The Outer Banks have been delighting visitors for over 100 years, but Nags Head is the original tourist attraction.
Perquimans County plantation owner Francis Nixon is credited with starting the summer vacation tradition with his family in 1830. The idea spread to other families living across the Roanoke Sound who were seeking an escape from the inland heat.1
At the time, the ocean air was thought to relieve the “yellow chills” brought on by malaria which was prevalent on many plantations. So when summer arrived, entire households — including livestock — would move to Nags Head.2 Hotels were built for the onslaught of tourists as early as 1838 and by 1850, visitors could walk along a boardwalk, dance under a pavilion, and even enjoy a bowling alley!3
The first oceanfront cottage was built around 1855 by Dr. W.G. Pool of Elizabeth City, who bought 50 acres for $30. It’s said that Pool then divided the land into lots and sold them to the friends of his wife for one dollar each so she’d have companionship while at the beach! By 1885, 13 cottages were built.4
In the early 1900s, self-taught carpenter Stephen J. Twine repaired and enlarged many of the original summer houses. Then between 1910 and 1935, he built cottages that would come to represent the Nags Head style of architecture. These homes formed Old Nags Head Beach Cottage Row, which is now a National Historic District.
According Marimar McNaughton, author of the book Outer Banks Architecture, the Nags Head style is a blend of the original Outer Banks structures and the Arts & Crafts bungalow popular in the early 1900s. The cottages’ timber-framed exteriors were clad in shingles or weatherboard and topped with gabled roofs with dormers. They also featured wrap-around, single-story porches with built-in benches, wooden storm shutters, and breezeways. The porches, windows, and doors were all strategically designed to maximize cross breezes off the ocean. With these homes, each design element had a purpose.
Only six of the original cottages remain today. They are rustic, weathered, and practical, yet elegant in their simplicity, inspiring the moniker the “Unpainted Aristocracy.”5 After sheltering generations of families and enduring over 100 years of storms, they melt into the sand and seagrass that surround them, as if they have always been there.
Blog by Jessica T. Smith for the Coastal Cottage Company