Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library Research Report Series - 1063
Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library
The Lightfoot House (c. 1730-1750) was restored during 1940 by Colonial Williamsburg's Department of Architecture in consultation with Perry, Shaw and Hepburn, Architects, of Boston, Massachusetts. Its outbuildings -- the Kitchen, Laundry, Smokehouse, Wellhead, and Dairy -- were reconstructed over excavated foundations during the summer of 1940 while the house was being restored. The project was completed in July, 1941. A stable constructed then as a garage was removed in 1971. Subsequent interior alterations were executed in 1961.
Another related structure, the red-painted, frame, one-story Lightfoot Tenement on the corner of Francis and South England Streets (now occupied as a guest accommodation of the Williamsburg Inn), was reconstructed along with its outbuildings in 1962. The Lightfoot property encompasses four colonial lots (slightly less than one-half acre each), and originally embraced an entire block of eight lots.
The Lightfoot House, while related to other two-story, brick dwellings in Williamsburg (such as the Wythe House, Ludwell-Paradise House, the Brafferton and President's House at the College of William and Mary), nevertheless is distinctive among local structures. Presumably built in the early eighteenth century as a tenement, its restored appearance today reflects alterations introduced sometime before 1750.
According to Marcus Whiffin's analysis in The Eighteenth-Century Houses of Williamsburg (Williamsburg, Virginia: 1972; 5th printing):
". . . The house itself - rather surprisingly, in view of the Georgian regularity of its exterior - was found when its restoration was undertaken, to have some peculiar features which are not easily explained. These include heavy floor framing timbers, mortised for the studs of partitions, crossing from back to front on both floor levels at dead center -
2 showing that at one time the doors in the north and south walls must have been off center - and the remains of fireplaces, which would have been unusable with the present hipped roof, in the attic. Whatever may be the explanation of these peculiarities, it seems probable that the house at one time resembled the Ludwell-Paradise House in general form; that is to say, that it was only one room deep, with a single-story shed along the rear elevation. This is to be inferred from the presence in the basement of a long-tudinal brick wall, of the same thickness as the north [front] wall, and from the fact that the walls to the south of it are thinner than those to the north. . . . . . The handsome front which the Lightfoot House presents to Francis Street differs from the front of any other brick house in Williamsburg in respect of the window-to-wall ratio; to an eye accustomed to the Ludwell-Paradise and Wythe Houses it may seem rather over-windowed. And alone of Williamsburg buildings it has a molded belt course, instead of a simple [flat string course], at upper [second] -floor level. The present balcony dates from the restoration; the existence of a balcony in the eighteenth century was indicated by holes in the wall, the larger size of the central window, and the omission of the belt course over the front door."
"The house was restored in 1940-1941. Only the walls, the eaves cornice, and the framing of the roof, floors, and partitions were of eighteenth-century date. The walls were cleaned of paint and repaired and patched where neccessary; late windows in the east and west elevations were filled in; the chimneys were rebuilt from the level of the cornice. The [circular, stone] steps to the front door were
3 built to a plan indicated by old foundations; their design follows the north steps of the Brafferton, at the College of William and Mary, which are original."
Architectural evidence mentioned by Whiffen in the first paragraph of his text indicates that the building was at one stage probably per
M. O. K. a two-and-one-half story, double tenement. An eighteenth-century floor plan, recently discovered among the papers of John Custis (1734-1746), the early Williamsburg botanist hortoculturist whose home was nearby on France Street, shows a four-family tenement closely resembling the type of rental property the Lightfoot House may once have been. These tenements were perhaps reminiscent of speculative townhouses in London.
Besides anomalies noted in Whiffen's description, other unusual features are evident at the Lightfoot House. The ornate balcony, reconstructed according to structural indications, constitutes a rare, domestic embellishment for local architecture, documented elsewhere only at the Palace, Capitol, Wren Building, and Marot's Ordinary. The windowless side walls are equally unusual, since the condition characterizes many shops and stores rather than houses in Williamsburg. Noteworthy, too, is the contrast in fenestration differentiating its front and rear elevations; the north facade has five bays, while the south elevation exhibits three bays. The rich, molded brick course at front and back, which returns at the ends instead of encircling the house, is unprecedented among elaborate refinements on Williamsburg buildings. Perhaps unique also are the interior ceiling heights, which measure almost exactly the same on both floors (11'10" on the first story and 11' 6" on the second story). Those dimensions emphasize in turn an exceptional condition wherein the first floor level lies below the line of the dwelling's exterior watertable.
Extensive, repetitive alterations to the interior of the Lightfoot House during its long history left few original elements surviving in 1940. Besides interior partition walls, the only old features extant today are the frames and partial trim of two doors on the first floor (located between the passage and parlor and the passage and dining room). The floors throughout are antique yellow pine floorboards installed during restoration. The present stairway duplicates in design (newels and balusters) as well as arrangement the one found in situ at the beginning of restoration. Paint colors are derived from fragmentary pieces of woodwork which had to be replaced because of deterioration.
Adaptive liberties taken with the first floor plan to enhance its modern residential convenience include: conversion of the southwest
4 room into a kitchen; the addition of two archways fitted with doors in the front passage to provide closets; and enclosure of the rear passage to minimize intrusion of household service functions. Originally the two first floor, front rooms (parlor and dining room) were fully paneled to the ceiling; this condition was omitted in restoration, with dados substituted below the chair rail, cornices applied, and wallpaper introduced on the dining room walls. Fireplaces on the second floor likewise arbitrarily were not restored, just as the second floor plan was modified to allow installation of modern electrical, plumbing, and heating facilities.
Design treatments for the paneled corner chimneybreasts, wainscoting, chair rails, cornices, baseboards, doors, windows, and folding interior shutters were derived from local buildings, notably the Wythe House, Peyton Randolph House, Tayloe House, and William Lightfoot House, as well as various dwellings in the Tidewater vicinity. Interesting among interior appointments are the window seats, the continuation of the chair rail to form window sills in the southeast room, the arched motif of the small paneled cupboard flanking the fireplace in the northeast parlor, the bolection molding of the dining room fireplace surround, and the very flat profile of thresholds throughout the house. All lath and plaster, glass, and hardware are new materials.
Williamsburg's 1699 and 1705 Building Acts left uniform setbacks on the town's back streets entirely to the discretion of the gentlemen appointed as "Directors", although a six-foot limit was stipulated for the "main" Duke of Gloucester Street. Consequently, several dwellings (especially along Francis Street) stand more than six feet beyond the surveyed street lines, with the Lightfoot House having the deepest setback of any original residence in town.** Its spacious yard, enclosed by fanciful chinoiserie decorative fence railings, lends the Lightfoot House an aspect of dignified repose almost like an estate set in retirement overlooking the town
The Frenchman's Map (c. 1782) illustrates two structures on this site, apparently the main house and its kitchen, depicted as set apart at some distance from the street. The terrain of this location rises
5 higher than land to the north and thus commands an excellent view of the Market Square. The situation of the Lightfoot House ranks among the most prominent building sites in the city. Although the original depth of the property has been truncated, and lies outside the bounds of the Historic Area where the Craft House parking lot now exists, its landscape setting nonetheless remains serenely expansive.
The reconstructed outbuildings punctuating this site, though insufficiently documented, follow the pattern of disposition substantiated by archaeological excavations. The main garden design, immediately south of the dwelling's rear elevation, necessarily represents only a square portion of what might have been a broad bowling green, or turf panel, extending as a long alle to create a vista and to complement the elegant south face of the building. Plantings at the Lightfoot House include crapemyrtle, purpleleaf plums, yaupon holly hedges, and tree box topiary, augmented by shade tree cover of red oak, red maple, Norway spruce, pecan, redbud, and mulberry. A small herb garden is appropriately located east of the kitchen, with pomegranates and a wattle fence serving as screens to obscure the street. The approach setting for this important structure, incorporating a broad brick entrance path and topiary boxwood accents behind the Chinese Chippendale-style fence, creates focal interest and an imposing landscape enframement for the facade. Contrast of the greenery glimpsed through the intricate angular design of the fencing heightens the impression of architectural distinction emanating from the mellow ruddiness of brickwork, glints of gilded balcony details, and stateliness of overall design at the Lightfoot House.
The garden attached to the Lightfoot Tenement also reflects imaginative landscape elements and interesting plant materials. Featured there are tree-peonies, golden-raintrees, abundant herbs, and an arbor of pleached redbuds. The design is accentuated by the artfully contrived shapes of yaupon topiary, sculpted as feeding squirrels poised with nuts between their paws.
The earliest history of this Lightfoot property, which stood in James City County, is indefinite. A research reevaluation in 1975, however, confirms facts of its late eighteenth-century ownership. Philip Lightfoot III of Caroline County advertised the house for sale in 1783 describing it as "a large two-story brick dwelling house with four rooms on a floor . . . lying on the back street near to the market." Later, in 1786, his brother, William Lightfoot of "Tedington", sold the house and six lots to The Reverend John Bracken, rector of Bruton Parish Church and subsequently president of The College of William and Mary.6
Speculated, but unproven, is a theory that Lightfoot ownership of this site on Francis Street, along with other Williamsburg properties including the restored William Lightfoot House, dates from the early years of the town's establishment. Architectural evidence, as already noted, strongly implies that the present house was initially built as a tenement. During its tenement era, furthermore, certain architectural elements hint the structure might have been utilized for commercial purposes. Its c. 1750 renovation, resulting in the appearance restored today, is considered a change substantial enough to suggest conversion into a townhouse of pretension, meaning that that period, too, could be conjectured as a likely time of Lightfoot acquisition.
A British traveler gave an inkling of the Lightfoot family's wealth when he described their Yorktown residence in 1736 as "equal in Magnificence to many of our superb ones at St. James." No such account has been discovered to document their Williamsburg properties, but York County records do reveal that in 1747 Philip Lightfoot I, a prosperous merchant who owned widespread plantations and served as Clerk of York County until appointed to the colonial Council, willed to his son, John, all his "Lots and Houses in the City of Williamsburg" including "the Furniture in the House in Williamsburg". Which site they occupied as a townhouse is unknown, but through investments such as the Lightfoot House itself, they perhaps increased their fortunes to the extent that thes[faded] mundane, transient rental quarters could be transformed into the handsome dwelling which enriches Williamsburg's architectural scene today.
Catherine S. Schlesinger
Architectural Research Department
March 6, 1979