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The Oldest Retail Building in America?
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THE LEWIS STORE

In the summer of 1943, Thomas T. Waterman, a pioneering scholar of Virginia architecture famed for his work in Williamsburg, was driving back to Washington from a visit to Port Royal, Virginia. Wartime gas rationing made the trip an expensive luxury, but Waterman drove out of his way to show his companion, James Patton, a remarkable building. “Our conversation centered on his architectural experiences and writings,” Patton recalled, “and as we neared Fredericksburg he said there was a building he wanted me to see. It was nearly dark and after a few wrong turns the site was located. I recall his words as ‘there is a very early building and one of the finest & most unique architecturally in this town,’ pointing out the use of the stone quoins at the corners, ‘something seldom seen except in larger and more elegant buildings.’ He wondered why, how and by whom it was constructed.”

The building Waterman so admired was a two story brick store that presented a narrow gable end to Caroline Street, the primary commercial avenue in Fredericksburg. What distinguishes it from other small brick buildings of the mid-eighteenth century is the dramatic use of stone quoins at the corners. Quoins were a common feature on great houses of the period, but are extremely rare on smaller buildings. Quoins were passing out of fashion by the time of the American Revolution. Their use on this building is evidence of its early date, and of the ambitions of its builder, who was determined to distinguish himself from the other merchants of Fredericksburg.

Modern research has solved the mystery of the building’s origins. The store was constructed in 1749 by John Lewis, one of the leading planters and merchants in Virginia, a member of the Governor’s Council. The Fielding Lewis Store is one of the oldest surviving urban retail buildings in the United States. In its early decades the store must have been the grandest place to shop in Fredericksburg, the most rapidly growing commercial center in east-central Virginia. The architectural distinctiveness of the building was a visible symbol of Lewis’ determination to make himself into a colonial merchant prince. His son Fielding Lewis shared that ambition. The younger Lewis took over the store and his father’s other Fredericksburg businesses in the 1750s.

For much of his career Fielding Lewis lived in a house on the ridge overlooking the store. On the eve of the American Revolution he constructed the grandest house in Fredericksburg just a few blocks away. Known since the nineteenth century as “Kenmore,” the Lewis mansion has what is justly regarded as one of the finest Georgian interiors in the United States. It was the object of one of the first great historic preservation campaigns of the twentieth century, and has been carefully maintained and restored by the Kenmore Association since the 1920s.

The Lewis Store is an equally important example of Georgian commercial architecture. Yet it was allowed to decay for most of the 20th century. Eighteenth-century commercial buildings have never received the kind of attention from the historic preservation movement that has been lavished on the great houses. As a result, most early stores have been lost. By the time Thomas T. Waterman saw the Lewis Store, the building had been altered by the addition of windows and doors to accommodate residential users, and its identity as a retail store was not apparent even to an expert on Virginia architecture. When Waterman saw the building it 1943, it was owned by members of the Savee / Pitzer family. The Savee / Pitzers lived in the house for three generations before the building was abandoned altogether about 1982. In 1983 new owners purchased 1200 Caroline Street with the goal of preserving the badly deteriorated structure. The National Park Service approved Historic Preservation Certification under its Tax Act program in mid-1984 for an adaptive reuse project combining residential and commercial functions. Financial realities forced the owners reluctantly to put aside the approved plans. Alternative resources for preserving the building were then actively pursued.

Following its successful 1996 national campaign to preserve Ferry Farm, the childhood home of George Washington, the Historic Fredericksburg Foundation accepted the challenge of preserving the Fielding Lewis Store. Late in the year the owners, knowing the significance of the building and realizing that a proper restoration was beyond the means of a private owner, chose to give the historic structure to the foundation, recognizing that HFFI was the best organization to meet the challenge. The gift was announced on December 4, 1996 at a ceremony held outside the building. A founding member of the Historic Fredericksburg Foundation, Ms. Lillian Reed (age 93) climbed in a utility bucket lift to place a wreath twenty feet above the ground on the building’s chimney. Stabilization of the building began immediately after the ceremony.

The Foundation spent 1997-98 studying the history of the store and evaluating the restoration alternatives. In the summer of 1998 the foundation retained Joseph Dye Lahendro, Architect, of Richmond to conduct a detailed architectural analysis and design the restoration program. The Foundation also retained Douglas Sanford of Mary Washington College to conduct archaeological excavations at the store and Herman J. Heikkenen of Dendrochronology, Inc. of Roanoke, Virginia to examine the interior framing timbers to determine the precise date of construction.

With years of study and planning complete, the challenge now before the foundation is the restoration of one of the most architecturally and historically important buildings in Virginia, and what may well be the last complete eighteenth-century building restoration ever undertaken in Fredericksburg. HFFI has an unblemished record of success in historic preservation reaching back more than forty years. The foundation has successfully completed the restoration of several important buildings and has been an important participant in the restoration of many more. The restoration of the Fielding Lewis Store will be the crowning accomplishment of the foundation’s first fifty years.


THE LEWIS STORE

HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE

The Lewis Store is one of the oldest urban retail buildings in the United States. Eighteenth-century urban stores were typically located in densely- built commercial districts. Those that survived fires (and, in the South, the devastation of the Civil War) were mostly demolished to make way for larger stores, better suited to the needs of late nineteenth and twentieth century business. The Lewis Store is one of the few remaining reminders of the origins of American retailing.

Something like the modern retail store began to develop in Europe during the late seventeenth century, gradually replacing periodic outdoor markets as a source for everyday merchandise. General retail stores became increasingly common in English towns during the first decades of the eighteenth century. Retail stores offering a wide range of imported goods began to appear in American towns in the 1720s. Williamsburg’s Prentis Store — which was being used as a gas station when John D. Rockefeller, Jr. began the restoration of Virginia’s colonial capitol — was among the first urban stores in Virginia. The Prentis Store and the Lewis Store are the only surviving urban retail stores built in the first half of the eighteenth century.

The Lewis Store was built in 1749. The age of the store was determined by dendrochronology — the study of tree rings in the timbers used in buildings to determine their age. In 1999 Jack Heikkenen, a former Virginia Tech professor and the leading authority on tree-ring dating in Virginia, analyzed a core sample from the massive white oak summer beam supporting the first floor. He determined that the beam was from a tree cut down in the winter of 1748-49 and put in place within a few months.

When the Lewis Store was built, George Washington was a seventeen year-old surveyor; Patrick Henry was thirteen; the future King George III and the future Lord Cornwallis were boys of eleven; Thomas Jefferson was six; Benjamin Franklin was experimenting with electricity in Philadelphia, but would not publish his findings for two years. James Madison and James Monroe were not yet born.

From its earliest years, the Fielding Lewis Store enjoyed the patronage of America’s greatest hero: George Washington. He grew up on a plantation on the edge of town, and his sister Betty married Fielding Lewis. Even after he moved to Mount Vernon, Washington sent to Fredericksburg for merchandise from the Lewis Store. In 1757 Washington wrote to his mother, Mary Ball Washington, to buy cloth, hose and thread from “Mr. Lewis’ Store.” Washington made numerous other purchases from the store – shoe buckles, salt, mirrors, and a wide variety of other goods – over more than twenty-five years.

The Lewis Store is one of the last physical reminders of one of the most basic transformations in American history: the consumer revolution of the second half of the eighteenth century, which changed the American economy and the lives of ordinary people forever. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the economic growth of the American colonies was making manufactured consumer goods – everything from lace tablecloths to brass shoe buckles – cheap enough for ordinary people to buy. Consumer demand skyrocketed, and merchants set up stores in towns like Fredericksburg to meet the growing demand. This consumer revolution was as fundamental to the lives of ordinary people as the more familiar American Revolution. Indeed, it gave tangible meaning to the ideas of the Revolutionary movement, which appealed to the ambitions of ordinary people for economic and social improvement. The Revolution asserted the right of all Americans to the “pursuit of happiness,” which, for ordinary people, included the opportunity to acquire things that had once been reserved to their social superiors. The consumer revolution turned the United States into a nation of shopkeepers and consumers, and redefined the idea of equality.


THE LEWIS STORE

ARCHITECTURAL SIGNIFICANCE


The Lewis Store is one of the most important examples of early retail construction in the United States. It was built when the eighteenth-century consumer revolution was just beginning to transform the lives of ordinary Americans. The store included features, like a display window and ornamental stonework, that were intended to command the attention of potential customers and draw them into the store. Such features would eventually become common in retail buildings.

The Lewis Store is the oldest retail store in the United States that may be attributed to a known architect. It may have been designed by Richard Talliaferro, who was a kinsman of John Lewis and the most important Virginia builder of that generation. Talliaferro designed and oversaw the construction of dozens of important buildings in Virginia. Several of the most famous Virginia plantation houses, including Rosewell, Berkeley, Sabine Hall, Nomini Hall, Westover, Brooke’s Bank, Powhatan, Wilton and Carter’s Grove were designed by Talliaferro or have been attributed to him. Talliaferro also designed the Courthouse and the north wing and dependencies of the Governor’s Palace and the Wythe House in Williamsburg. The proportions and details of the Lewis Store point to the work of a skilled architect, and they are remarkably similar to Talliaferro’s work elsewhere As originally built, the Lewis Store was an elegant story-and-a-half building, probably with a jerkin-head roof. The door to the selling floor was located in the middle of the gable end, and was flanked by windows capped with ornamental stonework. The corners were defined by sandstone quoins, and the southeast corner, facing toward the center of town, was marked by a special display window — the oldest such window for which physical evidence survives. Display windows did not become a common feature of American stores until the early nineteenth century.

The selling floor, where the merchant displayed his wares, occupied the front of the store. A door in the back of the selling room led into a narrow storage hall – another unusual feature – that divided the selling room from the merchant’s counting room, which occupied the back of the building. The half story above — accessible through a narrow interior staircase and a loading door at the front of the store — was used for storage. So was the basement, which was reached through an exterior bulkhead.

The store was damaged in the great Fredericksburg fire of 1807, and was remodeled early in 1808. The walls were raised to two stories, providing the merchant with more storage and living space upstairs. The original display window was bricked up. Windows in the north and south walls, located at either end of the old storage hall, were converted to doors, and new windows were opened on the sides of the building, allowing more light into the selling room. The store continued in business for another decade, weathering years of economic turmoil before and during the War of 1812. By 1820, the store closed for good. The building was converted into a residence, and additional changes were made over the subsequent decades to accommodate the occupants.


THE LEWIS STORE

EXISTING CONDITIONS


The Lewis Store is in need of extensive restoration. The initial stabilization by the foundation in the winter and spring of 1996-97 has substantially halted the decay of the building. A modern rubber roofing material was installed over the existing roof. Support posts were installed in the interior to shore up decaying floor joists, and measures were taken to ventilate the interior. An initial assessment of the condition of the structure was then undertaken by Preservation Services, Inc., one of the leading restoration firms in the country. That firm found that rising damp, the suction of groundwater into the base of brick walls, is causing the deterioration of the foundations of the building. Removing the ivy from the foundations and installing an effective gutter and downspout system eliminated two immediate causes of this problem.

A more thorough assessment of the building has since been completed by project architect Joseph Dye Lahendro, in consultation with structural engineer Paul Muller of Mulller Engineering Associates, Inc., and Jack Peet, a highly regarded craftsman and authority on eighteeth-century masonry. This team agrees that the building is in need of immediate restoration, but that the basic 250-year old structure is sound.

The exterior masonry is in need of extensive restoration. In the original structure, the weight of the brickwork over the windows and doors was borne by stone lintels, some of which survive. Windows and doors added in the nineteenth century have no lintels or relieving arches, and as the wooden window frames have deteriorated, the brickwork over these windows and doors has begun to fail. The large sandstone quoins, which give the building its architectural distinctiveness, are in various states of disintegration. Many are sound, requiring only surface repairs, although some will require more extensive work due to the past use of inappropriate patching materials. The roof frame is in need of repair, and the roof itself will have to be replaced using historically-appropriate wooden shingles in place of the existing asphalt shingles.

Inside the building, floors, walls, and ceilings are in an advanced state of deterioration. Existing partition walls, however, were installed when the store was converted to residential use, and would have been removed in any case. Plumbing and electrical wiring has been removed in preparation for restoration work.

The Lewis Store is located at the corner of Caroline Street, Fredericksburg's main shopping avenue, and Lewis Street. The store is on the northern end of the downtown business district, a short distance from the Rising Sun Tavern and the Hugh Mercer Apothecary Shop, two popular eighteenth-century attractions, and is directly across from the Fredericksburg library. The adjacent lots on Caroline Street are undeveloped. This gives the grounds of the Lewis Store an open, park-like appearance consistent with the low density of eighteenth-century development in the town.

 
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