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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Where We Live: This home was built in 1760 and was a stop on the Underground Railroad

The front of the William Woodhouse House (Brianna Card/Southside Daily)

VIRGINIA BEACH — In a gravel bend on London Bridge Road beneath the shade of an ancient oak is an unassuming but consequential home.

The two-story structure with its simple brick face and crisp red door has stood on that site since 1760. Before the United States had even been assembled, William Woodhouse built the home in the beautiful pastureland that would one day be Virginia Beach.

The William Woodhouse House at 2380 London Bridge Road has been officially listed on the Virginia Beach Historical Register since 2004. It’s now owned by Hunt Club Farm. Current resident, Pat Berson, has lived in it since January of 1987. Berson is well versed in the lore that surrounds the timeline of this enduring home.

One of the early stories about the William Woodhouse House purports that Woodhouse was appointed by the Queen of England to build and settle on this land in Princess Anne County.

Legend has it that Woodhouse, a fiery character, got into a squabble with a local man, chopped off his ear with a sword, and then nailed the ear to the Woodhouse fence as a warning to others.

“The queen said ‘you can’t live here anymore’ and she sent him to Bermuda,” Berson said.

Woodhouse’s initials, as well as a “P” for his wife’s maiden name, Pembroke, and the date of the home’s establishment, are engraved on two different bricks in the walls of the home.

Bricks engraved with “W. W. P. 1760” (Brianna Card/Southside Daily)

A powerful piece of Woodhouse history as told by Berson is that Woodhouse’s son, Jonathan, used part of the house as a hideaway for fugitives on the Underground Railroad during the 1860s.

While gesturing to the right half of the grand fireplace in the front room of the house Berson said, “This was a stop on the Underground Railroad. This is hollow. If you go upstairs, you can lift up the floor and it’s hollow. And they used to put slaves in there.”

The right side of an original fireplace, concealing a chamber in its hollow interior (Brianna Card/Southside Daily)

On the second floor of the house, tucked away in what is now a linen closet, is a wide floorboard that can be removed. Once lifted it reveals an opening that is roughly two-by-four feet wide. This narrow, two story brick chamber is the very space that once sheltered fugitive slaves on their path to freedom. 

The narrow opening to the chamber used to hide fugitives on the Underground Railroad (Brianna Card/Southside Daily)

The Woodhouse House is also notoriously haunted. Berson claims to have witnessed the pranks of former owner, William Butt, firsthand.

Butt was tragically killed during a hurricane in 1938 as he was outside checking on his livestock. Berson says that now, 80 years later, Butt still mischievously opens windows and moves items in the house. 

During the Christmas of 1971, the home suffered a severe fire, and many of the original features were replaced. The original hardwood floors in the entryway and front bedroom, however, were salvaged. The wide mellow planks, marked with hundreds of years of foot traffic and family stories, poignantly hearken back to the 1760s.

The original 1760 hardwood floors in the entryway (Brianna Card/Southside Daily)

The sturdy stone well behind the house was built with ballast stones from large sailing ships that crossed the Atlantic in the 1700s. The exact site of the home’s original kitchen is uncertain, but Berson believes it sat just past the south east corner because of the discovery of several bricks that were unearthed during a recent storm.

The original stone well, built with ballast stones (Brianna Card/Southside Daily)

Though families and features have rotated through the William Woodhouse House over the centuries, one thing has remained constant. As she passed through the sitting room on her way upstairs, Berson stopped and pointed through the front window at the towering oak in the yard and said, “That tree was here when the house was built. It keeps the house cool in the summer.”

The oak tree that has shaded the William Woodhouse House since 1760 (Brianna Card/Southside Daily)

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