Citizens of Chesterfield County are familiar with the Courthouses that dot the landscape around the County administrative complex. Recently restored, the Historic 1917 Courthouse, a replacement for the 1749 structure, stands in the center of the complex like an old guard waiting for some activity or event to happen. It has seen much since 1917 and is still being used today to hold overflow court cases.
Other buildings used as courthouses are nearby. The Chesterfield Police Department uses a portion of one of the older, relatively modern courthouses for its administrative offices and other police activities. The newest courthouse is a reminder of a citadel which could resemble “the Palace of Knossos” and its huge 2,000-year-old columns across the front. The ruins of this ancient Minoan palace on the Island of Crete, Greece still stand.
That newest of courthouses certainly is a reminder of those ruins whose high columns may or may not still be standing after most of us are gone. Courthouses are splendid structures. Did you know that there may have been another?
In Ettrick, here in Chesterfield, there may have been a seldom heard of courthouse. Sitting in disrepair on a near vacant lot, just a few feet off Chesterfield Avenue, is a small historic house referred to as “Summerseat.”
According to tradition, in the 19th century, the house was used by a county judge and took its name because the magistrate used this house in the summer to hold court. The county roads were too muddy and rutted to travel, so he did the court’s business from this house. It became another “seat” of the government much like Chesterfield County’s newest courthouse. According to Jeffrey Odell, the author of “Chesterfield County: Early Architecture and Historic Sites.” The structure is a one-roomed variation on the so-called raised cottage house form. It has a low hipped roof and sits on a grade level basement. As small structures go, this c. 1860 house has an appeal for its unique style. There is probably no other house like it in Chesterfield County.
The lower brick portion of the house was the jail or detention center, complete with bars that held prisoners or those persons awaiting trial. If this traditional held story is true, Chesterfield County can now add another mystery to its number of jails and courthouses that have dotted the county landscape.
Standing back at the road, one can picture a steady stream of miscreants appearing before a county magistrate waiting their just due, or the county constable placing them in the lower brick jail to await their turn for court. The house is not a large building. It is 18 feet 3 inches long and 16 feet 3 inches wide. It would have been an interesting court to observe, especially if the court docket was full.
In early 2009, the building served as an antique store. The house has two upper rooms, the larger of the two fronting the building. This is the room where the county magistrate allegedly held court. There is a set of railings and balusters at the far end of the room that show the way to a flight of stairs. The stairs lead down to the lower level where two large rooms are found separated by a brick wall that had been plastered over. The plaster is starting to fall to the floor. A third room, a now-dated small kitchen and bathroom, was a later lean-to addition on the back.
Most of the homes that once sprinkled the area adjacent to Summerseat have been sold to and razed by the new owners of the property, Virginia State University (VSU), to make way for its expansion. Currently there are no plans by VSU to use Summerseat. The University, realizing its historic nature, will not have Summerseat torn down and has saved some artifacts from the building, now in storage at the University. Some in Chesterfield County may wish to see the building restored and reused, and are in conversation with VSU to this end. Until there is finalization on Summerseat’s future, its survivability looks bleak. What happens to a historic structure that is not maintained?
A house not sustained will soon fall into the dust, particularly an older historic home that no one may want, except for the wasps and spiders that now have taken up residence.
The building presents a target for vandals. Before VSU had a chance to fence it in, “Summerseat vandals” saw an opportunity to steal property that may have been priceless to historians and others. In the process the vandals have done damage to the structure. Criminals in 18th century Chesterfield, once caught, were “branded.”
The antique ornate molded iron light pole and lamp that sat upon a concrete slab was stolen from the front yard. Rear side windows, though not historic, are missing and from the back upper room, the ornate fireplace wrought iron faceplate and inner surround were also stolen. The brick fireplace was destroyed when the vandals ripped out the iron faceplate. They also damaged the now fragile wooden front steps by dragging the heavy faceplate down. The faceplate could be on the way to being melted down by now. It may not fit any modern fireplace.
Not to be incomplete in their crime, the vandals also punched a hole in the front wall of the rear upper room using a hammer. The siding to the lean-to kitchen addition has also been removed exposing the insulation and wooden framework. The roof, while intact, has gutter problems. Overall, the damage appears to be mainly from neglect of the outside wooden parts and the current vandalism. According to those who inventory historic structures at the Historical Society, some tender loving care could go a long way to restoring this beautiful 19th century building.
The idea of saving historic buildings in Chesterfield County has become more popular in recent years in part due to the citizens raising their voices in protest against losing their history. Chesterfield’s Historical Society is proof of that. Chesterfield County is in the process of restoring several county owned historic buildings in and around Courthouse Green. As citizens of Chesterfield, we will have to stay vigilant and keep watch, according to those who work to restore historic sites.
Written by George Cranford