When Baratta embarked on his project in Colonial Williamsburg, he knew that, like many other homes in the Historic Area, the Palmer House had many stories to tell. Foundation historians have kept detailed research notes for “Block 9, Colonial Lot 27,” recording the previous owners, structures, and changes that the property has seen over the past 300+ years. Read some highlights of these records below!
The Palmer House site was first owned by a William Robertson from 1707-1718. Then from 1718-1732, it was owned by Dr. John Brown [and his Estate] who served as the physician for Governor Spotswood’s Family at the Governor’s Palace. The third owner was jeweler Alexander Kerr [and his estate], who ran his goldsmith and jewelry business from a shop on the property from 1732-1740. Here he frequently raffled off such articles as mother-of-pearl snuff boxes, chased plates, and gold toothpick cases.
From 1740-1780, the property was owned by local lawyer and bursar at the College of William and Mary, John Palmer and his family. In late 1754, Palmer constructed the house after the previous dwelling burned down on April 24 of that year. It was a brick, two-story, double-pile, side passage plan house with a gabled roof, and a chimney to the west. It measured roughly 40' x 36' around the perimeter. The brick was laid in Flemish bond and the cellar level was relatively high.
John Palmer died in 1760, and his family leased the property to cabinetmaker Benjamin Bucktrout until 1769. In the February 2, 1769 Virginia Gazette, Bucktrout was looking for a lessee to take up the lease on the house, and he described the property thus:
“To be RENTED, and entered on the 15th of May next, THE lease of a large and commodious BRICK HOUSE, opposite to the coffee-house and nigh the Capitol. It has every necessary convenience, is very fit for a tavern or for taking in 15 private lodgers, and has been long used by many Gentlemen in Assembly and Court times…There are four years of the lease unexpired, about the last of April next.”
In 1836, the property was purchased by William W. Vest, who in 1838 doubled the size of the house by adding a two-story eastern addition. The addition included an additional chimney on the east side, dormer windows and a large porch. It became a central passage plan house. In 1861, Vest took his family and fled to Richmond, VA.
The house and property were continuously occupied as the headquarters of either the Confederate or Union forces from the spring of 1862 to the autumn of 1865. On May 6, 1862, Union General George McClellan described Williamsburg and the Vest House thus:
This is a beautiful town; several very old houses and churches, pretty gardens. I have taken possession of a very fine old house which Joe Johnston occupied as headquarters. It has a lovely flower-garden, and conservatory.
In September 1862, David Cronin, a Provost Marshall of the Union Army described the house as:
“The Vest Mansion was a large brick building of three stories, if the attic floor be included, comparatively new, with modern improvements, situated at the southern end of the main street of Williamsburg. It was owned and inhabited as a residence by W. W. Vest, a prominent merchant of the place. Though outwardly a rather plain substantial structure, its size and situation made it imposing. It was divided into two wings by a central front door and wide hallway leading to a garden, coach house and stables in the rear. The first floor of the eastern wing, consisted of a spacious drawing room with a rear room converted into a bedroom, and these were the apartments occupied as official headquarters. They were tastefully and richly furnished. Costly carpets cushioned easy-chairs, cut glass chandeliers, pier and mantel mirrors met the eye and a cheerful fireplace with old fashioned andirons, gave an air of comfort. But the principal feature of the official apartment was a long and broad mahogany table standing near the centre. It was covered with green baize 33 cloth and was precisely like the table stationed within the bar of Court Houses or in important public offices…”
After the war, the Vest family returned to the house and retained ownership until 1896. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation purchased the property in 1927, made repairs and improvements in 1932-33, and then restored it to its Palmer era appearance in 1951-52 by removing Vest’s eastern addition, porch and dormer windows. In addition, they found the original putlog holes that were used in the construction of the house. Colonial bricklayers left these openings in order to position horizontal scaffolding poles as they constructed the walls of the house. The Palmer House putlog holes had been filled in by previous owners, but were cleaned out during the restoration.
Palmer House is known as “The Apple House” at Christmastime. A tradition began of placing apples in the restored putlog holes as part of the Christmas decorations at Colonial Williamsburg.
For extended information on Palmer House, visit: https://www.history.org/foundation/journal/autumn99/apples.cfm
Historical information on Palmer House compiled by Dani Jaworksi, Associate Curator of Architectural Collections, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.