Former UNC President’s House Unearthed
Professors and students in the Archeology Department at UNC didn’t have to travel far for a dig dating back to the early 1800s.
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UNC System President Tom Ross is getting a new driveway at the President’s home on the corner of Franklin and Raleigh streets. While digging up the old driveway, construction workers started noticing large stones being unearthed and called in someone who knew a little more about it.
“We knew that there was a site here, but what was unexpected here was having it kind of turn up as this driveway was being resurfaced,” says Vin Steponaitis, the Director of the Research Laboratories of Archaeology, Chair of the Curriculum in Archaeology, and an Anthropology Professor at UNC. “We’d actually been given a heads up that there was going to be some work done here, but we didn’t know quite how deep it was going to go. So, in the place where they went deeper is where we encountered the site.”
The remnants of the structure that were uncovered were of the foundation of the Second President’s House. The first President of the University, Reverand Joseph Caldwell—who served as Presiding Professor from 1799-1804 and University President from 1804-1812—lived in the house, even though it was called the Second President’s House.
Research Archaeologist in the Research Laboratories of Archaeology at UNC, Brett Riggs led the dig Friday uncovering the former structure.
“He initially lived in the president’s house that was on campus—about where Swain Hall is now,” Rigges says. “Caldwell, beginning in 1811, began constructing this house out here. This was, at that point in time, the furthest house to the east on Franklin Street; beyond her was simply woods. Up until the 1880s, there were only two houses on this side of Franklin Street.”
A fire destroyed the house on Christmas Eve 1886 after it rapidly spread from an adjacent outhouse. The portions of the house that were above ground likely fell into the basement, which was used, at that time, as a dining room.
Riggs says, to level the ground in order to build a new structure, some of the fill was likely burned remnants left over from the fire.
“We’ll be able to document what the walls of the basement were like, what the floor of the basement was like, and a lot of the contents of the house when it burned, which all collapsed into the basement when the thing burned,” Riggs says. “We anticipate that there are actually fireplaces that were on the lowest level that are buried under this fill, so we hope to see an intact fireplace on one end as well.”
Once a majority of the stones from the foundation were uncovered, a cherry picker was brought in to take an aerial photo of the plot. Steponaitis says the next step was potentially the most exciting.
“We hope that we’ll be able to just get a little bit more time to investigate what’s actually in this basement, because we know, of course, from historical accounts, that all sorts of interesting people were entertained down there,” Steponaitis says. “President Caldwell used it as a dining area to entertain distinguished guests.”
Two of those guests included U.S. presidents James K. Polk and James Buchanan.
Steponaitis says, if there are artifacts left over and preserved from the fire, a new page in the history books could be written.
“We know a lot of Chapel Hill’s history from written documents, but there’s a lot we don’t know,” Steponitis says. “Those things that we don’t see in the written documents, often you can piece together some very interesting things about the history of a place by looking at the stuff of everyday life that was left behind in the buildings that people used when they lived her back then.”