Mystery Building: Gordon-Frost House

From Mink:

The photos and sketches included in the previous posts suggest that the building with the cupola stood on what is now the 1200 block of Princess Anne Street. The prewar tax records don’t indicate any substantial improvements on that block. The local newspapers, however, seem to hold the answer.

In the August 11, 1860 edition of the Weekly Advertiser, the following notice appeared:


Wm. H. Norton, Esq., is taxing his ingenuity and trying his best on that magnificent thirty thousand dollar domicile of Douglas H. Gordon, Esq’s, which is to surpass anything in the way of private residences ever seen in our hitherto “finished town.”

(William H. Norton was an accomplished Fredericksburg carpenter and builder.)

A month later, in the September 6, 1860 edition of the Advertiser, this announcement is found:

We also understand, there are several parties about commencing houses – this with Mr. Gordon’s and several other buildings nearly completed, shows an activity and prosperity that we have not had here for many years in that department.

We know that the Douglas H. Gordon House, which still stands at the corner of Princess Anne and Fauquier Streets, was built sometime prior to 1801. These mentions in the newspaper indicate a second residence being built by Mr. Gordon that must have been a substantial structure.

In April 1867, Douglas Gordon sold lots 97 and 98 to Leonard C. Frost. In the November 1, 1869 edition of the Virginia Herald, the following advertisement is found:

House For Rent.

A three story and basement brick house, containing ten rooms of fine size, wide hall, servants room detached, lot running through from street to street. Immediate possession. Apply to

L.C. Frost

Since we know the Gordon House was, and, is a two-story frame structure, this advertisement suggests a larger, more substantial house also owned by Frost.

In 1869, Frost subdivided his two lots, selling the northern half and the older Gordon House, to Reverend Thomas S. Dunaway, pastor of the nearby Fredericksburg Baptist Church. On the morning of September 12, 1871, a fire destroyed a large building on Frost’s property. This from the report of the fire that appeared in the September 14, 1871 edition of the Virginia Herald:

A Fine House Burned.

About two o’clock last Tuesday morning an alarm of fire was raised, when it was discovered that the handsome brick residence of Mr. L.C. Frost, on Princess Anne street, was on fire, which consumed the whole wood work of one of the most costly residences in the city, leaving nothing standing except the naked walls.

The property destroyed was built by Douglas Gordon, before the war, but who did not quite complete it, when it was subsequently purchased by Mr. Frost, who expended about five thousand dollars in completing it and making other improvements.

Mr. Frost had an insurance of $8,000 on the fine building, on which something near 19,000 dollars was spent by Mr. Gordon.

The handsome frame dwelling of Rev. T.S. Dunaway, which was only some twelve or fifteen feet from the burnt building was, from the first to last, in great danger of being destroyed but indomitable courage conquered.

So, it seems that there was a large residence on the 1200 block of Princess Anne Street that was started by Douglas Gordon in 1860, finished by Leonard Frost and subsequently destroyed by fire in 1871. A look at the tax records shows a jump in value of buildings on Lots 97 and 98 from $4,500 in 1867 to $13,500 in 1868. This suggests the completion of the residence started by Gordon. I’m not well-versed in how property taxes were determined, but might it be possible that we don’t see Gordon being taxed for this new residence because it was not a finished structure?

Below is a current photo of the 1200 block of Princess Anne Street, looking northwest. Today the block only contains three addresses, the Thomas Knox House (aka Kenmore Inn) at 1200 Princess Anne, a 1928 Dutch Colonial at 1204 Princess Anne, and the Douglas Gordon House at 1210 Princess Anne.

There is a fair amount of space between the Gordon House and the 20th century Dutch Colonial. Certainly this space is large enough to have accommodated the large brick Gordon-Frost House. 

Even along the sidewalk today, we may see the evidence of this structure. Are the stone wall, steps and gate that front Princess Anne Street, south of the frame Gordon House, surviving landscape features that complemented the structure finished by Leonard Frost? Was this the access from the street to the brick Gordon-Frost House?

If we accept that the large building with the cupola that appears in so many wartime photos and sketches stood on the 1200 block of Princess Anne Street, and that it stood on Douglas Gordon’s land, than the structure mentioned and described above is the likely candidate.

Eric J. Mink

10 thoughts on “Mystery Building: Gordon-Frost House

  1. From Hennessy: Thanks for digging all this out, Eric. An interesting aside: it’s likely that the Gordon/Frost Cupola building was the largest single-family residential structure in Fredericksburg’s history. I am not aware of anything that approaches its mass–not Hazel Hill, not the Alsop/Shepard House across the street, and probably not even Chatham (though Chatham is of course not in Fredericksburg, but in Stafford). That the gate and stone wall in front remain is very cool. We have all walked by the site a thousand times, and it never occurred to me to wonder why there is a gate and steps leading to nothing. Now we know. Great stuff. Thanks.

    • At some point in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s a new substantial structure was erected on this site. In 1927 the Mary Washington Hospital Association acquired the building, which served as nurses housing for the Mary Washington Hospital that was then located on Sophia Street. Ownership changed in 1950. This structure was destroyed by fire in 1973, when it was occupied by the Rappahannock Guidance Clinic.

  2. Mr. Mink gets the prize! Certainly no other structure appears in the numerous wartime views of Fredericksburg to equal the one described in the newspaper articles. Mystery SOLVED.

  3. Very nicely done, Eric. At one time, Fredericksburg Historical Prints was offering a prize of a print depicting this area under bombardment, with bridge builders in the foreground, to anyone who figured out what the cupola was attached to. The artists always include it in their paintings, but no one knew what it was. If that print shop had not closed a few years ago, that prize would be yours.
    Erik Nelson

  4. In the event that anyone cares I did a census search (because I’m obsessed like that):

    Douglas H. Gordon (age 42) in 1860 lived with I’m assuming his family (Ann E., 26; Mary E. Gordon, 11; Douglas H. Gordon Jr., 2; and H.P. Gordon, (male), 10 months). Also it appears Douglas’s mother, Anna C. Gordon (age 75) lived with them. Douglas’s real estate was valued at $250,000 and his personal estate at $560,000! Anna’s was personal estate valued at $25,000.

    D.H. Gordon also had 18 slaves, seven of which were mulatto. In my surface search, I could not find Anna with slaves in Spotsylvania County but with a personal estate value as high as that, it would not be surprising to find she had slaves in another county. There were also four slave houses on the property according to the slave schedule.

    Thanks for your investigative work, Eric. It really is a shame that house was destroyed by fire.

    • Thanks Emmanuel. Douglas Gordon was by a wide margin the wealthiest man in the Fredericksburg region. His father was Basil Gordon, of Falmouth, reputed to be America’s first millionaire (a claim I doubt, but one that is conventional wisdom locally). Before the war, Gordon owned Kenmore. I was always struck by the simplicity of what we know today as the “Gordon House” on Princess Anne Street; the information Eric generated on the construction of the cupola building fits perfectly with my perception of Gordon as a man inclined to things much grander than the wood-frame Gordon House. The cupola was the biggest residence in town, and Gordon was the biggest man (at least financially; though he dabbled in politics, he was by no means a mover and shaker in that realm).
      – Hennessy

  5. I have a photo of D.H Gordon and a book that belonged to him in 1919. He carried the book with him through the war. The book has phone numbers in it and little details about when he was shot, when he needed to order amo,and what time and days he arrived in different locations. I was wanting to see where I can take the photo and the book and find out the value of them.

    • Hi, Dorothy. The Fredericksburg D.H. Gordon to whom this post refers is Douglas Hamilton Gordon, who died in 1883. However, you can probably find more than a few leads to your particular, World War One-era D.H. through genealogy websites and other online sources. Online, too, you should be able to find a book specialist who could supply you with an estimated valuation. Noel Harrison

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