Man's book explores historic Jefferson County homes

August 14, 2011|By RICHARD F. BELISLE |
  • John C. Allen Jr.'s new book, "Uncommon Vernacular," focuses on 250 homes built in Jefferson County between 1735 and 1835, before the C&O Canal and the B&O Railroad arrived in the county.
By Richard F. Belisle/Staff Writer

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. — A brochure promoting author John C. Allen Jr.’s new book, “Uncommon Vernacular,” says Jefferson County’s landscape is riddled with history of Civil War battles, political rebellion and “an unusual collection of historic homes.”

Allen’s 350-page book, which comes out this week, focuses on 250 homes built between 1735 and 1835, before the C&O Canal and the B&O Railroad arrived in Jefferson County.

An example of Allen’s work in the book is the Dr. Nicholas Schell house on North High Street in Shepherdstown. It started as a log structure in 1787. Schell, born in Germany, lived in eastern Pennsylvania before he moved to Shepherdstown.

Allen found that the Schell house has a modified hall and parlor typical of a house from the area of Pennsylvania where Schell had lived.

“This house is a good example of a first-generation resident of the area introducing a building plan more typical of another region,” Allen writes in the book.

His book details building plans, construction, siting, and interior and exterior details that point to the housing styles of Scots-Irish, German, English and black cultures that made Jefferson County unique among its neighbors.

Allen visited hundreds of homes, abandoned or owner-occupied. Only three owners of the hundreds of houses he went into denied him access, he said.

The research took seven years and thousands of hours, he said.

“You have to become intimate when you study a house,” he said. “You look at all the pieces that make up a house — structural members, molding, millwork, doors, hardware, plaster. They all give clues on how and when a house was built, and when it was changed. You can only do that by taking measurements and getting down and crawling through crawl spaces, closets, cellars and attics.

“It’s very invasive. You’d think people would have been more protective of their privacy, but they love their old houses and want to share them.”

Allen said he was impressed by the number of homes that still are original, except for the addition of modern facilities.

Before the railroad and canal, people built their homes with the materials they found here. When the railroad and canal arrived, they began bringing in new and different materials from the Washington and Baltimore areas. After that, homes became larger than the small log, frame and stone farmhouses that people built. There were some exceptions, such as the Washington family plantation homes that still dot the county’s landscape.

“I tried to celebrate what makes Jefferson County special and different from every place else,” he said.

Allen, 41, grew in the Jackson’s Mill area of Harrison County, W.Va., and earned a degree in English from Tulane University in New Orleans. He moved to Jefferson County 10 years ago.

The book was illustrated by Andrew Lewis of Rectortown, Va., and photographed by Walter Smalling Jr., a Washington, D.C., architectural photographer.

Allen said he studied architectural history with the legendary historian Brown Morton.

“I was always fascinated by old houses, and I knew the architecture here was special,” he said. “My curiosity inspired me to write the book.”

It was published by the West Virginia University Press. It is available at Four Seasons Bookstore in Shepherdstown and online at

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