- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 9, 2006

Isle of Wight farmhouse harkens back to days when cotton was king

ISLE OF WIGHT, Va. — Bob Lewis’ house comes from a time when plantations dotted Isle of Wight and cotton was king.

Down a cedar-lined lane along Route 258, between downtown Smithfield and the county courthouse complex, Mr. Lewis’ old farmhouse is a reminder of those days. It even looks a little like the New England factories in which cotton became cloth.

That look is what makes his house stand out to historians.

Mr. Lewis’ home is one of only a handful of clerestory houses left in the state, according to an architectural study of Isle of Wight County, one of only four places in the state where the houses remain.

At last count, in 1992, about 20 of that style still existed.

Clerestory houses — pronounced CLER-story and sometimes spelled “clearstory” —also can be found in Suffolk, Surry and Southampton counties.

The style is characterized by a row of windows just under the roof on part of a house, a design that let in more light in the days before electric light and dates back to the Egyptian temples.

New England industrialists used clerestories in factories. Virginia farmers likely learned of them while traveling to the North or when buyers came to the South with renderings of what the cotton factories looked like, said architectural historian Kimble David.

The style in Virginia dates from 1820 to 1850, when cotton was the cash crop on Isle of Wight farms. By 1850, cotton production moved farther south, Mr. David said.

“I think it tells us something about our own culture and dissemination of architectural style and information in the early 19th century that’s not really documented,” he said. “It’s a testament to what once was and helps guide us where we’re going.”

Mr. Lewis, who bought the house about seven years ago, said it needed a lot of restoration. Now the room with the clerestory feature belongs to his 15-year-old daughter, Amanda.

He said it’s remarkable that the house, which dates from about 1830, survived without significant changes.

“So many times, when people restore old houses, they slap paneling on them, vinyl siding, all these radical changes that spoil the character and what makes the house worth having,” Mr. Lewis said.

Buying the old house — named Elmwood, though he is not sure why — prompted him to shift careers from owning a business to historical-home restoration.

He has learned that British sailors and German prisoners of war once harvested peanuts on the property during World War II and that one man who was born there also died there — on his 85th birthday — and never lived anywhere else.

Mr. Lewis hopes to recognize the house’s historical architecture on the Virginia Landmarks Register and on the National Register of Historic Places.

“Nothing special happened at this house,” he said. “People lived here and raised children and raised peanuts. A few of the children went away to war. This is how people lived in Isle of Wight County.”

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