Will the real courthouse architect please stand up?

Researcher casts doubt on Washington town history

By Maureen Harris

Special to the Rappahannock News

Courtesy of the Rappahannock Historical Society
James Leake Powers, date unknown.

It is generally believed that our Rappahannock County Courthouse was built by James Leake Powers in 1834, shortly after the county was created by an Act of the Virginia General Assembly on Feb. 8, 1833. For example, Powers is named as the courthouse builder in the 1975 application to the National Register of Historic Places for Washington to be designated as a Historic District.

In a history booklet prepared for Washington’s 1996 bicentennial celebration, Powers was similarly credited with the courthouse construction. And in a recent Rappahannock News article surrounding “Jessamine Hill”, Powers was credited with building that home, the courthouse and the county clerk’s office.

This conclusion about Powers is understandable, as he was a prominent individual in the county, was a resident of Washington, and is believed to have been responsible for construction of Trinity Episcopal Church in 1857 and the Presbyterian Church from 1856 to 1858 (later the first county library and now the Washington Town Hall).

Trinity, its style “country Gothic” with an exterior originally of board and batten, is considered one of the finest examples of American village church architecture in Virginia. The total building cost was $1,800. The steeple and stained glass were added later, as was the pebbledash finish. The parish hall attached to the church was built in 1957.

The “Doric style” brick Presbyterian church had been abandoned for 75 years before a board of library trustees acquired the building in 1960. The fact that the building was still sound after nearly 75 years of disuse and neglect is a tribute to Powers’ construction ability. The Greek Revival style home “Ben Venue” and its brick slave quarters, located on Ben Venue Road and constructed from 1844 to 1846, has also been attributed to Powers.

Courtesy of the Rappahannock Historical Society
Ben Venue mansion, constructed in 1844-1846 and attributed to James Leake Powers.

So who was James Leake Powers?

He was born in Charlottesville in 1799, one of the five children of Norborne Powers and Mildred Leake, who was born in England. There is no documentation regarding his life between 1799 and 1836. However, because he was a resident of Charlottesville, he may have worked on the buildings of the University of Virginia when it was constructed from 1817 to 1826. He emerged from obscurity in 1837 when he purchased Lot 21 in the town of Washington and married Martha Ann Nicklin, a daughter of Dr. Joseph Nicklin and his wife Elizabeth Calvert, who were town residents.

Courtesy photo
The former Presbyterian Church, now the Washington Town Hall, built by James Leake Powers in 1856-1858.

Powers purchased the lot, located between Main and Gay streets on the north side of Calvert Street, from Daniel Mason, a real estate wheeler-dealer (he later went bankrupt) who had married Sarah Porter, a daughter of William and Sarah Porter, owners of “The Meadows” (now the home of Washington Mayor John Fox Sullivan and his wife Beverly).

Washington had been laid out into 51 half-acre lots, two north-south streets, and five east-west streets in a plat accompanying a petition by George Calvert, James Wheeler, James Jett Jr., and William Porter to the Virginia General Assembly in 1797. This petition added part of Porter’s land to the town of Washington, established in 1796. The 51 lots and the seven streets — named Main, Gay, Wheeler, Calvert, Middle, Jett, and Porter in the 1797 plat (isn’t it rather remarkable that the four men named four of the streets after themselves) — still form the core of Washington today.

Martha Ann Nicklin, the first wife of Powers, was born in 1809, one of the six children of Dr. Joseph Nicklin and his wife Elizabeth Calvert. Nicklin was a well-known physician and served as a surgeon in the War of 1812. Later, in 1839 and 1843, he was a member of the Virginia House of Delegates and was president of the Town of Washington Board of Trustees. He owned several lots in the town, including Lots 42 and 43 on Gay Street between Middle and Jett Streets.

Courtesy photo
Trinity Episcopal Church, built by James Leake Powers in 1857.

Powers and Nicklin had three daughters while they lived in the home on Lot 21 — Elizabeth Nicklin Powers, Lavinia Green Powers, and Martha Ann Powers. Elizabeth married Capt. W. C. Sheerer, but the other two girls remained single throughout their life. It was at the birth of daughter Martha Ann that Mrs. Powers died in 1843 at age 33 years.

The next year, Powers married Lucy Calvert (1815-1848), who was a cousin of his first wife Martha Ann Nicklin. Lucy was the last of the twelve children of Ralls Calvert and Mary Wade Strother. Ralls, who became a postmaster in the town of Washington, was the first of the fourteen children of George Calvert (1744-1821) and Lydia Beck Ralls (1749-1830). George’s brother, John Calvert, was the grandfather of Nicklin.

In 1848, Lucy died. Powers sold Lot 21 to Adolphus Read and purchased Lot 37 in the town of Washington from George and Eliza Calvert of Fauquier County. The Powers family, including James, his three daughters, his sister Mary, and Joseph Nicklin (father of James’ first wife) moved to Lot 37 at this time. The lot is located on the northeast corner of Gay and Calvert Streets. In 1853, Powers married his third wife, Margaret Cary, who was then age 34 years. She was the daughter of Francis and Chloe Cary who lived in Washington; Francis was a tanner by trade.

Photo by John McCaslin
The Rappahannock County Courthouse dates to 1834, but an important part of its history is now open to debate.

In 1856, Margaret gave birth to a daughter. In 1860, when Margaret was age 41 and James was age 61, she gave birth to another daughter. Both children died shortly after their births. James and Margaret continued to live in the house on Lot 37 until his death in 1889 and her death in 1900. Both were buried in the Heterick cemetery in Washington and re interred in Evergreen Cemetery in Luray.

In Powers’ will, he gave “the house and lot on which he then lived” and most of his personal property to his wife Margaret and daughters, Annie and Lavinia. His carpentry tools and supplies were bequeathed to Bruce Heterick. In 1913, Annie (Martha Ann) Powers sold her father’s house and lot to Daisy Fox Partlow. Lot 37 was subsequently divided; the northern part is now owned by Skippy Giles; the southern part is owned by Jeffrey and Oxana Butler.

In the 1850-1880 U.S. censuses in which information on occupation was collected, Powers consistently described himself as a “carpenter.” During his life, in addition to his building profession, he was a trustee of the “Old Church” located on Wheeler Street between Main and Gay streets. He was also appointed as “Supervisor of the Streets” in 1839 by the Town of Washington Board of Trustees. His duties were to ensure that residents of the town worked to maintain the streets, although individuals could be exonerated from this duty by paying 75 cents per day of work. In 1843, the year of the death of his wife Martha Ann, he resigned this position. Powers also purchased other lots in Washington, including the one-half acre Lot 47 (now the Washington Baptist Church lot) from the estate of his father-in-law, Joseph Nicklin, in 1854 and a portion of Lot 29 fronting on Gay Street across from the Courthouse in 1874.

(Lot 21 was occupied by Mattie Ball Fletcher, grandmother of Bill Fletcher of Thornton Hill, for many years until her death in 1996; the lot is now owned by Caroline Anstey).

As mentioned above, in 1837 Powers purchased Lot 21 in Washington and married Nicklin. These two events imply that Powers was firmly ensconced in the town before 1837. It is possible that he was trained as a carpenter in his birthplace of Charlottesville, and that he had moved from Charlottesville to Washington in order to work on the new Rappahannock County public buildings, including the courthouse, clerk’s office and jail.

But, was he the builder of the courthouse?

An obscure item in the minutes of the January 1835 meeting of the Rappahannock County Court justices, who were administering the new county government, indicates that the answer to this question is “No.” This item stated that “$1500 is levied as the third and last payment” to Malcolm F. Crawford for construction of the courthouse and adjacent clerk’s office.

So, who was Malcolm F. Crawford? That answer is in Part 2 of this series.

— Maureen Harris, who lives near Woodville, is a researcher for the Rappahannock Historical Society

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