River Bluff is dramatically sited at the base of the mountains, on a steep bank overlooking the south fork of the Rockfish River. River Bluff stands on a tract of land owned by Alexander Reid, Jr., until 1779, when he sold it to Nathaniel Clarke. While the exact building date cannot be determined, the plan and architectural details indicate that the center block of River Bluff was built ca. 1785. Reid may have built the center section just before he sold the property; more likely Clarke had it constructed while he owned it. Clarke sold two adjacent parcels of land, 360 acres: in 1787 and 100 acres in 1789, to Thomas Goodwin. Judging by Goodwin’s large family and the property’s valuation, it appears he was responsible for enlarging River Bluff by ca. 1810. Goodwin’s heirs owned the property until 1876, when it was sold to Dr. Hawes Coleman. Arthur T. Ewing the man responsible for naming the property acquired it from Goodwin’s heirs in 1897.
The house is a three-part composition consisting of a two story central pavilion with one-story flanking wings. Although River Bluff is symmetrically organized, certain details give evidence that the house was built in two stages. The main block is the core of the dwelling and was constructed circa 1785. River Bluff probably achieved its final form by 1805.
While the entire structure is laid in Flemish bond, the brick of the wings does not match that of the center pavilion in color or glazing pattern; and the wings are not bonded into the main block. The doors into the center block and west wing are not original but have been cut in. The curious asymmetrical fenestration pattern of the main block’s south elevation also reveals significant changes in orientation.
In plan, River Bluff was originally a side-passage, one-room dwelling. This two-story core was transformed into a Palladian structure when one-story wings were attached at its east and west elevations. At that time the opposed side-passage doors became the doors into the, one-room east and west wings. River Bluff’s orientation was changed from east to south, and a new facade entrance was opened in the southern gable end of the center block.
The brick face is in stable condition although crudely patched areas, especially in the west wing’s north wall and the east wing’s east wall, indicate where openings have been closed and cracks sealed. A photograph taken by a WPA surveyor in 1938 shows there was no porch across the facade; therefore, the present porch was constructed after this date. Judging from the weathered brick and lack of rodded joints on the portion of the main block’s east and west walls visible in the attic over the wings, it appears likely that small porches once sheltered the original openings. End boards terminate the wooden cornice of both the main block and wings. Rake boards mark the lines of all gable ends.
Exterior end chimneys are positioned in the gable ends of the wings and in the north wall of the center block. While all chimney caps were probably corbelled, only the east wing, chimney cap remains intact. This chimney is further distinguished and embellished by its diapered brickwork. All chimneys feature a single set of tiled weatherings. Most windows have nine-over-nine sash. The exceptions are the central block’s attic windows, the second-floor hall window, and the new window in the chimney wall of the east wing. Additional moldings have been installed in all nine-over-nine windows to allow replacement with smaller sash. Corners and window joints are defined by queen closers, and jack arches are found above all openings.
All jack arches are carefully executed with the exception of those above the later doors of the central block and the west wing. Remaining paint reveals that thin white lines were painted on the voussoirs to give the appearance of gauged brick. A line of racking to the left of the west wing door indicates that an addition of some kind may have been planned.
Several basement openings retain grills in their pegged frames. River Bluff is underpinned by a rubble stone foundation, which shifts to brick for the final few top courses. The foundation has been stuccoed. The cellar can be entered from the exterior by opposed openings in the center block at the north and south elevations.
The main block contains the entrance hall and parlor beyond and a single chamber on the second floor; the wings are single chambers. Interior details are executed simply. All interior walls have been plastered and painted, and evidence of wallpaper has been found. The floors are not original; there have been at least three floors in the wings and the last has been painted. The parlor was altered when part of it was enclosed for use as a bath. The bath has been removed recently. The Federal parlor mantel is the most ornate of the three remaining mantels, although in detail it is quite plain. The entablature blocks and central tablet are carved with fluted elliptical paterae, and the whole is topped by a denticulated shelf. A baseboard and chair rail with a molded cap, identical to that found in the entrance hall and second-story rooms, surround the room. The parlor floor also has been painted. In the hall, additional moldings partially have closed the original openings to allow smaller interior doors. An open-string stair provides access to the upper floor. Its diagonally set square balusters are placed two to a tread, and it has a square newel. The large, well-proportioned, second-floor room features a tall mantel, which has a shallow shelf and four raised panels. The window moldings, baseboard and chair rail found in the wings are identical in detail. The west wing had been used as a kitchen and its hearth opening was closed. Recently the hearth was opened, and the linoleum flooring was removed. The east wing mantel is undistinguished and is a replacement. Like most eighteenth century Virginia houses, River Bluff’s three-room basement has a dirt floor. A fireplace has been cut into the massive stone foundation in the center room, probably for use as a winter kitchen. A boxed, winder stair leads from the second-floor landing into the attic over the center block. The roofing system for all three sections is common rafter. The rafters are strengthened by diagonal braces. In the main block, the braces are lapped over the bottom of the rafters; they are lapped through the back of the rafters in both wings.
No associated outbuildings are standing. The WPA report states that the dependencies were in poor condition but were standing. The current owners relate that the outbuilding ruins were bulldozed into the river below when the Waynesboro Nursery acquired the property. Archaeological investigation is under way to determine the original locations of the outbuildings. A brick and stone walk, which apparently leads between the house and dependencies, has been excavated partially.
River Bluff is a handsomely proportioned farmhouse whose form was derived from plans popularized by 18th-century English pattern books. The three-part dwelling, represents the influence of Palladian forms on Virginia vernacular architecture. Begun circa 1785, the original side-passage, one-room house was transformed into the core of a Palladian composition ca. 1805. However, the mental process by which it arrived at this form is as significant as the form itself. Through its transformation from a small rectangular dwelling to a stylish, if simplified, Palladian type, River Bluff illustrates changing 18th-century concepts of popular and acceptable housing, which retained the Georgian ideal of order, symmetry, and regularity. In contrast to the purer, more elaborate expressions of Palladian forms found in such houses as Brandon, Battersea and nearby Bon Aire, River Bluff exemplifies how sophisticated models are susceptible to a local builder’s interpretation. This three- and five-part arrangement is a house type, which was diffused from the Tidewater area into Piedmont Virginia. River Bluff and its setting have changed little since the early 19th century.