Architecture of Occoquan
Modern Occoquan traces its roots all the way back to 1734 with the establishment of a tobacco warehouse on the Occoquan River’s south bank. However, it was John Ballendine’s purchase of the land in 1755 that set the future of Occoquan into motion. He envisioned the commercial opportunity the river mouth offered with its ready connection to the Potomac. Ballendine developed the land along the river. His initial buildings and the investments of others brought forges, stores, dwellings, and Nathaniel Ellicott’s lucrative mill to the growing settlement.
As early as 1804, Occoquan achieved official town status. Today many remembrances of Occoquan's past grace the charming historic district. The evolution of this once port town is plainly visible in the diverse architectural elements of the buildings. Indeed, continual revitalization has turned Occoquan into something of an architectural time capsule. To preserve its significance, Historic Occoquan was officially added to the National Register of Historic Places on October 6, 1983. Visitors can experience these functional elements of our national heritage first-hand with a simple stroll through town. Read on to learn more about the historic buildings you'll see on your next visit.
Occoquan Architectural Styles
After housing two centuries of Americans, it is perhaps unsurprising that the town's architecture doesn't follow any single tradition. Without building codes or homeowners associations for much of its life, build design was subject only to the needs and preferences of the builder. Indeed, out of the 5 dozen registered structures within the historic district, one would be hard-pressed to find two identical buildings.
This blending of architectural styles is known as "builder's vernacular." Builder's vernacular is a broad category of structural types and construction methods. Often planned without professional guidance, structures built in the vernacular style borrow from various other academic traditions and rely on the common sense of the builder. This style accounts for most structures in pre-industrial societies around the world. As such, it makes Historic Occoquan's eclectic buildings particularly useful in learning about the development of architecture in mid-Atlantic America.
Of the 60 buildings within Occoquan's historic district, 53 provide important architectural examples from the period of their construction. However, of these buildings, three are of particular importance.
The Mill House is perhaps the most well-known of Occoquan's historic buildings. It is all that remains of the town flour mill owned by Nathaniel Ellicot. The Mill House is a small, one-story structure made of stone and brick. It stands above a raised basement and is covered by a gabled roof. This dwelling was most likely built in the late 1700s. Today, the Occoquan Museum occupies the space and is a fitting tribute to the building that once contributed so significantly to the town's origins.
Rockledge is one of the few remaining examples from the town's settlement years. Constructed by Ballendine himself in 1760, it's a beautiful example of Georgian architecture. The house is two stories of stone construction, standing on a hill overlooking Mill Street and the Occoquan River. Additionally, it provides a fine sample of elaborate woodwork from the period. Gutted by fire in 1980, only the exterior walls remain of the original construction. However, even restored, it retains its architectural and historical importance.
Located at the intersection of Commerce and Union Street, the Hammill Hotel is an exemplary representation of antebellum construction. Built in 1830, this square, three-story structure is made of five-course American bond brick and features a hipped roof instead of the gabled roofs more commonly seen in town. During the Civil War, this hotel also served as the headquarters for Wade Hampton, a general of the Confederate Army and later a United States Senator for South Carolina.
The Turning of the Wheel
Over the decades, Occoquan has seen its fair share of disasters. In 1916, a fire ravaged Mill Street. While it destroyed many commercial structures, a few residential buildings survived, notably 406 Mill Street. Its five-bay, wood frame construction and porch featuring turned posts and decorative sawncut balustrade make it a gorgeous specimen of period architecture.
After the fire, 406 Mill Street was converted to a commercial space, housing several generations of businesses beneath its gabled roof. Today, The Spot on Mill Street calls number 406 home. Similarly, many of the buildings within the historic district have reinvented themselves over the years to meet the needs of this still vibrant town.
The Two Churches
Starting in the late 1920’s Occoquan was home to two churches. The Ebenezer Church on Washington Street was the first, constructed in 1924. In 1926, a Methodist congregation followed suit and built their own church at 314 Mill Street. Today, both have found new callings. The Ebenezer Church has converted to the Masjid Al-Hussain Peace Mission. While the old Methodist church building serves as the Occoquan Town Hall, but remains an exquisite example of eclectic architecture in six-course American bond brick.
309 Mill Street is a beautiful two-story building with a shed roof and mansard front. Built in 1932 from stretcher bond brick, it housed the town undertaker for many years. However, the funeral home was forced to close after Hurricane Agnes in 1972. Five years later, a collective of local artists opened a gallery space in the building. As an homage to 309’s past, they named their endeavor the Artists’ Undertaking Gallery.
The Show Goes On
Built in the early 1900s, 403 Mill Street is an example of commercial vernacular construction. This tradition is similar to builder's vernacular in its non-conformational style. However, commercial vernacular is more typical of post-industrial architecture. Yet, it still focuses on meeting the community's immediate needs with locally sourced building materials. This building, with its parapet roof, was once home to the Lyric Theatre, a one-screen cinema seating up to 300 patrons. These days, 403 has housed a series of several retail establishments, including a coffee shop and a puzzle store.
The Marriage of Past and Present
Indeed, almost every building in Historic Occoquan has adapted to the community's needs over the years while remaining true to its architectural roots. Few other towns can boast the longevity and consistency of Occoquan. With over 250 years of history echoing along its streets, Occoquan’s eclectic architecture stands as a testament to the building of a nation.