opposite directions.
The entrance space behind the front door was where guests would step in and enter the Hall. In 1665, they would have walked right into the Hall, without any partition blocking their view, and seen any activity that may have been occurring at the time. This later changed after the central hallway was built, but the 1665 arrangement was typical of late 17th century houses in Virginia.
The rear second storey of the porch was occupied by the stair case. The front second story of the porch was reached through these stairs and by walking through a central hallway. The second story porch area could have been used for storage or even as a servant's sleeping space. In the 18th century a relatively cheap bed is recorded in its inventory, which suggests it could have been an extended sleeping space, likely either for a child, servant or guest.
There are three rooms on the third floor called garrets (attics). In the 18th century, they were used for storing old furniture, equipment and household items. They also provided additional sleeping spaces for children, servants and guests.
You reach the garrets by the back stairs and enter into a central hallway. On the left is a door leading to the larger garret atop the Over the Hall. On the right is a door going to the garret atop the Over the Chamber. At the end of the hallway is a space called in 1711 the uppermost porch chamber.
In 1711 both garret rooms had partitions separating closets or storage space from the rest of the room. The Over the Chamber garret was likely a bedchamber. The other room may have always been mostly for storage, although there was also possibility a useable cheap bed was placed there as well. The 1730 inventory, for example, showed an old bedstead, a feather bed, but also a child’s cradle, several old chairs and a rug and blanket. Old chairs, beds, curtains, trunks, baskets and other storage items were also listed in later inventories.
The garret porch located on the top of the south side tower was used as storage room. Old chairs, spinning wheels and bedsteads could be found there. It could be used as a sleeping quarters as well for guests and servants.
The cellar was the main service area in the house. It consisted of a large space used as a kitchen, plus two other rooms. The kitchen was on the east side of the cellar while the other rooms were on the west.
It was unusual in the 17th and 18th centuries to place a kitchen indoors. Most were outdoors as separate buildings to guard against the dangers of fire. Experts speculate that Arthur Allen may have been less fearful of fire because the house was made of brick. Since the cellar was below ground, it was likely a cold storage area for food. The space in front of the large open-hearth fireplace was also likely a workspace.
The cellar could be entered from the outside, which meant the servants did not mix with the family and guests. This separation of slave and master was a general trend among Virginia’s houses, becoming more pronounced the bigger and more formal the houses became. The kitchen was reachable inside the house from a central hallway through a door.
The kitchen's changing inventories reveal how more expensive glass, earthenware and china replaced pewter. For example, seventy seven pounds of pewter was registered in the kitchen inventory of 1711. That figure dropped dramatically as glasses, china and earthenware replaced pewter in the 18th century. Also in later years the kitchen's inventory was itemized in the Hall's inventory, rather than in the kitchen, which may have merely been the new custom or nothing more than an accounting convenience.
In 2015 archeologists discovered an external kitchen built close to the house. It was a separate building likely added in the late 17th century, not long after the house was built. Again, this shows the trend of separating servants from masters, and of moving work outside and away from the main living quarters of the master’s family.