No primary documentation has yet been found on the original construction of the Shelton House at Rural Plains. That it was a 1-1/2 story brick house with gambrel roof and three floors of living space can be surmised from the physical evidence of the existing building today, despite significant alterations made in later years.
The Shelton House sits on its original site east of Totopotomoy Creek. Surviving remnants of the early building include its basic form, some portions of the brickwork walls, wood framing members, and layout of primary rooms in the first and second stories. Building materials were most likely made on site or locally procured, such as hand-molded bricks, pit-sawn and hewn timbers, and hand-wrought nails. A construction date of “circa 1725” is derived from a dendrochronology study of interior pine framing undertaken in 2006-2007.
The most distinctive features of the Shelton House–the brick construction and roof–are original. Hand-molded bricks were used to construct the exterior foundation, upper walls, and two chimneys of the Shelton House. The brickwork walls varied in thickness from five wythes in the cellar story, to three wythes in first story, and two wythes in the upper stories. Mortar consisting of lime made from oyster shells and sand would have been used to lay the bricks.
The exact original appearance of the finished walls of the Shelton House is difficult to ascertain, since the walls appear to have been extensively reworked, possibly incorporating a veneer of new bricks, when the exterior doorways and windows were enlarged around 1785. That the walls of the cellar story were laid in an English common bond, both below and above grade, is evident from exposed brickwork in the cellar rooms. There is a good likelihood that the upper walls were laid in a Flemish bond with glazed headers, a popular bonding pattern in eighteenth-century Tidewater Virginia. The Dutch-style roof of the house is probably original, since dendrochronology from two rafters dates them to 1723. Now known as a gambrel roof, this type of roof was known as a “Dutch roof” in the eighteenth century.
The Shelton House was about 60 years old in 1785. It may have been in need of repairs and updating by this time, its small windows and other architectural elements considered to be outmoded. A major renovation was undertaken that enlarged the windows and exterior doorways, applied a new brick veneer to the exterior walls, rebuilt the chimneys, and updated the exterior cornice and interior finishes in the new Federal style.
The house was renovated again in 1835, when Edwin Shelton’s “Female School,” which may have used some rooms in the house, opened. Edwin and Sarah Shelton had four children by this time, all under the age of 10. The work was executed in the prevailing Greek-Revival style. The exterior was altered with several changes to the exterior doorways and windows. Inside, the former cellar kitchen was enlarged as a dining room; the existing corner stair replaced the main stair in the passage; first-story rooms were updated with new woodwork; two second-story chambers were enlarged; and extensive re-plastering was done throughout the house.
William R. Shelton made some improvements to the house upon his marriage in 1915. These included cutting a window in the north wall to provide more light to the northeast room in the first story; adding a new coal burning furnace and kitchen stove; and installing a battery powered Delco plant to generate electricity. At this time, the family kitchen and dining room were moved from the basement to the first floor and an indoor bathroom installed for the first time.
Further changes were made around 1930, when a new tin roof was added (that roof is still on the house today) and a second cellar entrance was created on the west side of the house. In 1948, the west porch was replaced with a two-room wing enclosing an entrance hallway and bathroom. At this time, heating and electrical systems were upgraded as well.
Bill Shelton and his wife Holly were the last Shelton family members to alter the house. Their changes included installing narrow floorboards over existing floorboards and plywood in three first floor rooms: the hall, back room and dining room. The kitchen was updated with new cabinets, counters, and appliances.