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Jacob W. Holt, Builder

Annefield Vineyards: Shadow Lawn, Chase City, Virginia.
Shadow Lawn, Chase City, Virginia.

CATHERINE W. BISHIR, ARCHITECTURAL Historian of Preservation North Carolina and an adjunct professor in the Department of Architecture, College of Design at North Carolina State University, is the author of, among many definitive works on North Carolina architecture, Jacob W. Holt, An American Builder (Winterthur Portfolio 16, 1981; reprinted in Southern Built: American Architecture, Regional Practice (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006) and The House Marina Built: Cherry Hill, A Plantation House and Its Family (Warrenton, NC: Cherry Hill Historical Foundation, 2004) and a recognized authority of his work.  She has attributed Annefield to Holt’s shop. Precise attribution is sometimes problematic for his associates, particularly John A. Waddell, worked in a similar style and used many of the same motifs, such a those used in Waddell’s construction of Cherry Hill in Warren County, North Carolina.

Annefield Vineyards: Repps A. Barnes House, Red Oak, Virginia.
Repps A. Barnes House, Red Oak, Virginia.

Many features of the original, main block of the house, particularly the entry, doors and double-Palladian windows are nearly identical to those found on several Holt-attributed buildings, but most significantly at Vine Hill, a house dating from 1856 in Franklin County, North Carolina, and Eureka near Baskerville, Virginia, which was built circa 1854-1859. This similarity is important because the construction of both Vine Hill and Eureka is well documented, for the original construction contract and related correspondence between the owners and Holt still exist. Other features, such as the fireplace mantels and the monumental baseboards, doors and door surrounds in the principal rooms are strikingly similar to those found at Engleside and other houses attributed to Holt.  Taken together, the details show that the house at Annefield is typical of Holt’s work during the 1850s.

In Jacob W. Holt, An American Builder, Ms Bishir eloquently describes Holt’s place in American vernacular architecture:

“Jacob W. Holt, a builder who worked in North Carolina and Virginia in the mid-nineteenth century, is representative of an important group in the development of American architecture.  He was one of the many practical builders—carpenters, housewrights, masons, and mechanics—who not only constructed but also shaped the design of much of the nation’s architecture...

Annefield Vineyards: Boyd’s Tavern, Boydton, Virginia.
The Boyd Tavern, Boydton, Virginia.

For builders the period brought dramatic developments in the practice of building and in the character of popular styles. Rapid developments in building technology—the invention of the circular saw, the proliferation of sash and blind factories producing vast qualities of ready-made decoration, and the spread of the balloon frame—introduced new flexibility of form and decoration as well as new roles for the builder. Architectural publications shifted not only from classicism to eclecticism but also from builder’s guides to the house pattern books with models for complete building and their settings. Growing separation of the processes of design and construction came with the emerging distinction between the professional architect and the contractor...

Annefield Vineyards: Cherry Hill, Inez, North Carolina.
Cherry Hill, Inez, North Carolina.

Holt’s design process involved several components: use of popular publications, vernacular reliance on a conservative form and plan, the nature of his shop operation, and the character of his clientele...Holt’s earliest work reflected the influence of Owen Biddle’s Young Carpenter’s Assistant (1805). He copied Biddle’s restrained Federal style moldings, foliated stair brackets, and design for stairs. In Prince Edward and in the imposing house of William Eaton in Warrenton he combined Biddle’s Federal motifs with Asher Benjamin’s Grecian designs which appeared in the widely circulated Practical House Carpenter, first published in 1830.

In the 1840s, Holt moved to a robust simplification of Benjamin’s Grecian taste, executing Benjamin’s motifs in a highly plastic, three-dimensional form... In the early 1850s Holt introduced a new note, replacing the simple classicism of Benjamin’s models with the more ornate and eclectic vocabulary taken from William Ranlett’s The Architect and possibly A.J. Downing’s Cottage Residences. He extracted from Ranlett’s handsome plates of villas and cottages a series of brackets to punctuate the broad eaves of his houses, to clump in miniature at the caps of corner pilasters and porch posts, or to march up the raking cornices of temple-form public buildings. He filled his large rectangular windows with round, ogee, or lancet paired arches and enriched entrances with pinwheel and scallop motifs...He replaced his Doric mantels with an eclectic Ranlett model, and he lavished a series of Gothic trefoil and quatrefoil motifs on mantels, panels, and stair newels. He reshaped door and window moldings and gave arched heads to the panels of his doors. Sometimes handled with restraint as at Engleside in Warrenton or at the more full-blown Cherry Hill, sometimes piled on extravagantly at every possible spot as at Reedy Rill, Holt’s new collection of details when applied to his boldly outlined cube of a house created an eclectic and stylish idiom unique in the region...

Annefield Vineyards: Vineland, Louisburg, North Carolina.
Dr. Samuel Perry House, Centerville, North Carolina.

Despite the changing character of detail, Holt’s buildings remained essentially the same from the 1840s through the 1870s. The most extravagant application of decorative veneer never obscures the inherent conservatism of his work...Holt gleaned from this tradition a “small set of rules” that defined his work. He relied on basic forms and plans that were old when he adopted them, and he continued them throughout his work without changing or obscuring them behind the increasingly abundant ornament. He took as his basic model the shallow-roofed, cubic house form, usually three bays wide and two deep, a Georgian (double-pile) plan—a central hall with two rooms on either side. By the mid-nineteenth century this plan, originally introduced in the eighteenth century in fashionable English houses, had supplanted the standard two-room vernacular house for middle- and upper-middle class people in northeastern North Carolina and Southern Virginia...”

Other houses built by or attributed to Holt or Holt's associates include many listed with The National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources or the North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office. Please consult those organizations for additional information.

Annefield Vineyards: John Watson House, Warrenton, North Carolina.
John Watson House, Warrenton, North Carolina.

Most of these historic properties are privately owned and are not open to the public, and being private, please respect the privacy of residents and owners and refrain from trespassing. However, a few structures are more accessible, such as churches and places of public accommodation. On The Hill in Boydton, Virginia is now operated as the Southern Heritage Bed & Breakfast, and the John Watson House in Warren County, North Carolina is home to Magnolia Manor Plantation Bed & Breakfast. You can view other houses in Warrenton on a walking tour of the Historic District, where the Jacob W. Holt House serves as the town Visitor’s Reception Center. Cherry Hill near Warrenton is maintained by The Cherry Hill Historical Foundation, Inc., which provides tours by appointment and sponsors a classical music concert series with performances at the house.

Two invaluable references describing the buildings in North Carolina are North Carolina Architecture, by Catherine W. Bishir (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990) and  A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Piedmont North Carolina, by Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003).  Please note that the Guide is not comprehensive, because it purposefully omits buildings that cannot be seen from a public right-of-way, and many of these stately old houses are sited well away from the road.  A biography of Holt and a list of his buildings in North Carolina can be found online in the North Carolina Architects & Builders Biographical Dictionary.