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The Tidewater House Tradition

Drive along the backroads of tobacco country and you will see untended fields, collapsed tobacco barns, and centuries of hard-used Tidewater houses, some occupied and some standing against time with just a rusting memory to hold plank to stud.  The Tidewater style has survived revolution, railroads, war, depression, technology, recession, and the death of a way of living because it perfectly accommodates coastal conditions from northern Florida to southern Maryland.

The Tidewater house is adaptable.  You will notice by the overlay of board or plank that many of these farmhouses began as simple one-room structures with stone-end chimneys.  You might guess that the rearward shed-roof extension was added when the farmer took a wife, that the front shed-roofed porch was added for comfort of a growing family, and if you guessed so, you might well be correct.  Too, in traveling west (through Virginia to Kentucky, the Carolinas to Tennessee, Georgia to Louisiana) you might notice that these plank houses on stone foundations become well-kempt log cabins, square-hewn or round.  Sometimes you will find a new Tidewater, its vintage truck, old tractor, comfy rockers, patch of tobacco or tomato–the proud inheritor of an American tradition.

 

Florida Cracker House Shiloh Florida. credit Dawna Moore

Tidewater House, Florida Cracker, Shiloh, Florida. credit: Dawna Moore

 

Extending from gabled, gambrel, or hipped roof, the defining characteristic of the Tidewater house is the porch, front, front & back, or wraparound.  Shaded, breezy in summer, covered and comfortable in winter, the Tidewater porch extends the living room and sometimes the bedrooms.  The XVII and XVIII Century Tidewater was most often a tight vernacular box, a sheltered hall & parlor with centered door and balanced windows.  In time the house learned from necessity, the homeowners from experience.  The Tidewater house grew from English habit to American tradition, that friendliness of porch swing and rocker, polite neighborliness and semiprivate courtship, father and mother at ease in conversational intimacy, with wick, oil lamp, or moon to illuminate faces.  You can picture this wiser, better time.

The simplest, most innocent Tidewaters usually hide themselves along roads forgotten by highways, by families forgetful of history, neglectful of heritage.  These houses want the loving restorative care of families who will not find them.  Other houses of their relation were long ago rubbished or refurbished when towns grew by railroad wealth, the riches of extended liberty, and a future unSouthern.  Most old Tidewaters, those that died with tobacco, long ago disappeared.  New Tidewaters were seldom built.  Electricity and air-conditioning made the family-friendly porch obsolete, television killed conversation, knowledge from books and wisdom from self-reflection died.  A few high-style Tidewaters survive as museums.  Remarkable among these, the post-war home of Jefferson Davis, former president of the Confederate States of America.

 

Tidewater House Beauvoir Jefferson Davis House Biloxi Mississippi credit Kurtis Stephan Vargo

Tidewater House, Beauvoir, Jefferson Davis House, Biloxi, Mississippi credit Kurtis Stephan Vargo

 

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Tidewater House Characteristics

 

Proportions

A modesty in size and scale, except for a prominent stone-end chimney or two.  As the house grew with family and activity, thin small chimneys were added where needed.  The hall & parlor side gable with shed roof or catslide (alike the saltbox but sloping as in a curved slide) is common (17th into the 20th Century).  Most Tidewaters ascend from the Georgian tradition, its bilateral symmetry and central hall (when sufficiently large to include a stair and second floor) within a modest massed plan.  Large, expansive Tidewaters in the Adam style and small postmedieval Tidewaters seldom survive, the first for maintenance expense, the latter because dark and cramped.

Roof Features
“V” or standing-seam metal roofs in many variations: Notice the roof pitch change where gable turns to shed.  Sometimes, a house with hipped or pyramidal roof will feature a wraparound porch, a form tight and aesthetically pleasing.  Gambrel is common south and southwest.

Fenestration
Varies.

 

Tidewater House Williamsburg Virginia. credit M. Curtis

Tidewater House, Williamsburg, Virginia. credit: M. Curtis

 

Structure and Materials
Unadorned horizontal boards, sometimes vertical board and batten, occasionally log.  Sometimes the house will be brick (if a brickyard is nearby and the bricks affordable), and these will have timber additions faced with weatherboard.  Log when westward.  Stone foundation and piers are the rule.  I’ve not found a stonewall Tidewater with long porches attached.  The raised on piers Tidewater is most often found because most easily maintained.

Space and Floor Plan
Breezy, full-length front porches (usually south facing) are a universal pleasure in the humid South: too, covered porches allow farmhands in without letting them in.  Along the Eastern Seaboard you will find most every English floorplan style (one room, linear, massed).  Along the seaboard and west, the Tidewater is an unpretentious house, a house of families indifferent to social climbing, disinterested in social status and citified pretense.  Along the Gulf Coast, French styles, as in plantations of the Caribbean with their massed, stacked layers of pretty porches, or in the simple, almost English, Creole and Cajun cottages, homes suitable to the indentured, the slave, the honest farmer.  Should mention, the Creole and Cajun when unmixed with the English is a unique style.

Entrance
The porch.

 

Tidewater House Alexandria Fairfax Virginia

Tidewater House, Alexandria City, Fairfax, Virginia.

 

Ornamentation
Minimal, though columns and piers make appearances in high-style, Ordered examples, and occasionally a house might be prettified in Italianate or Queen Anne fancywork.

Surroundings
Once, the tobacco or cotton farm, or expansive garden if in the mountains or hills.  These days, all too often, yards of rusted machines and decades if not centuries of throwaways piled or scattered.  Best, happiest examples are tidy, especially when modified with conditioning (an easy fix because most examples are elevated on piers).

Variation
Georgia and west, a Tidewater might be fashioned in the Huguenot style (one room deep with full-length front or front & back piazza).  Westward Tidewaters will be of log, wood being plentiful in Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina (Virginia and Ohio forests had mostly been cleared by Indian burnings).  The Florida “Cracker” (named for the whip-crack … no, not of slaves but of cattle and horse) is a style almost Tidewater in-exact, as Florida 1850 through 1930 was settled by Eastern Seaboard southerners (Florida was admitted to the Union in 1845).  Florida then and now is agrarian, hos epi to polu.

 

Bequette Ribault House Ste. Genevieve Missouri. credit EWY Media

Huguenot style, The Bequette Ribault House, Ste. Genevieve, Missouri. credit: EWY Media

 

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 Tidewater Dialect

The Tidewater is often considered America’s most charming, most pleasing accent … for instance, hear Andy Grifith and his friends of “Maybury”, North Carolina.  Typically slow, gentile, firm, soft … in the Tidewater a dropping of the “R” as in “Holler” (a small valley) and the “ou” diphthong which causes house and down to be pronounced heose\hoose and deon\doon.  And hear the comfortable Tidewater drawl in “cri-ick” (a creek).  You will notice in the Tidewater accent a politeness, an expectation of mutual respect … in your mind’s ear hear the dialect of southern soldiers who fought in opposition of the War to End Slavery.

The Tidewater is the dialect of those jaunty knights, the Cavilers (yes, think the Cavalier poets, Herrick, Lovelace, Suckling, Carew) who supported King Charles I in our English civil wars.  These Cavaliers were connoisseurs of arts and of life, all that was fine and beautiful.  As a class, the gentry … consider the gallant G. Washington, T. Jefferson, J. Madison, the Lees, the Masons, the Carols, and other royalist families who became republican.  The University of Virginia has yet to fully forsake its Cavalier heritage, and you will yet hear the Tidewater accent in the new Woke dialect; for instance, in those attorneys, politicians, and activists who first blustered, then beat, then cut, then melted the statue of the Caviler Virginian, Robert E. Lee.

Area

The Tidewater is that flat, low area of the Atlantic coast effected by the ever-rolling tides.  In the Tidewater, the brackish marshes and swamps of river and sound meet the ocean in flood and overflow, and here the lush grasses, the whispering pine, the speaking owl and spiraling fish of Florida into Georgia, the Carolinas into Louisiana, Virginia, and Maryland into Delaware.
Pocahontas
Jamestown Settlement
Tidewater stability

 

Tidewater House Gallery

 

Davenport House Hertford Perquimans credit LOC

Tidewater House, Davenport House, Hertford, Perquimans, credit: LOC

 

LSU Rural Life Museum Baton Rouge Louisiana. credit Roberto Michel

Tidewater House, LSU Rural Life Museum, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. credit: Roberto Michel

 

Tidewater House c. 1870 Edenton North Carolina

Tidewater House, c. 1870, Edenton, North Carolina.

 

Tidewater House North Carolina. credit M. Curtis

Tidewater House, North Carolina. credit: M. Curtis

 

Beauvoir The Hayes Cottage Biloxi Mississippi

Beauvoir, The Hayes Cottage, Biloxi, Mississippi.

 

Tidewater House near Lake Lure North Carolina. credit M. Curtis

Tidewater House, near Lake Lure, North Carolina. credit: M. Curtis

 

Cajun House Acadian Village near Lafayette Louisiana. credit

Cajun House, Acadian Village, near Lafayette, Louisiana. credit: Nina Alizada

 

McMullen Coachman Log House Pinellas County Heritage Village Largo Florida. credit Nick

McMullen-Coachman Log House, Pinellas County Heritage Village, Largo, Florida. credit: Nick Fox

 

Tidewater House North Carolina. credit M. Curtis 2

Tidewater House, North Carolina. credit: M. Curtis

 

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Featured image, Eppe’s House, Appomattox Plantation, Petersburg, Virginia. credit: EWY Media

More on the Tidewater House style can be found at The Beautiful Home.

 

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