Fredericksburg’s Mystery Building

From Hennessy:   (Click on images to enlarge them.)

Update:  As noted in the comments, I took a look at the Michler Map of Fredericksburg, 1867, and to make it legible I have overdrawn the buildings shown on the map. 

The mystery building, in all its mass (seemingly bigger than the adjacent Gordon House, as the photos suggest), is clearly shown.

Original Post: I know in the big scheme, this is not a big deal.  But, I am bothered by things that make no sense.  And being able to see in multiple images what was clearly one of the largest buildings in Fredericksburg (in an area of intense military activity on December 11, 1862) and not being able to figure out what it was makes no sense to me.  So, I throw additional information and ruminations out there in the hopes maybe someone knows something we do not.

Since my first post on the mystery cupola  (here), I have gathered up three additional views and done some calculating.  In the first, taken in 1863 from above the upper pontoon crossing, the mystery building is stunningly obvious.

An 1863 sketch drawn just a few yards downstream from the location of the camera in image 1 likewise shows the cupola—and indeed offers the clearest view of all.

This view clearly shows the Gordon House–a look at the house yesterday confirmed that the fenestration as shown on the sketch matches precisely the building as it stands today.  Note too that both the photo and the sketch show the same tree blocking part of the view of the Gordon House.  By the way, the building in the upper right of this sketch is likely the Scott Duplex at the corner of Charles and Fauquier–a building I once theorized might be the home of the cupola.  Clearly not.

A second photograph from across the river (taken on the grounds of Pine Grove, about a quarter mile north of the vantage point of the wider panorama we shared last week) shows the cupola on the extreme right.   This image offers no new details, but does give us an additional resource to help locate the mystery building.

I have taken the three photographs (including the one from the post the other day, which you can find here), marked their vantage points on the map (1-3 north to south), below, and then I have drawn a line linking the vantage point with the spot on the map that corresponds with the location of the cupola in each image.  Using the upstream image to triangulate, the location of the building is clear:  somewhere near the Gordon House, Jane Beale House, and the Thomas Knox House (today’s Kenmore Inn) on upper Princess Anne Street.

After dispensing with the theory that the cupola matched the Scott Duplex on Charles Street, then I theorized it was, perhaps, the Gordon House itself, with a roof radically different than the one on the house today.  But, as you can see, the sketch clearly shows the Gordon House sitting next to the cupola.  Moreover, there is no indication anywhere that the Gordon house was ever altered as radically as all that.

Adding to the mystery is that neither property tax records nor Mutual Assurance Policies indicate a building of this magnitude in this area.  It’s possible that a quirk of perspective makes us think the building is closer to the camera than it really is—that it is farther west on Prince Edward Street.  But, the downstream images strongly suggest that could not be so, and besides, there are no obvious candidates along Prince Edward Street either.  Too, the 1863 sketch seems to place it squarely on the same block with Gordon—nearer to the artist than the Scott duplex, which is a block farther west.

So, we are left with a mystery–one to me that is now even more intriguing and bothersome than it was last week.  I have proven myself adept at missing the obvious, and so won’t be surprised if the answer to this is right in front of all of us, seen to all but me (if so, I will be humbled—if not humiliated—but still grateful).  And it may be that the only person on earth who cares about this piece of esoterica is me. Nonetheless, I throw the issue out for public consideration, with an ardent call from those who know Fredericksburg’s history to weigh in.


15 thoughts on “Fredericksburg’s Mystery Building

  1. John, You certainly have a conumdrum on your hands! It’s hard to believe that knowledge of such a substantial structure can now be so obscured. In looking closely the windows appear to represent more of any institutional use rather than residential and the roof seems to have some type of railing installed around it. Yet it certainly is not a church. Are there any institutions known to have existed in the town at the time but the location of same no longer known?

    • I think you’re right about the institutional look of the place. Though there were many schools in this section of town, including Jane Beale’s, I don’t believe any of them would have been large enough to warrant a building this size. Too, the tax records would, it seems, make a record of it. Working on this a bit more this afternoon, the insurance maps from 1857 show a smaller building on the site; the 1891 Sanborn maps show that the building was gone by then. So, it seems, whatever it was had a short life–relative to most of Fredericksburg’s buildings. I also looked at the Michler Map of Fredericksburg Battlefield, done in 1867. It shows a large building standing between Gordon and the Kenmore Inn–clearly, at least to me, the building in the photographs. I think it’s safe to say that the location of the mystery building is pretty well confirmed. Its function and ownership are still up in the air. I’ll post the Michler map in a bit.

  2. Apparently the building survived the war. Do you think a search through the newspapers of the time period from 1865-1891 might mention such a structure. Seems the removal of a structure of this size, especially if it were of some institutional nature, would generate some kind of news.

    • Dennis, in fact I think the most likely place to find the answer to this is in the newspapers. No doubt a building of this size neither arose or vanished without local note. But, I will also say that I and various other people at the park have done a pretty thorough review of newspapers from the period of the Civil War, and haven’t seen anything yet. But, I think you’re right. The answer is out there.

      • If I understand correctly, the insurance maps indicate a probable time range for the structure to be between 1857 and 1891. In reveiwing newspapers, have you and others examined papers from later dates than the Civil War period? If not, perhaps there is information waiting to be discovered in the 1870’s or 1880’s papers.

      • Dennis: Here’s what we know. The 1857 Mutual Assurance Policy for Douglas Gordon shows a building 24×16 in the presumed location of the cupola building–clearly not the building itself. So, if we have the right location, then the cupola building was built after 1857 (its Italianate style certainly is consistent with that conclusion). The 1867 Michler map shows a building that seems to match the scale of the cupola building. And, it would seem, as many as six photographs and sketches show the building–all are consistent in placing the cupola on the Gordon House block or very close to it.

        Here’s what doesn’t fit. The values placed on the buildings owned by Douglas Gordon until he disposed of the property after the war don’t support the presence of a building this expansive. Too, using Michler and other images as a guide, the presumed location of the building would straddle lots 97 (Gordon’s) and 95 (Knox’s), if not 98 (also Gordon’s). But, Gordon did not own part of 95, and Knox didn’t own part of 97. So, again, we are stuck. And then there is Eric’s work on the tax records, which suggest that the building portrayed on the Michler map did not come on the tax rolls until 1868. But, clearly the building is there in 1863.

        Once again, none of this REALLY matters, except that now it’s become a true mystery and conundrum–and a bug under our backsides until the mystery is resolved and the conundrum goes away.

      • John: As I explained in my notes with the actual graphic I sent you this morning, Michler’s map works fine as a schematic, but it suffers in actual scale. However it does present a reliable representation of the structures and their relative size to each other. That said, at no time was I implying that the “cupola house” encroached on any portion of quad 95, belonging to Knox. That illusion was a byproduct of overlaying Michler on the aerial photograph, both victims of their own distortions.

  3. John – I think you’re in the neighborhood, but I’m not so sure we’ve got the right block. If I read the town plats correctly, the block bordered by Princess Anne, Lewis, Charles and Fauquier Streets, was divided into four lots – Nos. 95, 96, 97 and 98. Lot 95 was owned by Thomas F. Knox, 96 by Jane B. Beale, and Douglas H. Gordon owned both 97 and 98.

    Gordon’s lots appear to run from Princess Anne Street all the way back to Charles Street. From 1852 to 1862, the value of buildings on these two lots was $7,000. The value dropped to $4500 in 1865 and remained constant for the next two years. In 1868, Lots 97 and 98 were then taxed to by L.C. Frost, Trustee for wife, suggesting a sale of the property at some point in either 1867 or 1868. The 1868 tax roll also has two entries, suggesting perhaps a known subdivision of the property, for these lots. One is valued at $4500 and the other at $9000. This to me suggests a newly constructed building of larger proportions.

    Since Michler’s surveyors were in town in September/October 1867, I believe that the larger building that appears on his map, between Gordon and Knox, is actually that newer post-war structure. This same building also appears on Gray’s 1878 map.

    Again, I think we’re in the neighborhood, but I’m not so sure we’ve got the right block.


  4. Eric and John,
    Looking at this thing over and over I am of the opinion that the Gordon, Knox, Beale and Hunt block is correct. Numerous photographs from south of the railroad bridge, looking northwest, put this cupola structure over the right, rear shoulder of the Baptist Church. It also appears this way in a sketch by Waud from a similar perspective. Using the image from the pontoon site also very solidly places this structure within that block based on the strength of other known building’s placement in the vista: Union House, Marye Jr. Alsop Knox, Hancock and of course Gordon. To put “cupola house” let’s say one block back would impose it on the Mary Washington house. One back even further puts it within Chew and French which can’t be as that removes it far from the line of sight over the rear of the Baptist Church from Ferry Farm/Scott vicinty.
    One other thought I have, having looked at it so much, is that the center cupola may not be on the roof of the structure immediately fronting Princess Anne, but instead it may be on a rear addition as implied by the Michler map, something that fails to show itself on Gray’s map, so gone by 1878.
    If someone also has a copy of the November 1862 “birdseye” map I am pretty sure that it has the cupola structure in it whereas the 1856 (and far more fanciful) birdseye map does not. I have only looked at a low-res version on line and can’t tell for certain how much detail is attempted in the 1862 version. It may be worth a look.

    John Cummings

  5. Having said what I have in the prior comment, might we consider that the “cupola” is actually the top of a rear attached bell tower? And what of the lane that runs from Lewis Street between the Beale and Knox properties? How many students did Beale teach and are we certain it was at her house? I must admit I have not read her journal in entirety to even have a remote understanding. Might this have served as a school as Union House and Chew later did?

    John Cummings

    • John: Regards Beale’s school, her diary makes pretty clear it was on her property–probably on the Lewis Street end. But, by any measure hers was a modicum operation, certainly not of size to warrant the cupola building. Unfortunately, her diary is silent for the immediate pre-war period and anything after the 1862 battle… It would be easy for us to get carried away in pursuit of the answer to this, but I keep reminding myself that in the big picture, this is a small issue indeed…. Thanks for your thoughts. John H.

      • My thought about “cupola house” being a possible “public structure” was an effort to explain its lack of appearance on the tax rolls. Having spent a good portion of today digging into that line of thinking to no avail, I have settled on some conclusions which I think will only echo Mr. Mink’s findings due to be posted tomorrow. Having spoken with him earlier this evening I am certain his research will put this mystery to rest. Eric is a diligent historian. Bravo!

  6. I may have scanned the above too sloppily; if so, please forgive me. But for what it’s worth, Shelby Foote on page 38 of his Fredericksburg to Meridian mentions a Union division commander watching the battle from the cupola of the courthouse.
    Has the courthouse already been considered and discounted?

    • Tom: You are correct: Darius Couch famously watched part of the Battle of Fredericksburg from the cupola of the courthouse. Bear in mind, the courthouse itself is not under threat, but the use of it will be changing. The court will eventually move. A future use of the building hasn’t yet been determined–and therein lies any uncertainty. John H

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