18th-century alternatives to sand and sun
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Need a break from the sun and sand? Toss the kids in the car and head north on Atlantic Avenue until it ends at the front gate of Fort Story. Bring your photo ID for the guard and expect to pause briefly for a security check of your car, then continue straight ahead for a few hundred yards until you see not one but two historic lighthouses standing like sentinels where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean. This point of land is Cape Henry, where the English settlers first landed in 1607. After a few weeks, they continued upriver to establish Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in America.
Park the car next to the smaller, older lighthouse on the left and start the Cape Henry Lighthouse adventure. Completed in 1792, this octagonal lighthouse was authorized by one of the first acts of the new American Congress. Built of stone on the tallest dune at the cape, its light guided sailors into the Chesapeake Bay for almost 100 years. It was replaced in 1881 by a new lighthouse, a taller, black and white structure right next door. That lighthouse can be visited only on the outside because it is still in use today.
Let the kids burn some of that inexhaustible energy by climbing and counting the 88 steps to the base of the old lighthouse, then another 102 up a winding wrought iron staircase and ladder to the top of the structure. The reward is the view. Afterwards, take the short walk into Cape Henry Memorial National Park and stand on the exact spot of that first landing, commemorated with markers and statues.
There are very few buildings in the entire United States older than the Adam Thoroughgood House. It was built around 1680 by the son or grandson of the first Adam Thoroughgood, a teenager who immigrated to Virginia in 1621 and became a successful landowner. He is considered the “father” of Norfolk and Virginia Beach because he was the first Englishman to settle the area and because he named Norfolk after his home back in England. Thoroughgoods lived in this house until the Civil War, when it passed out of the family.
The most surprising aspect of the house for today’s visitors is its size—it seems very small to be the home of one of the most prosperous and prominent families in the colony. But in the early years, when the majority of English settlers were living in single-room shacks with dirt floors, this one-and-a-half-story, sturdy brick structure would have been the envy of all. This is the house to visit if you like antiques, as it is furnished entirely with unusual 17th-century pieces. Costumed guides escort you through the house and grounds, customizing each tour to the visitors’ interests and time frame. The average tour lasts about half an hour.
A short distance away is the Lynnhaven House, built in 1725. Like the Thoroughgood House, it is small, brick, a story-and-a-half and built on a creek that provided access to the Chesapeake Bay. Creeks were the roads and the Bay the highway of the Colonial period, when it was easier and faster to travel by boat than by land. But the Lynnhaven house is nearly 50 years “newer” than the Thoroughgood house, and it makes an interesting comparison to see the difference those years made.
Once part of a 250-acre farm, the house was occupied until the 1960s, but it is in excellent shape, the original portion never having been altered or damaged by the addition of plumbing or electricity. Today it is furnished with antiques and reproductions of the 18th century. A new Colonial Education Center, slated to open this year, provides space for activities, a library, a shop and amenities before or after your visit to the house. A short nature walk is available.
Hardly a mile away from the Lynnhaven House is the historic Old Donation Episcopal Church, built in 1736. Its unusual name comes from the donation made by its rector in 1776. When the rector died, he left all his property to the church to be used to support a free school for orphan boys, an institution that became known as Donation Farm. The congregation is proud of its historic church and welcomes visitors. There is no tour, but an informative brochure inside the front door will answer any questions you may have.
Easy to locate on Virginia Beach Boulevard is the 200-year-old Francis Land House. This year is the 20th anniversary of the house as a public historic site, and a special exhibit has been prepared to tell the story of its preservation by the city of Virginia Beach. Recent studies have shown that the house was built at about the time the 18th century turned into the 19th. Guided by several old inventories, the rooms have been furnished with antiques and reproductions to depict different periods, from the early 18th century to the early Federal years, so visitors can get a sense of the changes that occurred in household furnishing styles during that time. Costumed volunteers give tours through the house that last about 20 minutes.
The most unusual Colonial house in Virginia Beach is Upper Wolfsnare, but you must have luck running your way to see it. It is not difficult to find—the driveway entrance off Potter’s Road is clearly marked—but this unique house is open only in July and August on Wednesday afternoons, because it still functions as a privately occupied home. Built in 1759, the two-and-a-half-story building is owned by the Historical Society of Princess Anne County/Virginia Beach, a nonprofit organization that gets not a nickel from any government source and, frankly, struggles to keep the house up. Its romantic setting at the end of a crape myrtle-lined lane makes it hard to believe you are still in the middle of bustling Virginia Beach. The brick exterior is a disappointment, painted during the World War II years by a well-meaning owner, but the interior is magnificent, with its original wainscoting, molding and staircases. Upper Wolfsnare is well worth the visit.
Out-of-towners will have no trouble finding any of these historic buildings. All are well marked with signs and are located on or just off major roads in close proximity to one another. All have websites with maps and directions; all are staffed with charming people who are delighted to help direct you to your next stop. Plan ahead by picking up brochures and maps at one of the official Virginia Beach information kiosks along Atlantic Avenue at 17th, 24th and 30th streets.