Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Carter Mansion

The oldest standing frame house in Tennessee, it is believed, still rests on its foundation in Elizabethton, not far from Sycamore Shoals, famed site of the departure of the Overmountain Men on their legendary march all the way to South Carolina to visit death upon the loyalist forces at King's Mountain.  The area reeks of history - it seems to have ghosts - or perhaps I'm just hypersensitive.  My forebears (David and William McNabb) were Overmountain men so it felt like home.

To be such an important house, it is very sparsely represented on the internet.  Even being a student of the state's history, I didn't know about it until a few years ago.  Growing up, a kid thinks Tennessee history was lived in log cabins, such as the Davy Crocket birthplace (not too far down the road from the Carter place).  Of course, a lot was.  But we don't hear much about how people only lived in rough cabins as briefly as they possibly could.  As soon as they could rub two pennies (or shillings) together, they started sawing out boards and mixing up lime paint to try to throw something together that had a little class, something that might impress the inlaws and the preacher's wife.

New England and the mid Atlantic states are covered in nice 17th and 18th century houses, but then they had been settled for over one hundred years before rough men punched their way into the Tennessee and Kentucky back country.  We don't have a lot of great 18th century houses in Tennessee, but we do have some, some of them splendid.

The Carter Mansion doesn't have a solid birth date that we know of.  There is no record of its existence before the mid to late 1790's, but some place its construction 10 to 20 years earlier than that, based on - well based on not much other than local tradition.  It is certainly appropriate in style and construction for a date in the 1780's.  It was the home of John and his son Landon Carter, and was inhabited until well after the Civil War.

The house is just a gem.  It is fully pannelled, floor to ceiling, with several impressive hearths.  The interior walls are one panel thick - one board separates the rooms.  Privacy was obviously a scarce commodity.  The extensive interior woodwork was apparently done off site and imported - it is not likely that there were cabinetmaking or joinery experts in the region - still a howling wilderness - that could pull off a job like this.

The main hearth in the front room is out of character with anything I've seen from the time.  I wonder if it isn't 19th century.

The clapboards feature a nice ovolo or thumbnail profile, different from the more commonly seen beaded edge.

The house as it stands, it must be remembered, is shockingly original.  That it would have survived the sandblast of time in such a state is, well, a head shaker.

Photos of the building during restoration show its solid frame work - traditional domestic framing of the time.

This is so different from the modern "timber frame" with corner braces sprouting like tree branches from every vertical post.  I look at modern frames and wonder what sort of hurricanes and tornadoes the architect expects will blow through.  Of course, the frame is a huge visual focal point now - an unthinkable oddity in the 18th century.  Then, if you wanted to see a frame, you went out to the barn.

Details everywhere.  The effect of sunlight and shadow on all these great panel edges is hypnotic.  There is something really comforting about looking at a room and knowing immediately how all of it fits together.  There are no mysteries, nothing unsettling.  It's a house built by people, for people.  This is hard to put into words.

Amazing stone work.  Still straight as a chalk line after all these years.  This is just tremendously impressive to me.

Another great hearth, and definitely original.  The walls look black now but would have been a seafoam green in their day.  The copper based paint oxidizes over time until it almost looks like old walnut left outdoors.

Beautiful, tasteful cornice.  This house is one of my main inspirations as I plan and construct my own frame addition to the cabin we live in now.

This level of ornamentation is completely achievable and is neither plain and drab nor is it ostentatious.  Everything about the design is balanced and beautiful.  And this in Indian country, during a Revolution.  Pretty sweet stuff.  We have no excuse.

No comments:

Post a Comment