Column – Smithfield’s architectural diversity continues to impress
Published 5:32 pm Tuesday, April 4, 2023
Whether they’re architectural historians, old-house buffs or just curious travelers, visitors to Smithfield year after year are fascinated by the variety of house styles located within the town’s Historic District.
And well, they should be. Here, within easy walking distance, are examples of American architecture from the colonial era to the colonial revival period of the 1950s and just about everything in between. And, yes, even those later homes are now aging and taking their place among the town’s outstanding inventory.
Smithfield’s original boundaries, and the setting for its oldest houses, ran along what is now Church Street, from Smithfield Station to Main, and along Main Street from Wharf Hill westward for several blocks.
Houses were quickly built in that original section of town from the time it was platted and chartered in 1752, but only a few examples from the colonial era remain. Among the most prominent is the Mallory Todd House, located on Main Street atop Wharf Hill. The first section of the house was constructed in 1753, and later additions turned the dwelling into one of Smithfield earliest showplaces.
It was from the Todd House that Capt. Mallory Todd began exporting Smithfield Hams in the 1770s. A ham processing plant founded by Todd continued in business on the Wharf Hill property located below the house well into the 20th century.
Meanwhile, however, the Todd House, a massive wood frame structure, deteriorated through the years. Repeated efforts to restore the house began in the early 1970s. All of them ended in disappointment for a string of owners until the Vincent Carollo family purchased it in 2008. The Carollos undertook a top-to-bottom rehabilitation of Mallory Todd’s magnificent home and thus quite probably saved one of the most historic buildings in the town.
One of the most architecturally prominent colonial-period houses in town is the Wentworth-Barrett House, built by Capt. Samuel Wentworth and restored almost two centuries later by F.M. Barrett. It stands alongside Christ Episcopal Church and its brickwork has been admired by generations.
A sizable portion of the town’s housing inventory was constructed during the early years of the American Republic. among them are the Benjamin Drew House, built in 1810. Over on Grace Street stand two of the most prominent Federal Period dwellings — The Grove and Hayden Hall.
There were other early homes in Smithfield that no longer exist. The town had the good fortune of experiencing repeated waves of business prosperity, and whenever a new generation of successful entrepreneurs arose, they often were not satisfied living in an old house, so they built a new one.
Out of that desire for something newer and grander came the Victorian grand dames of Church Street.
While early housing had largely been given over to craftsmen who knew how to lay a brick or frame in wood, Victorian houses were often designed by an architect, sometimes chosen from a selection of architectural plans in a catalog.
During the post-Civil War era, numerous millwork factories were opened in the Northeast. Timber, much of it cut in Virginia, including Isle of Wight and Surry, was rough-sawn and shipped north by sail and steam power. There, good southern pine was turned into windows, doors, porch trim and other accouterments that prospective homeowners could choose from — again, often by thumbing through a catalog.
Materials were milled, labeled, tagged for customers, loaded onto steamboats and shipped back down south where new wealth was being turned into new mansions.
When Charles Henley Chapman’s Smithfield Hardware (now home to Wharf Hill) closed in the 1980s, Chapman’s second floor warehouse area contained Newel posts and banister rails with steamboat labels still attached. They had apparently been ordered but never used.
While the construction of housing “parts” was routinely accomplished by factories during the late 1800s, most of those factories closed long ago. Today, those who would restore the town’s Victorians find that every piece of decorative woodwork they need to replace has to be custom-made at considerable expense. The careful restoration visitors see throughout the district today came at considerable cost and, in many instances, a lot of sweat equity.
John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.