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Feature | July 18, 2012

The Matthew Jones House: Inside the history of Fort Eustis' oldest building

By Senior Airman Jason J. Brown 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

Since its establishment as an Army camp in 1918, Fort Eustis has experienced waves of change. From its early days as a coastal-artillery, replacement center and balloon-training grounds, to serving as a prison, its heyday of train tracks during the Transportation School-era, and now modernization as a joint base, the landscape of the post along the James River has certainly evolved.

However, a short drive down Harrison Road on post reveals one facet of the installation that has withstood the test of time - a lot of time.

The small brick home capping the hill off Harrison Road near Eustis Lake is the Matthew Jones House, the oldest structure on Ft. Eustis.

Estimates say the original foundation and parts of the building date back to 1700, with several additions and changes to the home since.

The house rests 25 feet above sea level on a knoll 700 feet east of the James River. Matthew Jones, a Virginia planter for whom the home is named, is thought to be its original owner. According to Christopher McDaid, the 733rd Civil Engineer Division's Cultural Resources Manager, most of the original, wooden building was removed, save for the two large chimneys on each end. The main body of the T-shaped house was likely built in 1727 for Jones, with its original, wooden frame used to build brickwork around.

"The Jones house was originally built as a wooden earthfast home, where timbers were inserted into holes in the ground, and the home built around," McDaid said. "This sort of construction allowed the owner to easily repair the timbers by just pulling old ones out and replacing them.

"As tobacco farmers in the region were trying to grow and ship their goods back to England as fast as possible, the idea was that by the time the home needed significant repair, the planter would've already left," McDaid continued. "For that reason, this type of home was very popular in colonial Virginia."

McDaid explained that Jones felt the need to compete with wealthier planters up the James River coastline, who constructed palatial, plantation homes, and therefore opted for brickwork expansion on his house on the hill. The design included two dependencies, or small exterior buildings, used for laundry and kitchens on the property.

"It was about status, saying 'Hey, I have a nice brick house, too!'" McDaid added.

According to research by the Ft. Eustis Historical and Archaeological Association, the Jones family owned the farm building and the surrounding land until 1848. Known as Brick House Farm at that time, it was next acquired by Bennett Wood. In 1893, the building was purchased by Williams Webb, who expanded it to include a second story, and removed the dependencies.

The evolution of the building is visible in the variations in brickwork, McDaid said. The house features several methods of brick construction, including English bond, Flemish bond and American common bond. These methods were used to identify the different periods of renovation to the home's design.

The Brick House Farm came into federal possession March 15, 1918, when the U.S. Army purchased Mulberry Island and the surrounding land for $538,000 from Edward Milstead to establish Camp Abraham Eustis, named for the first commanding general of nearby Fort Monroe.

When the Army returned to Ft. Eustis following World War II, it promised community leaders the house would not be razed or otherwise disturbed. However, when the post experienced a housing shortage, the Army modified the home slightly in order to use it as post housing. The FEHAA said a lieutenant and a sergeant lived in the house between 1920 and 1932, and the home served as officer's quarters during WWII.

Following the war, the home sat vacant, save for trespassers who frequented the abandoned building, McDaid said. As part of preservation efforts, parts of the second-floor wall, featuring graffiti and signatures of the passers-through, is preserved behind plexiglass, with some markings dating back as early as 1939.

The home was declared a Virginia Historic Landmark in April 1969, and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places that June.

Realizing the home's historic significance and potential, the Army Corps of Engineers in Norfolk raised funding to preserve the house, and turn it into an architectural-study museum. Norfolk architect John Paul Hanbury created a design which highlighted the three historic periods of the home, based upon historical research by Willie Graham, Colonial Williamsburg's curator of architecture.

The museum project began in 1993 and was finished later that year, with a grand opening May 21, 1994. The home boasts displays describing the history of the home, including its ownership by the Jones and Webb families who lived there, as well as the history of Mulberry Island, Warwick County and the origins of Ft. Eustis.

Today, the Matthew Jones House is the home of the Ft. Eustis Archaeological Program, with a small office area in addition to the museum space. The home is labeled with small, numbered plaques, annotating significant elements of the home, which are described in an accompanying history guide. (These are available at the house during tours.) The building also features unearthed findings from the surrounding area, including ammunition, uniform elements and even a military sword.

The Matthew Jones House is available for tours by request. McDaid occasionally hosts college history majors from the nearby Christopher Newport University and the College of William & Mary, in addition to other individuals interested in a fine example of American architectural history.

"There's a rumor that this is the oldest building the Department of Defense owns. I'm not sure of that, but it's something I'm investigating," McDaid said. "Regardless, this is an incredible piece of history. The way this home evolved over time is really quite the story."

EDITOR'S NOTE: To request a tour of the Matthew Jones House, contact Christopher McDaid at (757) 878-4123 ext. 295, or email christopher.l.mcdaid.civ@mail.mil.