A Story of Old Stone Homes in Tennessee

A Pennsylvanian by birth, I came to live in Eastern Tennessee in 2008. A job planted me there for about five years. Quite lovely country, I thought, but it’s a land of log cabins, not old stone homes. After exploring the countryside, I realized I was wrong.

Ramsey House was my first real experience with a stone home in a Southern state. Breathtaking, it reminded me of many federal-style homesteads I had toured back home. And rightly so. Its original owner, Pennsylvania-born and of Scots-Irish heritage, hired an English-born architect to design and build the house of locally sourced pink marble and grey limestone – most likely in keeping with manses in his home state. Everything I love about old stone homes – intricate interior woodwork, a big walk-in cooking hearth and cozy fireplaces and a grand winding staircase – you’ll find at Ramsey House. Even a ghost or two (wink)!

So I was sitting at my computer today, pondering what to write. And Tennessee, for some reason, popped to mind. I did a search and – boom – up popped two gorgeous old stone homes for sale. Minus some columns and an odd architectural detail or two, these homes would look right at home if nestled on a country back road in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania or Maryland.

Wills-Dickey Stone House, Kingsport, Tennessee
Two-foot-thick stone walls. Can you imagine? This graceful lady was built around 1790 by Jacob and Mary Wills in a portion of Tennessee that was once part of Virginia. A two-story limestone dwelling, this mansion sits on over an acre of riverfront property, boasts its own barn, a guest house and four fireplaces and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. Inspiration for this home’s design? Jacob was born in Pennsylvania and no doubt learned the art of stone masontry in his home state.

The Peter Range Sr. House
Imagine living in a home built by a Revolutionary War soldier! Peter Range Sr., of German descent and born in New Jersey, moved to present-day Johnson City (lower Knob Creek), Tennessee, with his wife Elizabeth and first child in 1777. He built his first home, a two-story log home, in 1796. That primitive structure forms part of the full basement of the present-day, circa 1804  home, constructed of hand-cut blue limestone. It was built along with a grist mill (Twin Falls), which is now but a memory. The home, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, boasts four fireplaces, interior exposed-stone walls and original wide-planked wood flooring.

The Federal-Style Stone Home

After the American Revolution, we strayed somewhat from the Georgian home style. It’s hard to blame Early Americans, fresh off the battlefield and not so keen on building homes taken from the pages of English pattern books.

Fort Hunter Mansion, Front Entrance, Federal style stone mansion, old stone home, Harrisburg, PA, colonial homeThus emerged the “Adam” style, made famous by Scottish architects Robert and James Adam, brothers who designed large country estates in England, circa 1750- 1800. Once word spread to our side of the pond, the name was surreptitiously changed to “Federal” and a truly American architectural form was born.

The Federal style borrows the Georgian adherence to Roman classical design; the center hall, symmetrical design elements and side-gabled roof all remain. The styles diverge by way of formal features: Think delicate, sophisticated ornamentation, a front door fanlight window, three-part or Palladian windows with curved arches and curving or polygonal window projections.

Fort Hunter Mansion, located along the Susquehanna River in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, provides a fine example of Federal style. Built with stone quarried locally, the home boasts refined details that would have showcased its owners’s wealth and position in society.

From Stone Cottage to Georgian Style in Colonial America

You know those two-story, take-your-breath-away stone homes you sometimes find closer to city centers and clearly built by skilled tradesmen? Congrats! You’ve just happened upon a Georgian-style home. Why significant? Early American stone homes called upon regional folk styles and were often built by owners themselves. By the 18th century, we had established ourselves in this country and had amassed enough wealth to build more formal, refined structures.

The Georgian style in America made its way here from England, where classical forms of the earlier Italian Renaissance period were popular. Hallmarks of this home style included:

The Georgian style (1700-1780) gave way to the Federal style after the American Revolution. Cliveden (Benjamin Chew House, shown above), located in Germantown, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is a fine example of Georgian style. The mansion was in part designed by its owner Benjamin Chew, a successful Philadelphia lawyer, and built by Mennonite master carpenter Jacob Knor, mason John Hesser and stonecutter Casper Geyer. The home takes inspiration from Kew Palace as well as patterns in James Gibbs’s Book of Architecture. An ashlar front of gray Wissahickon schist (the predominant bedrock underlying Philadelphia) and gable ends and back of rubble construction are outstanding features.

Could you see yourself as the master of a grand Georgian estate? Take our stone home personality quiz to find the home style that’s right for you.

Cliveden: The Building of a Philadelphia Countryseat, 1763-1767
Common Building Types: Houses, schools, courthouses

The Story of Stone and Early American Home Styles

An old stone home is a reflection of its builder’s heritage and masonry skills as well as the region in which it was built. Let’s explore materials and home style as we tour the earliest stone homes to appear along or near the East Coast of North America.

Region: New England

In the mid-1600s, the population of New England was primarily English, so home styles were pretty simple, stripped of ornamentation and timber-framed (timber being the most readily available material). Design had purpose: A pitched roof shed heavy snow loads and a central fireplace kept the home warm and cozy during cold New England winters. But not many stone homes. Why? Although fieldstone was plentiful (we know this by virtue of old dry-stacked stone walls that still exist throughout the region), the ingredients to make a good mortar were scarce. Rare examples appear where limestone was plentiful (primarily Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts) and took the form of what came to be coined “stone-siders”.

Photo: Clemence-Irons House by acanyc, Johnston, RI, limestone construction, Post-Medieval English style

Photo: Clemence-Irons House by acanyc, Johnston, RI, limestone construction, Post-Medieval English style

Region: Central Hudson Valley and New Jersey

Moving on to the Hudson Valley, we see a slight change in style and construction. Dutch and Flemish settlers were more skilled in pairing materials, specifically fieldstone with brick, timber or both. To construct the earliest stone homes, settlers rough-cut stone and sandwiched it between layers of hair- or straw-bound clay to build walls that measured up to three feet thick. Lime mortar, fashioned from oyster shells or lime deposits, and finely masoned stones and intricately laid brickwork eventually replaced more primitive building materials.

Mount Gulian stone home

Photo: Mount Gulian by Howard Dale, Beacon, NY, red and brown sandstone construction, Dutch colonial style

Region: Delaware River Valley

Further south in the Delaware Valley of Pennsylvania, Swedish, Scots-Irish and German settlers initially built log structures. It was the German immigrants who truly put their stamp on the stone home design. The earliest structures featured steep roofs, central fireplaces and small square windows flush set against thick stone walls. Often, homes were built over springs that provided running water or into hillsides (hence the term “bank house”) that kept interiors cool during hot and humid summer months.

Hans Herr House old stone home in Lancaster County

Photo: Hans Herr House by Historyplaces, Willow Street, PA, sandstone construction, German colonial style

Early American Architecture by Hugh Morrison
The History, Science and Poetry of New England’s Stone Walls
Hudson Valley Architecture
Stone Houses of Eastern Pennsylvania
Architecture, Furniture, and Silver from Colonial Dutch America
Common Building Types: Houses, Agricultural Outbuildings, Mills