Excavations show Thomas Harrison House not built by namesake

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HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) — The Thomas Harrison House is a historic building located in downtown Harrisonburg. The story has always been that it was built by Thomas Harrison, the namesake of the city, in 1750.

In recent years, the City of Harrisonburg purchased the property with the Margaret Grattan Weaver Foundation with plans to restore the house.

However, before the building could be restored, it needed to be researched and excavated. The team came up with surprising results, presented at Tuesday night's city council meeting.

Dr. Carole Nash is an Associate Professor of Integrated Science and Technology at James Madison University.

She, along with other researchers including Michael J. Worthington of the Oxford Tree Ring Laboratory, Ed Chappell of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Susan Buck, a conservator and paint analyst, and Kathy Frazier and Tom Clayton of Frazier Associates, presented their findings.

"We date the artifacts that we find, because we know roughly when they were actually created," said Nash. "We also can do tree-ring dating. Then, in this particular instance, it's possible to do paint analysis. We know that different recipes were used at certain times."

Nash explained that tree-ring dating involves cutting small cores of wood from the home and comparing them to others around the Shenandoah Valley. In the cellar, seven ceiling joists were cored, and four retained complete sapwood. This allowed the Oxford Tree Ring Laboratory to determine that the trees used in the construction of the building were felled in spring 1789 and spring 1790.

Those pieces of evidence, combined with information from historical documents, place the construction of the building between 1790 and 1800.

"The challenge is, Thomas Harrison died in 1785. So it is not possible that he built this house, and it's not possible that he lived in this house. Except maybe as a ghost," said Nash.

Although the founder of Harrisonburg may not have built the structure, Nash believes the building is still remarkable.

"Not only does it have the architecture from the 1800s, but it actually expresses a time when American identity was emerging," she said.

The basement holds a small spring, a Germanic building tradition, but also a cooking hearth, which is an English one.

Nash also believes the house held enslaved people.

"People were living in the basement, based off of the artifacts that we're finding," she said. "So there's the story of early African-Americans in Harrisonburg in this house as well."

Nash said a large amount of ceramics and animal bone were found in the cellar, suggesting the building may once have been used as an inn, before being converted to a law office in the 1840s. There were more than 3,000 artifacts examined in four major excavation blocks. The earliest ceramics found in the building were manufactured between 1790 and 1810, with the majority being pre-Civil War.

Machine-cut nails also point to construction after 1800, according to the PowerPoint presentation provided to the Harrisonburg City Council.

The only known image of the Harrison House with the front facing east dates back to 1864; the structure has no porch, and the cellar window is partially covered by the sidewalk.

Researchers examined the original lot compared to present day and studied when the Harrison House and the Hall House were joined.

Based on the "Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps," they determined the two structures were joined between 1886 and 1891.

The paint layer analysis by Susan Buck included seven sample areas on the exterior, seven samples in the cellar, and 15 sample areas on the interior. She found that the exterior window trim was originally painted red-brown, and the stone walls were first deep yellow, then dark red, then "dull pink" after 1845.

The cellar showed 13 generations of limewash, and Buck found a blue painted rag-based wallpaper post-1830.

Despite years of research, there are still many questions about the building.

"Who lived in this house? If it was not Thomas Harrison, who was it? And how does that person factor into the story of Harrisonburg," asked Nash.

She believes Harrison's vision lives on in the house: "a town with uniform lots and dwellings measuring 16' x 20', with a stone or brick chimney."

The future of the Harrison House remains uncertain, and it's joining with the Hall House presents its own historical questions.

The City owns the property.

Nash also wants to know, "If not in the downtown location, where did Thomas Harrison live?"