Part 2: Will the real courthouse architect please stand up?

“A village with a population of 300 souls . . . a populous and productive neighborhood . . . ”

By Maureen Harris
Special to the Rappahannock News

Last of a two-part series

Editor’s note: In Part 1 of this article (Rappahannock News, June 1), the author examined the life and career of James Leake Powers, who is widely believed to have built the Rappahannock County Courthouse. However, it appears this is not true. An obscure item in the 1835 minutes of the county government 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?

Jefferson’s legacy

Malcolm F. Crawford, 1860, courtesy of Mr. Jim Lang of Texas, a descendant of Crawford.

Malcolm F. Crawford’s story begins with Thomas Jefferson, architect/designer of his own homes, “Monticello” and “Poplar Forest,” the Virginia State Capitol building, and the buildings of the University of Virginia. In the early 1800s, there were no “professional” architects as we know the profession today. Jefferson was self-trained, and came to embrace Palladian and Roman Revival temple forms, developing a style termed “Jeffersonian classicism” that later permeated Virginia architecture.

Construction at the University of Virginia began in 1817, but the immensity of Jefferson’s plan soon made it apparent that local labor was totally inadequate for this task. Over 150 craftsmen were recruited from the eastern U.S. and from as far away as Ireland, England, and Italy. Included were carpenters, brickmasons, stonemasons, plasterers, painters, and glaziers. Through their work in construction of the university, many of Jefferson’s craftsmen later applied their skills in the design and construction of a wide variety of Jeffersonian classical buildings throughout Virginia.

One of these craftsmen was Malcolm F. Crawford.

Crawford in Virginia

Crawford was of Scottish origin, born in 1794 in the town of Warren on the southern Maine coast. In partnership with Lyman Peck, he was the principal carpenter for twenty-seven of the university dormitories and student rooms. After his tenure at the university, Crawford continued to work in Virginia, carrying with him the principles of classical Jeffersonian Roman Revival architecture.

In 1822, Crawford and Peck built a summerhouse for St. George Tucker in Nelson County. In 1824 they collaborated to build the home Berry Hill in Orange County. In 1828, Crawford the master carpenter teamed with William B. Phillips, a master brick mason at the university, and built the home “Edgehill” for Thomas Jefferson Randolph. Crawford then moved on to larger feats.

In 1830, with Phillips and Richard Boulware, he built the Madison County Courthouse. Although Caroline County records were destroyed during the Civil War, architectural experts attribute the 1830s Caroline County Courthouse to Crawford and Phillips. In 1832, the contract for the new Page County Courthouse in Luray was awarded to the talented partnership of Crawford and Phillips. In 1833, they built the Presbyterian Church in downtown Fredericksburg.

But, most importantly, in 1834 Crawford built the Rappahannock County Courthouse and the Rappahannock County Clerk’s Office.

Rappahannock courthouse

On Feb. 8, 1833, an act passed by the General Assembly of Virginia created the new County of Rappahannock from within the boundaries of the County of Culpeper. The first sessions of the county court, for the purpose of organizing the new county, were held at Mrs. Cox’s tavern, now the building housing the gifts shops of the Inn at Little Washington.

The Rappahannock County courthouse, built by Malcolm F. Crawford in 1834. Courtesy photo

For rural Virginians of that era, the courthouse was the center of most political, social, legal, and commercial activity. The location of the courthouse was thus a major issue for the commissioners organizing the new county government.

They met on May 16-18, 1833, and concluded that the courthouse should be located in the town of Washington, “a village with a population of 300 souls . . . a populous and productive neighborhood already numbering sixty houses . . . and a place of some mercantile capital and business.” Immediately after this decision, Jacob and Abigail Nicol sold Lots 44, 45, and 46 to the Justices of Rappahannock County, which lots are the current location of the county courthouse, jail, and administrative offices.

On April 2, 1833, commissioners were appointed to form a plan for the dimensions and construction of the courthouse, the court clerk’s office, the jail, and the jailer’s house with estimates for the cost of building these structures. For the courthouse, the commissioners suggested a plan similar to that used in Luray, 40-feet square with an attached office measuring 20 by 15 feet at each of the front ends of the building. A 10-foot wide arcade would extend along the whole 80-foot wide front of the building. The courthouse/clerk’s office was to be constructed of brick, with stone foundations above ground and slate roofs.

The office of the Rappahannock County Commissioner of Revenue; the front part of the building was the original County Clerk’s office built by Malcolm F. Crawford in 1834. Courtesy photo

The cost was estimated to be $5000. They recommended that a bell not be housed in a cupola because of the cost. Some of the commissioner’s recommendations were obviously not followed, since the courthouse was constructed in 1834 as a separate building from the clerk’s office and no arcade was built. Also, a cupola was built on top of the courthouse to house a bell.

Malcolm F. Crawford was awarded the contract to construct the courthouse and the clerk’s office, at a cost of $4,500, payable in three installments. The third and final payment to Crawford was authorized at the January 1835 court meeting. In 1835, Duff Green, a merchant in Stafford, Virginia, was paid $123.60 for the courthouse bell. During restoration of the courthouse in 2014, Peter Luke photographed the bell; it had the date “1834” on it, indicating that it is the original courthouse bell.

A plat of the town of Washington in 1837 showed the location of the public buildings on town Lots 44-46. The courthouse and jail were shown at their current locations; the clerk’s office was the front section of the building that currently houses the office of the Rappahannock Commissioner of Revenue. This building served as the clerk’s office from 1835 to 1979.

The courthouse is described in the 1975 application to the National Register of Historic Places for the Washington Historic District as being located on lot 45 near the highest point on a ridge, rather than on a central square, because the town (1796) predates the county (1833).

Portion of the courthouse bell, bearing the date 1834. Courtesy of Peter Luke

The structure is a two-story, Flemish-bond brick Jeffersonian-style building with the entrance in the pedimented gable end. In Flemish-bond brickwork, the exposed ends of bricks (“headers”) alternate with bricks laid lengthwise (“stretchers”) in each course. The building has a lunette window in the gable, as well as a tall one-stage wooden belfry. The facade is ornamented by brick Tuscan pilasters, plastered and painted white. The clerk’s office is described as a three-bay, one-story building with interior end chimneys and second parapet gable ends. The clerk’s office brickwork is laid in Flemish bond.

After Rappahannock

Crawford and his wife Amanda Craven, whom he married in 1825 in Albemarle County, had 14 children. After his work on the Rappahannock County Courthouse, he built courthouses in Greene County in 1838 and in Spotsylvania County in 1840 and the home “West End” in Louisa County. He continued to work as a master carpenter in Virginia until 1863.

In that year, Amanda died and Malcolm moved to Valdosta, Georgia, to live with his daughter Euphemia and her husband Edward Lang. There, he continued to practice his profession of carpentry and he also served as a postmaster.

He died in Valdosta in 1876 at age 81 years.

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

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  1. As a historic preservation architect, I have worked in some way on all these sites. Did Crawford leave a journal or ledger book? I’m thinking of the basis of fact for the events and happenings you state here.

    • Don, my husband, David Lang is the gr-gr-gr-grandson of Malcolm. We are in the midst of doing research on him. We have recently purchased two books: The Architecture of Jefferson County” by K. Edward Lay and “Virginia Historic Courthouses” by John O. and Margaret T. Peters. You may find these very informative, if you don’t already have them.

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