The Carter Mansion on Tennessee’s 1700s Frontier

March 20, 2015  |  Permalink

Number 5 in a series of Tennessee State Park History Blogs by Ward Weems.

The Carter Mansion in Elizabethton, Tennessee is an astounding architectural survival of the American frontier. While both its traditional and its more academic design elements or details would not have been all that unusual in the Tidewater area of Virginia or in Europe, finding these features on the frontier is remarkable. Even more remarkable is the survival of the house and these features.

This was the home of the framer and chairman of the Watauga Association, John Carter – or his son Landon. The Watauga Association was created by settlers who found themselves beyond the “Proclamation Line.”  King George had prohibited settlement beyond the crest of the Appalachian Blue Ridge in order to keep out of expensive fights with American Indians. The settlement not only did not stop, but, being beyond legal government, the settlers had to form their own in 1772. The Watauga Association became the first independent government in the New World with European origins. The Association stayed in force until the area became the Washington District of North Carolina in late 1776.

If the Carter Mansion was built in as early a time frame as suspected, it was the home of the above mentioned John Carter. If it came a little later in the 1700s, it would have been, primarily, the home of his son Landon. The earliest references to the house come to us from 1796 and 1800, however John Carter had arrived in the area by 1770 and by 1775 had gained title to the property where the house stands. The early references to the house come from the famous French naturalist, Andre Michaux who wrote about,  “Major Carter of Watauga, at whose house I had lodged several years previously” (prior to 1796) and John Sevier, who would be Tennessee’s first governor, wrote in his diary that he attended  “a ball at Carter’s” in 1800. Landon Carter served under General Francis Marion, the famous “Swamp Fox” of the Revolution, and had a senate seat in the “Lost State of Franklin.”

One of the most architecturally significant homes in Tennessee, the Carter Mansion is also the oldest frame house in the state. It is likely to have been the first such house to have been constructed in what is now Tennessee. The structure is of mortise and tenon joinery, with heavy beams creating a framework on which the house was ‘hung.’ These beams are very much like what is seen in true “Tudor- style” construction. Here, though, the beams are hidden within the clapboard exterior and interior walls. None of the angled support beams are visible as they are in the Tudor-style construction. After the building of the Carter Mansion, a number of other houses used this construction method in Tennessee prior to the introduction of cut nails in 1830. Cut nails were important to the increase in balloon framing by 1830s and the decline of timber framing.

While the mortise and tenon construction was a survival of ancient and traditional architecture in Europe, the interior shows more modern, for the time, academic approaches to house style. The overall house style and design would not have been out of place in 1780, if the location was not in a remote frontier area on the “wrong” side of the mountains. A significant amount of Tidewater Virginia style is apparent in the house and the floor plan is considered “Pennsylvania pattern.”

The designer and builder created an iconic and grand look for the period and overmountain region by raising the ceiling of the downstairs rooms beyond the height usually found. This not only gave a grand interior feel, but changed the dimensions of the exterior, creating a distinctive profile and iconic look.

Typical of fine homes of 1700s is the floor-to-ceiling paneling throughout with the south parlor being the most completely academic room in style and finish.  It is thought that the millwork shows signs of having been in a previous, perhaps larger, house. It was long thought that much the elaborate paneling had arrived by the rough tracks leading beyond the mountains to the frontier, but it could be that some of   the carvings, railings, overmantels, and moldings were not originally made for this house. The grand hall seems to have had supplementary on-site millwork created to supplement whatever was brought to the frontier. The work (whether done on-site or “delivered”) included denticular molding, fluted pilasters, chair railing, raised wall panels, crown molding, and bolection moldings that concealed and decorated  joints.

The 2nd floor has fine styling evident in its wainscoting and painted details and faux finishes that simulate marble, wood veneer, and wood paneling.  Intact folk painting murals can be still be seen above mantels in both a downstairs and upstairs room. The master bedroom has a hunt scene with hounds chasing a stag. This painting is darkened from exposure, primarily due to smoke. It is still remarkable to see this early feature appear before you in its original form. This and the downstairs painting were likely done by an early itinerant artist that has not yet been identified. The downstairs painting was discovered under layers of added paint during the restoration of the house. Once exposed, it appeared remarkably fresh. It had been protected by being covered for many of the years that the upstairs painting was exposed. This painting is in the north parlor room.

In addition to the pattern of three rooms upstairs and downstairs (the “Pennsylvania Pattern”), the house includes a large stone cellar with a huge fireplace. The cellar was almost certainly used for storage, but the fireplace could have provided a winter kitchen area. The cellar lacks direct access to the first floor.  The storage could have served a military purpose as the North Carolina General Assembly ordered that it would be, “expedient to place 500 lbs. of gunpowder and 1000 lbs. of lead at the Carter House as a public magazine.”

A separate exterior kitchen building once stood to the rear of the main house.  Detached kitchens served as a main house fire deterrent and often provided the original home for family while main houses were under construction.  The foundation for the kitchen and chimney were discovered by archaeologist in the 1970s immediately behind the house and beneath the two story rear wing of the mid 1800s that was removed due to the high architectural and historical significance of the original main house.

Above the second story and within the rafters was a large garret, finished with wide boards and available for overflow or storage space. This space has small closets for storage and would have provided more living space for children, guests or slaves.

Outbuildings served many functions in relation to ‘mansion’ homes in this period and for many following generations. These included barns, granaries, smokehouses, slave quarters, and many other more minor structures. Remains of slave quarters and a granary existed to relatively recent times but are not now extant. The detached kitchen may have been moved out of the way of the wing construction of the mid- 1800s to a location where it could serve as the basis for a smokehouse.

This elegant home in the rustic far frontier, stood out in its day – and it still does. Visitors can check with the Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park, also in Elizabethton, for information on the best times to visit and tour this remarkable house with its equally remarkable associations with major stories and people of history.  Ask about the “noggings” in the walls at the Carter Mansion or the house’s association with earlier American Indian archaeology.

Beginning your visit at Sycamore Shoals will offer an opportunity to hear about the same times as the Carter’s settlement in more broad terms. The site’s representative reproduction of Fort Watauga will begin your exploration of this early period of what was becoming Tennessee. In addition to programs and exhibits at the Sycamore Shoals visitors’ center, the site will soon be able to direct you to the Sabine Hill, Taylor house. The restoration of this house is in progress as Tennessee State parks prepares you for another experience in early Tennessee history. For the Carter Mansion, winter tours are offered on Tuesdays from 12:00 until 3:00pm. Call the park for details. 423-543-5808.

In the multi-image graphic, the image to the upper left shows the exterior from the great room end and its relationship to the detached kitchen that sits on the foundation found in the 1970s archaeology. The cutaway shows the inside of the same wall seen in the exterior side view – but looking from the other direction on the inside.

An image that shows what was apparently a slave quarters is in the lower left. It may have been used as a granary in latter days. It is no longer extant. A photograph of the present situation of the house is at the bottom middle. To the right at the bottom is an image of you author and Kathy Wheelock during the Carter Mansion archaeology of 1974. We were working in the area of the detached kitchen.

In addition to the author’s role as crew supervisor on the 1974 site archaeology, these sources were very helpful in the writing of this entry: Archaeologist Sam Smith’s report of the 1974 excavations for the State Division of Archaeology; the Carter Mansion entry in the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture; and Jenny Kilgore’s “The Carter Mansion Revisited.”  

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