Beaufort Historic District
The Beaufort Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2012, The Gombach Group.
Beaufort is perhaps the most distinctively coastal of North Carolina's coastal towns. To the south beyond the harbor is the Town Harsh, and beyond it is Beaufort Inlet opening into the Atlantic Ocean, flanked by the Bogue Banks (the site of Fort Macon) and Shackleford Banks; to the west are Beaufort (Gallant) Channel and a number of islands. To the north is the mainland; to the east the waterfront extends along Taylor Creek. The long southern waterfront of the town is open most of its length to the harbor, except for a short, dense commercial row, and still functions, as evidenced by the wharfs and jetties and the coming and going of vessels. Front Street, overlooking the water, is one of the most picturesque streets in the state, with its row of large white houses facing the harbor, ranging from traditional coastal double-porch houses to the flamboyant Queen Anne "cottages" of the late nineteenth century resort period; the thirteen-bay length of the Davis House Hotel at 121, 123 and 125 Front Street is perhaps the street's most prominent landmark. Extending back from the waterfront is the flat, orderly street grid, surviving from the eighteenth century, dotted with white buildings interspersed with trees. The townscape is remarkably consistent in scale and form, made up primarily of unpretentious one- and two-story frame dwellings, each with its small yard, punctuated by the occasional peak or tower of church or public building, with the dense greenery of the Old Burying Ground a pleasant central oasis.
The architectural fabric of Beaufort epitomizes the axiom that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Few of its buildings are of exceptional architectural merit, but the overall impact of the town is extraordinary. For the most part, dwellings are simple, functional ones, following the same building habits year after year during most of the town's history, with only token references to nationally popular styles. Georgian and Adamesque are unacademic; Gothic and especially Greek Revival styles had a pronounced influence, but even these are modified to local preferences. Recurring throughout and giving the town much of its character are a number of distinctive features — somewhat unusual ways of handling functional elements that, through repetition, assert themselves as types.
Particularly characteristic is the handling of roof lines, porches, chimneys, and mantels. Most early roofs are gable ones (two gambrels exist and hip roofs come in the mid-nineteenth century). The representative Beaufort gable roof usually has a rather steep pitch at the apex but breaks to a shallower slope to cover a porch in front and a porch or enclosed bay at the rear. The typical roof of this type has at least three slopes, but many have four, and the Jacob Henry House (229 Front Street), incorporating additions, has five.
This roof type is well-designed to accommodate Beaufort's other distinctive feature — its porches, which appear in all shapes and sizes; there is scarcely a house to be found without a porch. Typical is the two-story porch that covers the full facade, sometimes separately constructed but more often under the slope of the main roof. In either case, one has only to visit Beaufort on a hot summer day to learn that these second-level porches catch the breeze with remarkable effectiveness, as well as providing a view of the harbor and ocean. Thomas Waterman discussed the development and importance of these porches in The Early Architecture of North Carolina:
"...by the middle of the eighteenth century the special conditions of dampness and heat, ...had produced a definite local type in which the porch or piazza plays a dominant part. These piazzas were not monumental porticoes but simple rows of turned posts, sometimes treated like Doric columns supporting a continuation of the main roof. ...When the houses were two stories high, the two story porch gave them a much more "classical" appearance than that of houses of similar date in other localities, and contribute to such coast town as New Bern or Beaufort a feeling of elegant grandeur quite independent of the size of the houses.
At Beaufort, porches are seen in the form most reminiscent of Nassau, St. Kitts, and Bridgetown, the Sarah R. Duncan House at 105 Front Street being a good example. Here a two-tiered porch covers the front of the house and is protected by a shed extension of the main roof. The posts are in the form of crudely-turned Doric columns, not unlike those seen in some of the Spanish Islands. In the Davis House (121, 123, 125 Front Street), facing Beaufort Inlet, the great length of the house makes a rather similar two-story porch even more effective... The fact that the North Carolina porch treatment came from the Southward and not from Virginia is attested by almost complete lack of porches of the sort above border."
It appears from early documents and photographs that New Bern and Wilmington once were almost as porch-dominated as Beaufort but many of those buildings are gone; Edenton is still a city of porches but it has a wider range of architectural types. Only in Beaufort is nearly every streetscape a porchscape. Besides those mentioned above, there are over a dozen more two-story houses with double porches under the main roof. A great many other dwellings have attached porches of two stories as well. The roof extension covering the porch also occurs on one and one-and-one-half story houses, making what is often called a coastal cottage; this is one of the most prevalent house-types in Beaufort, with at least fifteen examples surviving. A variation of this type exists at the Piver House (125 Ann Street), with the porch having no ceiling, and four-pane windows occurring at the attic floor level, providing excellent ventilation to the attic. In two other houses where similar openings occur at attic floor level (119 Ann Street and 817 Front Street), the porch has a ceiling but trap doors open to allow ventilation through the attic windows. A similar arrangement exists at the two-story Paquinnette House (221 Front Street). This scheme was probably more common than the few survivors indicate. The only other known example in the state is at Sloop Point, an early eighteenth century dwelling in Pender County.
It is also possible to identify a characteristic Beaufort chimney treatment, which projects several brick courses outward behind the first-floor fireplace. The projection occurs in the face of the chimney rather than at the sides where weatherings normally occur, and there is either a simple flue or regular chimney with normal shoulders above. This handling was quite common over a long period of time.
A Beaufort mantel treatment exists as well; it is essentially Federal in character, except that the end blocks follow a gentle S-curve to the base of the cornice — combining elements of the ramped frieze of the Georgian and the two-part or three-part frieze of the Federal. In most of the more ambitious houses there is a flat-paneled wainscot and other Federal finish; simple Georgian trim exists in a few as well.
These traditional elements, especially the exterior ones, were used over a long period of time — apparently from the earliest extant eighteenth century houses (including the Piver House at 125 Ann Street and the Cramer House at 401 Ann Street) until well into the nineteenth century.
Throughout the town's area and chronological range, there are many small one-story cottages and larger two-story dwellings with no particularly outstanding features; these are, however, a vital part of the townscape, for their consistency of form and scale contributes significantly to the total character of the Beaufort Historic District.
Only with the mid-nineteenth century advent of the Greek and Gothic Revivals did nationally popular styles have any marked impact on Beaufort Historic District's architecture. There are a number of good Greek Revival houses, adapting the style to local preferences by their frame construction and use of porches. Especially notable are the Gibbs House (903 Front Street, National Register listed) and the Leecraft Houses (301, 305, and 307 Ann Street), unusually sophisticated houses for Beaufort, in which the influence of the publications of Asher Benjamin is obvious, particularly in the use of the bold Greek fret design. A number of houses of this period have pedimented porches while others are pedimented temple-form ones, often with a side-hall plan. The hip roof also comes into use in this era. Of the Greek type, but with an Italianate feeling achieved by a bracket cornice is the rectilinear town house at 513 Front Street. Another interesting amalgam of styles is the house called Burnside's Headquarters, where a small cottage was expanded into a Greek Revival pedimented house and then treated with Gothic Revival trim on the porch (109 Pollock Street, Allen Davis House). The Gothic mode also found expression, as might be expected, in church architecture. An outstanding example of the "Carpenter Gothic" is St. Paul's Episcopal Church (1857), a handsome board-and-batten structure with fine interiors, including an impressive exposed scissors truss ceiling. Its exterior and interior fabric has survived essentially unaltered. Ann Street Methodist Church (1850s and 1890s) is a lively combination of Gothic and Shingle styles, with a remarkable variety of siding and shingle patterns. Purvis Chapel (1820s, remodeled later) is a simple frame church with Gothic elements.
Post-Civil War architectural developments also found a place in Beaufort: sawn and spindle ornament was a sprightly addition to older buildings, especially porches, and new houses in the bracketed and Queen Anne styles blended in pleasantly among the traditional buildings. On Front Street, particularly, there were built a number of large, impressive "cottages" in the Queen Anne mode (Jule Duncan House, 207 Front Street is an example); this paralleled the nineteenth and early twentieth century growth in resort trade, during which time the Beaufort boardwalk was a feature of the waterfront. A number of notable Victorian period houses line Ann Street, of which that at 716 Ann Street is especially handsome; 118 Orange Street (after 1912) is perhaps the best Queen Anne cottage. Fancy porch trim, sawn or turned, enlivens porches along most streets; the J.H. Davis House (200 Craven Street) is a typical two-story house with double porch, with delicate sawnwork along the porches; many others are similarly treated.
Beaufort Historic District's commercial area, a solid row on both sides of part of Front Street (primarily the 400 block), is consistent in scale, with most buildings dating from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Urban renewal threatens much of this area; the loss of this well-preserved commercial block would be most unfortunate, not only for its overall impact, but also because of a number of individually significant buildings. Of considerable architectural merit is the Bank of Beaufort (Rumley's Seed and Plant Store) at 418 Front Street, a small Neo-Classical stone building of surprising monumentality. Complementing it is the First Citizen Bank and Trust Company at 411 Front Street. Outside the commercial row, at 404 Ann Street, is a diminutive frame commercial building, with a charming false front with pilasters and bracket cornice. The Railroad Station (620 Broad Street) with the dramatic roof and deep eaves typical of its function is well preserved and provides a note of contrast in the town's architectural fabric.
On Broad Street near the Old Burying Ground is a group of public buildings that includes the Old Beaufort Jail (a brick structure of impressive solidity dating from the 1830s when Fort Macon was under construction), the Beaufort Graded School (a representative early twentieth century brick school building with good masonry detail), and the Carteret County Courthouse (1907). The latter, the most pretentious building in town, set in spacious naturally landscaped grounds, shows the rather flamboyant handling of classical motifs including a tower and Corinthian porticoes typical of its designer, the New Bern architect, Herbert Woodley Simpson. The Old Burying Ground, dating from about 1724, is a green area of remarkable charm and character, dotted with cypress and stone markers and shaded by gnarled live oaks and other trees. It includes impressive stone and iron work and several types of wooden markers. Though the wooden markers appear elsewhere, there is a larger number, and a greater variety of designs (some seventeen different ones) than in any other town on the North Carolina coast. Topping of graves with various forms of brick construction also seems to be unique to this cemetery.
The townscape of Beaufort is a straightforward expression of its history: since the early eighteenth century Beaufort has been a small, unpretentious, and rather isolated maritime village, depending upon the sea for its livelihood — from fishing, shipbuilding, shipping, resort trade, and marine research. The most striking element of the sea-oriented town is its waterfront with its impressive row of houses, its wharves and boats, and — as in 1815 — its "boundless view of the Ocean, continually enlivened with vessels sailing in all directions." The small town extending back from the water in a traditional compact grid is remarkable for its undisturbed atmosphere, plan, and scale, and for its consistent and distinctive architectural fabric, particularly the characteristic multi-slope gable roofs and ubiquitous porches. Fortunately avoiding rapid growth or decay as well as the twentieth century temptation of quaintness, Beaufort has a picturesqueness made the more valuable by its honest simplicity. The town is a unique and important part of the history and architectural character of America's eastern seaboard.
Settlement of coastal North Carolina was influenced by the location of inlets through the Outer Banks which gave the only direct access to the open sea. Beaufort, settled in the early eighteenth century (traditionally in 1709), is strategically located opposite Beaufort Inlet (formerly Old Topsail), a narrow opening between Shackleford Banks to the east and Bogue Banks to the west. For ships rounding Cape Lookout, this opening into Bogue Harbor was a welcome haven, and Beaufort since its beginning has been oriented toward its waterfront on this harbor, with relatively little contact with inland North Carolina.
Within a few years after settlement began, a survey was made and a town laid out by Richard Graves; the undated survey, found in the Secretary of State Land Patent Book No. 7, 1706-1740, has been assigned dates from 1713 to 1722; circumstantial and documentary evidence appear to support the 1713 date. The survey shows a twelve-block area with a grid street pattern with Anne, Queen, Turner, Pollock, Moore, Craven, and Orange streets; the present Front Street along the waterfront had not yet been named. The town itself was named for Henry Somerset, Duke of Beaufort, a Lord Proprietor.
In 1722 Beaufort became a port of entry and the courthouse town for Carteret precinct. Incorporation followed in 1721, making it, along with Bath, Edenton, and New Bern, one of the four oldest towns in North Carolina. Governor George Burrington commented on the 1723 act, "This act is for making a town at Beaufort which tho' a good inlet and convenient, yet the town hath had but little success & scarce any inhabitants." Enough growth was expected, however, that the act included the "land, as it is already laid out, together with as much other land lying contiguous...as shall make the whole Two Hundred Acres." After the increase, deeds began to distinguish between "Old Town" and "New Town," with the dividing line (as described in a 1770 act) beginning at a cedar post (since replaced by a marker) on Pollock Street, "running along the water front fifty eight degrees west, agreeable to that part of the plan called the old town, beginning at the cedar post and running south fifty eight degrees east, agreeable to that part of the plan called new town."
The strategical location of the port was obvious. The Spanish attacked in 1747, and afterwards Fort Dobbs was constructed on Bogue Island to protect the harbor; by 1755, Governor Arthur Dobbs reported that the fort was "already up and covering and...it will soon be finished." By 1770, however, the fort was in ruins, as noted on C.J. Sauthier's "plan of the Town and Port of Beaufort." Not until 1807-1809 was another fort (Fort Hampton) built on the site. During the pre-Revolutionary period, the town's growth was not especially rapid. A French traveler reported in 1765 that "Beaufort had only a dozen houses in its bounds," and Sauthier's map shows a small settlement strung out along the waterfront. Not until 1773 did Beaufort attain the sixty-family status to enable it to have a representative in the Assembly. At that time, Governor Josiah Martin commented that "It is true...the Town of Beaufort, is advantageously situate for commerce, but there are no persons of condition or substance in it."
Despite its size, Beaufort was of considerable importance to the Revolution, particularly because of the shipyard there, the supply of stores, and probably most important, the salt works located at Gallants Point. This salt works was ordered begun by the Committee of Safety on June 7, 1776, with John "Eason" of Carteret County given 500 pounds "for the immediate use of carrying on a Salt Work." John Easton, a town commissioner of Beaufort, was one of the leaders of the colony during the war, director of the salt works, paymaster to the two independent companies of militia, and a procurer of arms and equipment; he later served in the General Assembly for several terms.
Attack by the British on Beaufort came near the end of the war. In April, 1782, Governor Thomas Burke warned the Assembly that a British force was preparing in Charleston to sail soon "to plunder and destroy the Town of Beaufort in North Carolina, in which they are informed that there is a large quantity of public and private stores." The records of the Beaufort Overseers of the Poor noted at the bottom of the page for the meeting of April 1, "whereas the British took possession of Beaufort dis in a bled [sic] the Overseers to met — and the majority have now met agreed to proceed on business...this 26th day of April 1782."
After the Revolution, Beaufort entered a period of growth. Fort Hampton was constructed on the site of Fort Dobbs in 1807-1809, and the town itself expanded rather rapidly. Jacob Henry of Beaufort, a Jew whose election to the legislature prompted an important debate over constitutional rights, wrote an inviting and vivid description of the town in 1810, which is not altogether at variance with its present character:
It commands a boundless view of the Ocean, continually enlivened with vessels sailing in all directions. On the southern side of the Inlet stands Fort Hampton which is a pleasing object from the Town and forms to the mariner an excellent sea mark.
The Town contains five hundred & eighty-five souls seventy-four dwelling houses, Ten stores, eight shops of different artisans & a place of worship originally designed as a Episcopal Church but now indiscriminately [sic] used by all sects of Christians.
The principal trade carried on here is Ship building in which they have acquired a very considerable reputation both on account of the solidity of the materials & the Judgement and Skill of their workmen as well in modelling as in completing their vessels... Some of the swiftest sailers & best built vessels in the United States have been launched here, particularly the Ship Minerva a well known Packet between Charleston & Newyork...
The chief dependence of the People however is on the fisheries which with the aid of Capital and enterprise might be advanced to a very profitable extent. Something is done every year in the Whale fishery & much more in that of the porpoise the oil of which usually sells at forty cent per gallon. But the most productive fishery as well as the most permanent & regular source of profit is that of the Mullet which appears in these waters the latter end of August in enumerable shoals...
The Climate is highly favorable to health & Longivity & much benefit is experienced by those who make occasional excursions hither to obviate the debility induced by the heat, in the vicinity of the sluggish rivers and extensive Swamps of the low country,
During the summer months the sea breeze sett in about ten oclock in the morning & blows with refreshing coolings throughout the day, the summer night pleasant and although intermittences do sometimes make their appearance yet they may be usually traced to some particular act of exposure or intemperance.
The Town is in every point of view a desirable situation for a summer residence. It is strictly a marine Village & those who are fond of the amusement connected with the water may here receive full gratification; whilst bathing in the Surf and walking on the beach are likely to recover the Valetudinarian.
During the War of 1812, with the ports of Charleston and Baltimore blockaded by the British, Beaufort assumed importance as a port for privateer operations, and Captain Otway Burns of Carteret, with his ship Snap Dragon, was one of the major privateers; his grave in the Old Burying Ground is marked with a cannon from his ship. There was only one British incursion during the war: in July, 1814, British forces landed at Cape Lookout and partially destroyed the lighthouse, which was of great importance to the harbor and channel; when they attempted another landing on July 16, they were repulsed by troops from Fort Hampton and Beaufort.
Fort Hampton's location near the tip of Bogue Island proved unsatisfactory, and Fort Macon was built to replace it, located further back on the island. The construction of Fort Macon between 1826 and 1834 had considerable impact on Beaufort, for it required the establishment of a brick-making industry, and great numbers of masons, carpenters, ironmongers, and others were either trained locally or brought to the area. From this era came Beaufort's only antebellum brick buildings — the courthouse (ca.1836-1915 and replacing an older frame one that survives); the ca.1836 jail; a dwelling ca.1836, now used as the Odd Fellows Hall.
In 1853 William D. Valentine visited Beaufort, interested in seeing the "future great seaport of North Carolina," toward which the Atlantic and North Carolina Railroad was then edging. From his description, much of the town has remained unchanged:
"There are some very neat residences. Some of the lots are tastefully laid out and ornamented with evergreens and flower shrubs. The evergreens which beautify the town more than others are the live oak and yeopon. There are two beautiful new churches whose tall steeples first catch the eye as you approach the town. They are both on the same square...one belongs to the Methodist, the other to the Baptist [demolished]. The first is a large...wooden edifice of fine costly work... The exterior is complete... The most beautiful place in town is the church burying ground of the Methodists [Old Burying Ground] on which their new fine Church is situated as well as their old one. The white tombs and pillars of white stone and marble amid the beautiful evergreens of live oak and yeopon and variety of flowers, render this...the most beautiful place of the kind I ever saw, by far the choicest beauty spot of Beaufort."
The Civil War interrupted a period of prosperity for Beaufort. On April 14, 1861, Captain Josiah Pender with a local force from New Bern and Beaufort took command of Fort Macon from its Federal caretaker. Confederate saltworks were established in the area. Within the year, however, Beaufort harbor was under heavy Union blockade, and General Ambrose E. Burnside's three brigades, having taken New Bern, turned their attention to Beaufort and Fort Macon. The town was taken on March 26, 1862 and the fort was besieged for another month, ending with its surrender on April 25, 1862. Beaufort remained in Union hands throughout the remainder of the war, serving as a garrison and safe harbor for Union troops and ships. Between 1862 and 1865 the town and harbor were visited by General W.T. Sherman, General U.S. Grant, and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.
A visitor to Beaufort just after the war found it somewhat the worse for wear, reporting, "We rounded to at a crazy old wharf, climbed up a pair of rickety steps... In front of us was the Custom House — a square, one-story frame building, perched upon six or eight posts... A narrow strip of sand, plowed up by a few cart wheels, and flanked by shabby-looking old frame houses, extended along the water front, and constituted the main business street... Near the water's edge was a small turpentine distillery, the only manufacturing establishment of the place."
After the war, Beaufort gradually returned to its normal condition, as a small maritime village and port with fishing a chief source of income. It was also becoming a well-known coastal resort and watering place. A memoir of the 1890s recalled, "The principal hotels or eating houses were the Davis House at the west end of Front Street, run by Miss Sara Ann, and the hotel run by Mr. Bill Dill that had a porch on the second floor from one end to the other [destroyed 1965]...[and] Miss Emma Manson's House on Front Street. It was just west of the Davis House...on a summer's evening, both the Manson House and the Davis House porches were filled with happy boarders enjoying the south wind that always seemed a little more delightful in Beaufort."
Also important in the late nineteenth century was the development of Beaufort as the site of marine biology research. Zoologists had visited Beaufort in 1860 and in 1871-1872. In an article in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper of November 20, 1880, it was noted that scientists from Johns Hopkins intended to "resume the work at Beaufort next Summer" and possibly establish a permanent laboratory there. The Johns Hopkins Seaside Laboratory operated at the Gibbs House in Beaufort for some ten years, probably the first school of marine biology in the United States. It led to the establishment by the United States Government of the Bureau of Fisheries, which had laboratories at Beaufort and Woods Hole, Massachusetts, founded in 1899. Marine research has continued to be important to Beaufort; the Duke Marine Biology Laboratory is located on nearby Piver's Island. Among the scientists working in Beaufort was Rachel Carson, who spent time there during the publication of The Sea Around Us.
In the early twentieth century came another era of growth, stimulated of the advent of the railroad in the first decade. During that time a new courthouse and a train station were constructed. The railroad, locally owned, still survives.
The town remains small and water-oriented. Fishing continues to be important, and although nearby Morehead City is now the flourishing port, ships using its channel cross the Beaufort harbor. These, plus the numerous fishing boats and private craft coming to Beaufort, keep the waterfront a busy one. Tourism is becoming a significant industry, with the historic aspects of the town rivaling its beach as an attraction. This has been paralleled by a growing local interest in preservation, as evidenced by the restoration of the Bell Houses (123 and 138 Turner Street) continuing work on the Old Burial Ground, open-house tours, and adoption of one of the first historic zoning ordinances in the state.
Carteret County Records, Carteret County Courthouse, Beaufort, North Carolina (Subgroups: Deeds, Wills).
Carteret County Records, Division of Archives and History, Raleigh, North Carolina (Subgroups: Deeds, Wills).
Wrenn, Tony P. Beaufort, North Carolina. Raleigh: North Carolina Department of Archives and History, 1970.
† Survey and Planning Unit, North Carolina Division of Archives and History, Beaufort Historic District, Carteret County, NC, nomination document, 1974, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.