Cottage Row

In addition to being born in a different time period, I think I grew up in the wrong town.  The Outer Banks of North Carolina, today a huge tourist spot, has captured my heart and I refuse to get it back.

beach at sunrise

Every summer since I was little (even before I was walking), I have visited Nags Head, North Carolina.  It’s been a bit of an unspoken tradition to go every year.  One year we broke tradition and went to a beach in South Carolina.  We haven’t done anything that crazy since.

My great aunt purchased one of those little cinder block houses in the 50s, which we used to stay in before my cousin decided to crash there permanently.  My father stayed there when he was young, and remembers Nags Head before all of the commercialization, before all of the crazy stilt houses, and, well, before the tourists.

One place that I have always wanted to stay in is a place on Cottage Row.

cottage row

© Shooters on the Beach

The original cottages of Nags Head, these stilted, oceanfront ‘Unpainted Aristocracy’ scream elegance and upper class.  Wrap around decks, real shutters, and weathered shingles add to this elegance.

Buchanon front

The Nags Head Guide (link) eloquently describes the history of cottage row much better than I ever could:

The first oceanfront cottage was built here around 1855 by Dr. W.G. Pool of Elizabeth City. Pool is said to have bought 50 acres of oceanfront property for $30 from the Midgetts, a family of Bankers still living in the area today. Pool divided the lots and sold them to the wives of his friends back home for a dollar apiece, and the Unpainted Aristocracy, a mile-long stretch of oceanfront cottages, was born.

By 1885, 13 shingled cottages, many made from scavenged wood, had sprung up within 300 feet of the breakers. In the early 1910s, cottagers called on a self-taught carpenter from Elizabeth City named Stephen J. Twine to repair and enlarge their summer houses. Twine would build at least another dozen cottages on the oceanfront between 1910 and 1935, along with St. Andrew’s By-the-Sea Episcopal Church, transforming the beachfront and in turn defining what would become known as the Nags Head style of architecture. Each cottage, with its hip-roofed porches, built-in benches and propped-shuttered windows, added to the majesty of Cottage Row.

The Unpainted Aristocracy has stood sentry against the changing tides of the Atlantic Ocean for more than 130 years. Known officially as the Nags Head Beach Cottage Row Historic District, the collection of close to 40 historic structures is one of the Tar Heel state’s little-known historic secrets, though it has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1977. The Unpainted Aristocracy has provided a porch rocker’s view of history. Under eaves furred by a century of salt spray, the families of Nags Head watched as Union troops marched into Nags Head, using the hotel as a headquarters and dismantling All Saint’s Chapel for use as a shelter for runaway slaves. They waded through chest-high hurricane waters in 1899 and 1933, lined the road in 1937 as a president visited, and later darkened their windows as ships burned off shore during World War II. They battled ceiling-high sand in 1962 after the Ash Wednesday northeaster and today fight a continuing battle against development to the north, south and west and the often-fierce Atlantic to the east.

The vacationers who were first to build cottages along the oceanfront lived in virtual isolation for nearly 100 years. They packed their bags for home on Labor Day and, because most structures among the Unpainted Aristocracy had no heat, they didn’t return until Memorial Day the following summer.

Though pockets of cottages and mom and pop hotels sprang up along N.C. 12, there was little development around the Unpainted Aristocracy until the 1960s. Families who had grown up along the cottage line began to mushroom, some members building new cottages nearby. And early in the 1970s, real estate developers from Ocean City, Maryland, began spreading the word about the pristine Outer Banks, both as a place to get away from it all and as a destination to explore the state’s history.

In time, some of Nags Head’s older structures fell into disrepair and were replaced by new cottages with more modern conveniences. Yet devotees to the historic beach life that Nags Head provided continued their efforts to preserve their beloved cottages.

Of the 40 homes in Cottage Row, many of them are still owned by the original families, and many of them are steeped in history.  The Buchanan cottage hosted Franklin Delano Roosevelt on his visit to the Outer Banks in 1937.  This cottage is the most photographed as well as the most architecturally emblematic of the older Nags Head Cottages.

buchanon side

Further Reading:

Nags Head Guide. ‘Nags Head History.’ Nags Head Guide. 23 July 2013. Web. 23 July 2013

PRWeb. ‘Village Realty announces sale of Historic Nags Head Home.’ PRWeb. 8 November 2012. Web. July 23 2013

Dunnavant, Joren Walter. Becah Cottage Row Historic District: Local Historic District Plan-Section 1. 2008. Web. 23 July 2013

Dunnavant, Joren Walter. Becah Cottage Row Historic District: Local Historic District Plan-Section 2. 2008. Web. 23 July 2013

Dunnavant, Joren Walter. Becah Cottage Row Historic District: Local Historic District Plan-Section 3. 2008. Web. 23 July 2013

Dunnavant, Joren Walter. Becah Cottage Row Historic District: Local Historic District Plan-Section 4. 2008. Web. 23 July 2013


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