St. George Tucker House
St. George Tucker House
Block 29, Building 2
by Carl Lounsbury
Standing on the north side of Market Square, the large central greensward that bisects
the Duke of Gloucester Street, the St. George Tucker House is one of the most complex
eighteenth-century structures to survive in Williamsburg. With its elongated
plan, varying roofline, and many gables, the dwelling is perhaps the city’s most
picturesque building, which is only enhanced by the two large plantings of overgrown
boxwoods that flank its east and west sides. Unlike other colonial dwellings in town,
the house has a sprawling, horizontal mass, which developed as the result of a series
of late-eighteenth-century additions and mid-nineteenth century alterations. The
core of the building dates from the early days of Williamsburg when theatrical
entrepreneur William Levingston erected a one-story, center-passage dwelling that
measured forty feet by eighteen feet. Levingston’s house stood on a plot a land
facing Palace Street a few hundred feet from its present location.1
St. George Tucker House.
At the end of the eighteenth century, jurist St. George Tucker moved this small
dwelling so that it faced Market Square and used it as the nucleus of
a greatly expanded residence. Between 1788 and 1795 he added a second story,
built the shed on the north side, constructed wings on the east and west, and
erected a kitchen and covered way that was connected to the west wing. His son
Nathaniel Beverley Tucker made numerous alterations in the early 1840s,
changing the circulation pattern of the house and raising the roofs of the rear
shed and side wings. Finally in 1930-31 architects Perry, Shaw and Hepburn
reworked the building for the Coleman family, Tucker descendants, by adding
several new partitions, stairs, and trimmed the entire dwelling with colonial
details, turning the ensemble into a curious mixture of colonial and
colonial revival spaces.
St. George Tucker house prior to 1931 restoration.
St. George Tucker, known in his day as "the American Blackstone" for his knowledge of
the laws, was born at Port Royal, Bermuda in 1752 and came to Virginia in 1771 to enroll
at the College of William and Mary. He studied law under George Wythe, and after service
in the American Revolution, he succeeded Wythe as professor of law in 1790, which prompted
his dramatic alterations to the house. Tucker sat as a judge on the Virginia General Court
from 1785 to 1802 and served on the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals from 1803 to 1811.
In 1813 he was appointed a judge of the United States District Court, a position he retained
until his death in 1827. Nathaniel Beverley Tucker followed his father’s career in the law
and teaching. He inherited the house following the death of his stepmother and made
numerous changes to it in the early 1840s.
The St. George Tucker House is probably the best-documented house in Williamsburg. The
Tucker family preserved most of the contracts and accounts of the work that transformed
the modest original core into a substantial dwelling in the late eighteenth
century. As a result, the names of the craftsmen who manufactured the bricks, fabricated
the doors and windows, and installed most of the surviving woodwork are known along with
the cost of every item. The carpenter who moved and reconstructed the old house was John
Saunders who, along with William Piggett, undertook the woodwork of the numerous additions.
Bricklayer Humphrey Harwood, followed by his son William who took over the work on his
father’s death in 1789, supervised the masonry work on the new site, which included the
construction of raised cellar foundations, two massive chimneys, and brick fill inserted
between the framing members. One of the rarest of survivors is a contract between Tucker
and Jeremiah Satterwhite concerning the painting of the house in 1798.
St. George Tucker house.
Paint investigation verified that Satterwhite applied the colors Tucker specified,
so the various parts of the exterior are once more painted straw color or
yellow ochre, white,
and the brickwork covered with a dark red approaching the color of chocolate.
shingles were painted Spanish brown.
Pre-Tucker plans of house.
Pre-Tucker plans of house.
Tucker’s additions to the old core of the house produced a plan that created several
zones of activities from the more private functions on the east or right hand side to
more public ones on the west side of the house. On the main floor, the east wing
consisted of the main bedchamber and a series of dressing rooms. Next to it was Tucker’s
study, the present paneled room whose woodwork mainly dates from the 1750s remodeling by
former owner, the apothecary George Gilmer.
First floor plan, 1792.
First and second floor plan, 1795.
The glazed china closet or buffet standing in the northwest corner of the room was
installed by Gilmer to accommodate a new set of dishes imported from Bristol in 1752.
View of the buffet.
The center passage divides the public from the private realm and leads to a large
unheated back room known in Tucker’s day as the shed, which also housed the staircase
to the two, second-floor chambers.
Northeast staircase, detail of baluster.
A staircase rose along the south wall of the shed to a landing and then turned at a right
angle back to the front passage where it rose to the second floor. (The present staircase in
the east corner contains parts of the 1750s staircase installed by George Gilmer but was
not placed into this position until Nathaniel Tucker raised the shed roof, the roofs of
the two wings, and added dormers in the 1840s. The staircase in the west corner was
installed in the early 1930s and did not exist in the Tucker period.) The room was more
than a circulation space. The Tuckers used it as a large sitting room, where they could
look through the four large windows that lit the north wall into their extensive garden
The Tuckers entertained guests in the rooms west of the center passage. A small parlor
opened off the passage opposite Tucker’s study. A door on the north wall of this room led
into the back shed. Visitors walked through a small passage at the west end of the
shed to reach the large dining room in the west wing. The dining room was originally
subdivided by a passage on the north side that allowed uninterrupted access from the back
shed to the covered way and kitchen to the west. On the second floor in the center section,
Tucker erected two bedrooms and a dressing room for his many children. The rest of the
upstairs was uninhabited attic space until Nathaniel Beverley Tucker raised the roofs of
the two wings and made other substantial alterations in the early 1840s.
First floor plan, 1843.
Cellar view with chimney.
The cellar space beneath the main house contained storage rooms with paved brick floors,
which may have also served on occasion as additional bedchambers for the large
In the late nineteenth century, the large house was subdivided into two residences as
a new doorway was added to the front of the east wing for separate entrance and a new
staircase added to provided access to the bedchamber above. Other alterations
made during this time included the raising of the old west kitchen to two full stories.
The house was restored by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation as a residence for the
Colemans in 1930-1931.
First and second floor plans, 1930.
First and second floor plans, 1931.
The alterations were intended to make the house habitable for the family and create an
exterior that was compatible with the colonial buildings surrounding the site. As a result
many of the Greek revival alterations made by Nathaniel Beverley Tucker in the early 1840s
were not demolished but merely retrimmed in colonial details. For example, the roofline and
dormers that Tucker has raised to accommodate bedrooms in the two wings were left in place.
During the renovations, the present kitchen and covered way (expanded slightly from its
original width) were rebuilt including the much-admired chimney on the west end
of the kitchen. In the main house, the original brick fill was removed during the
restoration but much of it was reinstalled. The central chimneys were rebuilt above the
roofline. All cornices on the old parts of the house, except that on the north side of
the west wing, are original and were repaired rather than replaced. Many of the
weatherboards, especially on the center section, are original, as are the endboards
and bargeboards. All the shutters were renewed, but the front door is carpenter
William Piggett’s handiwork of the early 1790s. Among the most notable original
features in Tucker’s remodeling were a series of triple-hung sash windows that lit
most of the main floor rooms and were among the earliest examples of this form in Virginia,
similar in form to those installed by Tucker’s friend Thomas Jefferson at Monticello.
Unfortunately, these sash were removed during the renovation of the building in the
early 1930s under the mistaken notion that they were later features.
Most of the interior had been retrimmed in the Greek revival period of the
early 1840s. This was replaced by colonial-inspired trim with a number of
fanciful additions including an arch and wainscoting in the center passage.
However, much of the paneling and corner cabinet in Tucker’s parlor survived
from Gilmer’s 1750s remodeling and parts of the staircase in the northeast corner
of the shed dates from this period as well. Floors in the old parts of the house
generally are original though there has been much patching over the years.
In 1995 the building underwent some repairs with the addition of new HVAC
systems to turn the building into a hospitality house with second-story
offices. At the same time, archaeological investigations of Tucker’s rear
yard revealed that the jurist and his family took great pleasure in ornamental
gardening. The area behind the main section of the house was covered with extensive parterres
with orchards located beyond at the north end of the Tucker property.
1 Excavations in 1931 revealed the foundations.
Tree-ring dating indicates that the oak trees were cut for the house frame
after the growing season of 1718. Herman J. Heikkenen, "The Last Year of Tree
Growth for Selected Timbers within the St. George Tucker House, Period I, as Derived
by Key-Year Dendrochronology," Dendrochronology, Inc., March, 1995. For a
detailed architectural account of the Tucker House, see Carl Lounsbury, Mark R.
Wenger, and Roberta Laynor, "The St. George Tucker House: An Architectural Analysis," 2000.