Architectural Ambler: Beach Cottage Row Historic District

Nags Head, North Carolina

Just east of Jockey’s Ridge State Park on a mile-long stretch of oceanfront beach in Nags Head, North Carolina, you get a sense of what life on the Outer Banks was like before Brew Thru and Wings stores were common sights along Highway 158. The rambling frame houses comprising the Nags Head Beach Cottage Row Historic District were built starting just after the Civil War with significant construction completed prior to World War II. Most of the cottages’ original owners were professionals, merchants, and planters from the Albemarle region of northeastern North Carolina and Virginia. Many of the cottages have been passed down through the family and remain in the hands of descendants of the original owners.

Nags Head had been a popular resort since the early 19th century. Early development, however, was concentrated on the sound side of the island where there were a hotel, boat landings, and a pavilion used for social gatherings. Later, boardwalks and a horse-drawn tram connected the sound side to the ocean front. Local tradition tells us that William Gaskins Pool – a physician from Elizabeth City – was the first person to build a cottage on the oceanfront, and a deed confirms that he purchased 50 acres of oceanfront land from the Midgett family in 1866 for $30. Later that year he sold a lot to Kate Overman, a friend’s wife, for $1. He sold additional lots to the wives of other friends, including Henrietta Fearing and Florence Grandy.

A few houses from the 1860s survive. At 4023 South Virginia Dare Trail, the George Pool-Turner-MacMullan Cottage was constructed in 1866 and is said to have been owned by Dr. Pool’s brother, George. The 1 ½-story cottage is raised on wooden pilings and has deep porches, broad shed dormers that span nearly the entire width of the house, shutters hinged at the top and held open with prop sticks, weathered wood shingle walls and roofs, and a rear ell. All of these features are characteristic of Nags Head’s historic cottages. Also dating from the 1860s are the Sumner-Robinson-Gaither Cottage at 4215 South Virginia Dare Trail and the Gatlin Cottage at 4313 South Virginia Dare Trail.

The Gurkin-George Cobb-Martha Wood Cottage at 4001 South Virginia Dare Trail dates to circa 1860. Its roofline is broken by two unusual gable dormers facing the Atlantic. The only other gable dormers facing the beach are on the Peters Cottage at 4127 South Virginia Dare Trail (ca. 1932); they appear to be later additions and sit atop an original shed dormer.

Another early house is the 2-story, 3-bay Whedbee Cottage at 4020 South Virginia Dare Trail (1868). Built by Kate Overman on the oceanfront lot sold to her by Dr. Pool, the house was moved to the sound side of South Virginia Dare Trail in 1936. House moves are another characteristic of Cottage Row, with most, if not all, of the houses being moved away from the changed shoreline after hurricanes in 1917, 1918, 1933, and 1962. The Lamb-Martin-Stewart-Folk-Patterson Cottage at 4121 South Virginia Dare Trail reportedly was moved as well – but from the sound side to the oceanfront. It was once connected to the sound side hotel by a pier and was moved to the beach c. 1880. The cottage has standard board-and-batten shutters that open to the sides in addition to shutters in the typical Nags Head style.

Spider Villa aka the WW Griffin-Drane Cottage at 4049 South Virginia Dare Trail dates to 1859. When viewed from the street, its lively combination of materials and forms, including board-and-batten siding and shingles across numerous small additions, showcases the accretive nature of cottage construction in the district.

Beginning in the 1910s and through the 1940s, local builder S. J. Twine put his personal stamp on the beach cottages, designing and building new cottages, and expanding or renovating older ones. Twine, like many of the cottage owners, was from Elizabeth City. He was a master vernacular builder. Long-time residents of the row reported that a Twine house never lost its roof or otherwise came apart during a storm.

Twine built the Badham-Kittrell Cottage at 4015 South Virginia Dare Trail in 1928. Its 1 ½-story bungaloid form is characterized by the broad shed dormer, stretching almost the full width of the house. Like other houses by Twine on the beach, it has a broad wraparound porch, lean out benches, and is raised on pilings. Other houses by Twine include Windemere at 4047 South Virginia Dare Trail (1934), the MacMullen-Scott Cottage at 4115 South Virginia Dare Trail (1930), and the Neal-Moore-Vodrey Cottage at 4117 South Virginia Dare Trail (1930).

Also built during the 1930s was the Toms-Buchanan Cottage at 4013 South Virginia Dare Trail (1936). During his 1937 trip to North Carolina, the Buchanans hosted a lunch for Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the house, the largest in the district. FDR had come to the state in August to give a speech on nearby Roanoke Island honoring the 350th anniversary of Virginia Dare’s birth.

The Pailin-Skinner Cottage at 4005 South Virginia Dare Trail is distinctive and memorable for its unusual pyramidal roof. According to beach resident Edward Outlaw, Jr., who recorded his recollections of local history in Old Nags Head, the first house on the site was one of the thirteen original cottages on the beach, dating to 1886. However, the house was rebuilt in 1933. Similarly, the Nixon Cottage at 4019 South Virginia Dare Trail, which dated to 1908, was demolished in 2000 and reconstructed as an exact replica in 2001.

The decades-long, and in some cases century-long, survival of these cottages in the harsh climate of the Outer Banks is a testament to the value placed on the historic structures by their owners. This is even more evident when one considers the value of the land, the large-scale residential development more commonly found on Outer Banks’ beaches, and the lack of local laws protecting the houses from demolition or inappropriate alterations. A walk south from the Conch Street beach access is a walk back in time.

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