John Jordan, Virginia Builder
Jerry Donovan

Note: The following is taken from the October 1959 issue of the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians (volume 9), pp. 17–19.


FIG. 1              
Virginia State Chamber of Commerce, Flournoy
Washington Hall (center),
Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Virginia,
Col. John Jordan, 1824.

JERRY DONOVAN was a senior last year under Dr. Marshall W. Fishwick in American Studies at Washington and Lee University. In this brief essay he calls attention to a little-known and versatile Virginia builder and thus helps to further the understanding of the Jeffersonian environment in that state.

JOHN JORDAN, VIRGINIA BUILDER

In the spring of 1802 there moved to the thriving frontier community of Lexington, Virginia a young man named John Jordan (1777–1854). Like his father, who had made cannon balls for the Continental Army during the Revolution, he was determined to do all he could to build up the country to which his ancestors had come in the seventeenth century. So successful was this self-trained architect and builder, and so beautiful the monuments he has left behind him, that fate has not been kind in relegating him to all but local obscurity.

To the architectural student in the highly-specialized twentieth century, the variety of Jordan’s interests and accomplishments is amazing. This self-taught craftsman was concerned with iron smelting, grist mills, blacksmith shops, canal construction, cotton and wool processing, painting, financing, contracting, building, and most of all, architecture. One of his first major projects was the construction of a covered bridge across the Maury River at East Lexington in 1810; this structure was destroyed by the Confederates to halt the Federal advance in 1864, but rebuilt as Jordan had designed it. Shortly after completing the structure, Jordan left Lexington to serve as an officer in the Virginia Militia during the War of 1812. He returned two years later, decorated for bravery and anxious to continue his architectural career.1

With this thought in mind, Jordan purchased a tract of land on the outskirts of Lexington and erected in 1818 a large home which he called “Stono.” With this building Colonel Jordan introduced Greek Revival architecture into Lexington, having acquired a great interest in the movement while away at the war. So far as is known, he never had formal architectural training, and there is no record of what architectural books he may have acquired for his library. His work at “Stono,” and the other homes he built in the decades that followed, makes it plain that Jordan did not depend upon size or impressiveness, but rather upon a carefully-conceived relationship of proportions—between that which supports, and that which is supported. Because of this, Jordan’s originality was assured, and his role as an important minor architect of the nineteenth century made certain.

Jordan was a meticulous craftsman, and took enormous pride in the work he and his men produced. On the grounds at “Stono” he operated woolen mills, grist and flour mills, lumber and metal shops, and a small foundry, with mechanics making and repairing machinery used on the place. An interesting description of activities at the manor under Colonel Jordan’s supervision has been left by his grandson, Charles Francis Jordan:

During the week the house was like a beehive, with the noise of the loom, the buzz of the spinning wheel, the clatter of wool cards and the lumber mill, and the glitter of knitting needles. From oldest to youngest, each had a part in the daily work. Even our clothes were produced on the place by the servants.2

That Jordan was aware of the architectural work of Thomas Jefferson, who was during these very years living out his life across the Blue Ridge as “the Sage of Monticello,” there can be no doubt. His stylistic relationship to Jefferson is obvious in his later buildings, especially Washington Hall on the Washington and Lee campus. Of how often Jordan visited Charlottesville while Jefferson was designing and constructing the University of Virginia, we have no record; but a letter from Archibald Stuart to Thomas Jefferson (March 9, 1819), which accuses Jordan of conspiring to monopolize the brickwork contracts for the building of the University of Virginia, makes it clear that Jordan was well aware of Jefferson’s work.3 Here is a subject that deserves much closer study than it has received.

The decade of the 1820’s was perhaps the most productive one in Jordan’s career. During its first year he built the Neriah Baptist Church (his first and only effort at church architecture) several miles outside Lexington, and shortly thereafter he began work on a road eastward over the Blue Ridge Mountains. Although he had no training as an engineer or road builder, Colonel Jordan accomplished what was thought impossible at the time by surveying and constructing a road through White’s Gap, and across the Blue Ridge into Amherst County. Called “Jordan’s Trail,” this road is still in use today, as is Jordan’s road over North Mountain from Collierstown to Longdale, which was for many years Lexington’s main connection with the West.4

In 1824 John Jordan undertook what is undoubtedly his architectural masterpiece: Washington Hall, which is the central building on the Washington and Lee University campus (FIG. 1). Begun as Augusta Academy in 1749, but renamed Washington Academy when George Washington presented the institution with canal stock, the college had only moved to its new (and present) location after a devastating fire in 1802. Just 22 years later Jordan was commissioned to build the central building, and he employed the Greek Revival style which he had used earlier at “Stono” and at the Reid house near the college grounds. Its sheer strength and simplicity make it one of the loveliest academic buildings in the United States.

In the late 1820’s John Jordan and his sons began smelting iron on a large scale, owning and operating iron works in Rockbridge, Botetourt, Allegheny, Bath, Amherst, and Louisa counties. At one time they were operating twelve furnaces, the most important of which was the Lucy Selina (named for two of the Colonel’s daughters) on the Clifton Forge road. During the Civil War the Confederate Government got much of its iron for cannons here, and the furnace was operated until 1911 as the Longdale furnace. Its remarkable state of preservation today, with every brick in the tall chimneys intact, speaks better than any words for the skill and integrity of Jordan’s craftsmanship.

Canal building was one of the chief occupations of Jordan in his later years. He built the Bateau Canal at Balcony Falls, and the Lexington Canal, which connected with the James River at Lynchburg. This major undertaking was completed in 1852, and was used until the railroads became prominent in the 1880’s and ’90’s. Up this canal Robert E. Lee transported his family and furnishings when he assumed the presidency of Washington College in 1865. In describing the canal, the local historian, Henry Boley, says with justification that, “Like everything else of importance about the place, it was constructed by Colonel John Jordan.”5

The Colonel died July 25, 1854, and is buried in the Presbyterian Cemetery in Lexington. His will is on file in the county courthouse, and it reveals that his estate was valued at approximately $15,000: a considerable sum for his day. Most of Colonel Jordan’s fourteen children migrated from Rockbridge County, but Samuel stayed on to direct the iron business, and John W. to found Rockbridge Baths, a dozen miles from Lexington.6

Among the most impressive works of the mature Jordan which still stand in Lexington are the Episcopal Rectory, the home of the Misses Barclay, and the home of his son Samuel, which later housed the hospital of the Virginia Military Institute. There is no authentic list of Jordan’s buildings at present, but the Art Department of Washington and Lee University has commenced the compilation of one.

(WASHINGTON AND LEE UNIVERSITY)