Cedar Grove House

Cedar Grove House

Federal style features a simple box structure with symmetrically arranged windows and doors, usually side gabled with exterior end chimneys. In 1831, a wealthy North Mecklenburg planter named James Torrance set out to build a fine brick house that would make people sit up and take notice. He must have succeeded, because the result still impresses those who see it 170 years later.


Cedar Grove, a handsome brick plantation house in the Federal style, is an architectural treasure in Huntersville, NC. It follows the simple  architectural forms of the Federal style that came to this country in the design handbooks of brothers John and Robert Adam.

 "One of the principal architectural characteristics of the Federal style period, both brick and wood structures, is the perfectly balanced façade," said Charlotte architect Jack Boyte. Local Federal-style houses were usually simple boxes, two stories and two rooms deep, with a central hall.

Even though the essential design was a simple rectangular box, James Torrance insisted on elegant touches for the plantation house. While other planters settled for window sills of brick, for instance, his house would have locally quarried, hand-cut granite for the sills, entrance steps and bases for the columns.

"This was a little finer detail, more demanding, because this is really a grand plantation house, one of the grandest," said Boyte.

20,000 Handmade Bricks

To create the plantation home of his dreams, James hired master builders and carpenters David Hampton and Jacob Shuman, as well as a number of master craftsmen. The exterior walls of the house are solid red handmade brick fired on the site. Handmade brick was in general use by the late 1700s. Early settlers found the process of brick-making an easy skill to master and on many farms there were workers or slaves whose job was exclusively brick-making.

Wet clay was ground to a smooth, pliable consistency by the oxen circling a tether pole. Richard Banks, who inherited the house after World War Inside Staircase at Federal style dwellings, Charlotte, NC II, said his mother told him of the sunken circles that still existed in her time, from the path the oxen made as they walked around and around, mixing the clay for bricks.

Next the brick-maker lifted one handful into a box mold and smoothed it flat. After the raw clay bricks were formed and firm, they were loosely stacked to dry in the sun. Finally, the dried bricks were arranged in long tunnel kilns, called clamps, and fired until hard.

Plantation slaves made over 20,000 bricks for the house on the site, 12,000 of them between October 3, 1830 and May 5, 1831, suggesting that James planned well in advance for the construction of his new house.

Cedar Grove has 5,000 square feet of floor space. The house is set exactly on the points of the compass, with the floor boards running north-south.

The basement, which is halfway below ground, provided a cool place for generations to eat their meals on a hot summer day. The first floor has 13-foot-high ceilings, with a fireplace in each of the eight main rooms. The second floor ceilings are 11 feet high. The spiral staircase, with its solid walnut banisters, continues to the third floor, which has three rooms and closet space under the eaves.

The columns in front and back are made of rounded brick and covered with stucco. The sills for the doors and windows are made of locally mined granite. "They were hand-cut by masons and formed to fit in the house design," said Boyte. "The house has a uniform façade, with the four bays equally spaced in front and back, with the balance repeated on each side."

Flemish Bond

flemish bond "One of the beauties of this house is the way the bricks are laid," said Boyte. "It's Flemish bond, which is very demanding for the mason. In the mortar joints, while the mortar was still 'green,' they took a tool with a nib on it and ran the tool along the middle of the mortar joint and created a line. They painted the line white, giving the brick a very unified look. And after all this time, some of that white paint is still there, which is extraordinary. Only the outside mortar had any lime in it of consequence, because it was in such short supply during the Federal period.

"The house still has its original louvered shutters with the metal strap hinges," Boyte said. "They are not necessarily unique to the Federal period, but these shutters, to my knowledge, are the original shutters. They are made out of cedar or some wood that would stand up against the weather and were kept painted all these years.

"In most houses, shutters were originally used for privacy and security. They were not an architectural embellishment. At night or times of danger, they would close these and lock them from the inside."

Two Styles into One House

Cedar Grove combines both late Federal and early Greek Revival styles. The Greek Revival style had details that include hipped or gabled low-pitched roofs, wide-band cornice trim, and a full width front portico, or entrance porch, with prominent columns.

The window and door openings are crowned with flat jack arch brick lintels, which are flared horizontal wedges. The bricks on either side were set at a slant so they form a semi-circle. They're called "flat" jack arches because the slaves rubbed the rough face of the bricks to expose a bright salmon color inside, so the arches are a different color from the rest of the brick exterior.

Cedar Grove has stepped gable parapets that rise at both sides of the house. "The brick gables on each end are an architectural embellishment that James Torrance insisted on putting on this house," said Boyte. "The stepped gable is an extraordinary feature in Mecklenburg County. There are few in North Carolina and not any others in Mecklenburg County."

A wide front entrance portico was added to the house about 60 years later. At the rear is an original, two-story-high portico with four columns, the precursor of the Greek Revival Period.

"The house is designed in such a way that there is no real front or rear," said Boyte. "Both façades are very similar. The Federal period had very rigid rules about a balanced façade. The back façade is the one I like to talk about it. It is all original; nothing changed about it."

The Story Behind Cedar Grove

Hugh Torance was born around 1743 in Northern Ireland. At age 21, he obtained a letter of reference from his minister and set forth to make his fortune. He and his younger brother, Albert, took a boat to the colonies. They lived in Philadelphia for several years, possibly as bonded servants. By 1769, Hugh had done well enough to purchase 319 acres in Cumberland County, PA, which he gave to his brother James in 1811.

The Revolutionary War brought Hugh to North Carolina as a member of a light cavalry company that fought at the 1780 Battle of Ramsour's Mill in Lincoln County. His captain, Galbraith Falls, was killed in that battle. Three years later, Hugh married the captain's widow, Isabella Kerr Falls, then the mother of eight children. Hugh was 40, and she was 43. They had one child, James Galbraith Torrance.

Hugh moved to Rowan County, NC in 1773, and then to Meckenburg County. In January 1779, he bought 667 acres with a cabin on McDowell Creek. By 1787, with his service in the Revolutionary War behind him, he moved his wife and 3-year-old son into the cabin. At the time Hugh Torance bought the land, this was still the frontier, but settlers were moving in to clear land to plant cotton along the river.

The different spellings of the family name (Torrance and Torance) apparently helped differentiate between branches and generations of the family. Both Hugh and Albert had sons named James. But Albert's family spelled their name "Torrence," and to add to the confusion, Albert named his oldest son Hugh, to honor his brother.

It was James Torrance, the boy who grew up in a log home on McDowell Creek, who would later produce the architectural gem known as Cedar Grove.

Across from the formal garden plot of Cedar Grove is the original Hugh Torance House and Store. The oldest part is made of logs and originally had a stone chimney. Hugh and his son James operated a frontier trading post there for nearly 30 years. The structures have been restored and now operate as historic sites.

Like father, like son

Hugh Torance was an ambitious man, and his son James seems to have inherited his drive for success. At 21, after attending the Salisbury Academy boarding school, and apprenticing in his Uncle Albert's profitable retail business, James set off for Philadelphia to buy goods for a store of his own at Cedar Grove plantation.

James operated a dry goods store, selling everything from ribbons to rat-traps. When he extended credit to his customers, they paid him in cotton and sometimes in land. He kept adding to the family plantation, which at the time of his father's death, amounted to 1,400 acres, worked by 33 slaves. When James died, he had 3200 acres of land in Mecklenburg County, at least 3800 acres of land in Tennessee, and over 100 slaves.

Although James was growing wealthier by the year, he suffered his share of personal loss. In 1818, he lost his first wife, Nancy, to "typhus," or typhoid fever, at age 26. Three years later, he married Mary Latta (daughter of wealthy planter James Latta). They had two children before her death in 1824. He and his third wife, Margaret, had six children, and she survived her husband by 33 years. It was Margaret (and, no doubt, his position in the community) who inspired James to build Cedar Grove.

Richard Banks, a direct descendant of Hugh Torance, inherited the house after World War II. "We have a treasure on our hands, thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Banks," said Boyte.

Richard and Belle Banks moved into the house in 1948, after installing central heating, electricity, and plumbing. Over the years, they continued to restore the house, room by room. They kept the original copper gutters and down spouts, even the original granite splash blocks that lead water away from the house. Richard Banks died on June 26, 1999; Belle Banks still lives in Cedar Grove.

Hugh Torance House and Store

This log house, built in the 1770s, was bought by Hugh Torance in 1779. A two-story Federal style wing was added later. James Torrance ran a retail store there from 1805 until 1825, when he sold it to Samuel McCombs of Charlotte. Located in Huntersville, NC, the Hugh Torance House and Store has been restored and is open to the public.

Inside Staircase

In stark contrast to the plain outsides of many Federal style dwellings, interior features are remarkable examples of the skilled craftsmen. Here, a suspended winding stair in the center hall spirals through three levels. Slender, square, fluted balusters and newel, with molded railing, risers, and baseboards distinguish the staircase.

Charlotte's Historic Homes


# Jack Boyte; "Hugh Torance," a family history by Richard Banks; and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Properties Commission's historical sketch about Cedar Grove.
# http://www.cmhpf.org

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