Olde Towne Portsmouth History
In a nod to our current “situation” (COVID-19 pandemic), this park highlights the Yellow Fever of 1855 which killed 10% of Portsmouth’s population (about 3,000 in Hampton Roads).
The house behind this park was used as an orphanage for the many children left behind as it quickly took nurses and doctors at the nearby Naval hospital. The cemetery that the sign references is two blocks west of this park, and the Butt family referenced is still a prominent family in Olde Towne.
Mr. Eric Buchanan, former resident of Olde Towne, shared, “Mr. Butt would be digging sun up to sun down. Some evenings he would be so tired that he would lie down and sleep in the last grave he dug for the day. Dean Burgees spoke in detail about him during the Steeple to Steeple tour last year during the Trinity stop. If I remember correctly Bob Butt was the first African American Sexton in the South….the plaque hangs next to where you ring the bell at Trinity Episcopal.”
You can read more about Yellow Fever in Portsmouth in Lon Wagner’s 14-chapter book “The Fever” linked here for download: “The Fever.”
One of the first things you notice about the Watts House is the sheer size of it – which makes it all the more interesting that this was not where it was built! The original home was built for Col. Dempsey Watts in 1799 across from 525 North Street. This proved not to be good placement due to nearby Windmill Creek repeatedly flooding and the house was MOVED to its present location sometime in the 1890s when the creek was filled in (if you live in that corner of Olde Towne, you can vouch that the creek lives on during heavy rains).
The house was passed down to son Captain Watts, who held dinners and parties at this home welcoming the affluent and popular persons of his time. One such guest was Chief Black Hawk who dined with the family many times. It is said that when Captain Watts took Chief Black Hawk to the Navy Yard on a tour, he was unimpressed until he saw the Delaware battleship in dry dock, to which he said “took big man to build that big canoe.”
Henry Clay also dined, danced, and dozed at the home on his presidential campaign tour in 1844. It must have been some party that night because it is reported that he “kissed all the pretty girls” and his teenaged son snuck too much champagne and passed out in one of the bedrooms.
The Watts House is a beautiful home, made all the better by the history that danced within its walls over the past 220 years.
Seawall at Crawford’s Bay
No walk through Olde Towne is complete without a stroll down the seawall at Crawford’s Bay, a calm corner of the Elizabeth River!
Col. Crawford was granted 890 acres of land in 1716 and in 1752 he set aside 65 acres of it to create a town called “Portsmouth” – this original acreage is now called Olde Towne. He hired a surveyor to grid the town into squares with his self-named bay as the north border, the river as its eastern border, Gosport Creek as the southern border, and Dinwiddie St as the west border.
This portion of the wall was built in the early 1900s to control tidal flooding and develop tidal land. (Side note, those of us residents in homes built on the previous tidal marsh only have to dig down a few inches to hit old oyster shells!) Before the wall was built, there was a beach for sunbathers and swimmers (hence Swimming Point) and a walking bridge over the marsh to the street.
If you stroll down Court Street, you’ll notice a house with an elaborate side balcony – it used to be overlooking the beach front, but is now a far distance from the water.
I vote this as the best view of the Downtown Norfolk skyline – be sure to check it out after dark when the city lights reflect off Crawford’s Bay.
Oh, if walls could talk! The Macon House was built in 1851 as a grand hotel (pictured is the proprietor’s house on the side). The other side of North Street had not been built and the view from the hotel looked clear out to the river.
At the beginning of the Civil War, the house and hotel was used by Confederate Officers and their families as living quarters. When the Union troops took Portsmouth and evacuated all of the Confederate troops, the Union Army took the Macon Hotel to use as a hospital and the front house was used by the officers in charge. There were reports from the surrounding neighbors of screams coming from the open windows as the hospital performed operations (thank goodness for the drugs we have today!). The neighborhood women working in the hospital would smuggle medical supplies and drugs out of this Union hospital in the hems of their petticoats and bring them to the house next to St. John’s on Washington St. to be smuggled to their evacuated husbands in the Confederate Army. In both the hotel portion as well as the front house there are still carved regiment numbers in the woodwork.
The hotel portion was later converted to apartment buildings and the proprietor’s house to family residence after the Civil War as it is today.
Be sure to peek at the adjacent courtyard garden on your tour!
Armistead House, aka First U.S. Navy Nursing School for Portsmouth Naval Hospital, aka Elks Lodge, aka Doctor Madblood’s Castle
An impressive example of Romanesque Revival architecture is this home built in 1898 for Mrs. Laura Armistead.
This home has gone through many iterations in its 122 year existence: After being home to the Armistead family for 35 years, it became the first U.S. Navy Nursing school for Portsmouth Naval Hospital in 1917, the Elks Lodge in 1933 when the back auditorium section was added which held many dances and cotillions. In the 1960s, the exterior of the home was used as the imaginary castle of Doctor Madblood in the TV show “Friday Night Frights” (locals sometimes still refer to this home as Madblood’s Castle).
The home finally converted to apartments in the 1970s and has been such since then.
On your walk, be sure to check out the many architectural details on the turret of this beautiful building.
PS: Doctor Madblood himself has a Facebook page if you want to see his recent frights!