The Second President’s House was built in 1812 and destroyed by a fire in 1886.
When workers tore out the blacktop driveway and University Arborist Tom Bythell saw artifacts like broken china underneath, he contacted university archaeologists on Aug. 18.
Bythell said he knew the foundations of the old house were in the vicinity of the current President’s House, but he didn’t expect the driveway work to go deep enough to uncover anything.
“Those guys stopped in and thought it was interesting, but then when they dug down deeper (on Aug. 19), I saw that it was the foundation there, so I went back and talked to Brett (Riggs, research archaeologist at the UNC Research Laboratories of Archaeology) and said, ‘Hey, there’s a foundation there,’” he said.
The Second President’s House was occupied by the first and second presidents of the University, Joseph Caldwell and David Swain, until Swain died in 1868, Riggs said.
Three U.S. Presidents visited the house — James K. Polk, James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson — and a Civil War romantic scandal may have originated there, according to records from the Research Laboratories of Archaeology.
“Supposedly, it’s where President Swain’s daughter met and fell in love with General Atkins of the Union Army when the Union Army came and occupied Chapel Hill — it was a huge scandal; she turned around and married this Union general. Apparently all that courtship happened in this very house,” said Mary Beth Fitts, an archaeology graduate student.
Ross’s driveway stood a few feet above the top of his predecessors’ formal dining room, which was in the basement of the Second President’s House.
“All sorts of dignitaries dined in this place but seven feet down from here,” Riggs said as he stood on the site. “So it was almost like a medieval hall, you know. You went down into this basement space, which would’ve been a 40-foot-long, 24-foot-wide hall.”
Riggs said because Swain had been governor before he was UNC’s president, the house became a social hub for the North Carolina political scene of the day.
“So there were all kinds of politicos that would come to visit, and probably all kinds of political deals and business that got right, straight down from here,” he said, standing at the site.
After Swain died, the house was rented out to faculty members.
“Professor Hume ... moved in here on Christmas Eve of 1886, and their packing materials caught on fire and burned the house down,” Riggs said. “So they hadn’t even been here, in the house, 24 hours when it burned.”
After the house was destroyed, the University divided the lot between two faculty members, Thomas Hume and James Lee Love. They filled in the burned house’s cellar with rubble from the rest of the house — the same rubble uncovered last week. As archaeologists washed down the site Friday, the fire was still evident in charred remains.
Half of the project will be covered up starting Monday so Ross is able to get to his garage, said Fitts.
“It will be covered over with landscaping cloth and gravel and bedding material and then a brick traffic circle put in here. And the site will be preserved under that — it just won’t be accessible. Right now, it’s accessible for a short period of time,” said Riggs.
The portion of the site closest to Ross’s house will continue to be used for research, at least for a while.
“We’ll leave the other half of it open, and we’ll be doing a small test excavation to see if there is indeed a basement there, which we’re pretty sure there is, and what we’ll find — the materials that were thrown into it and then presumably anything that was in the basement when the house burnt down in the late 1800s,” said Fitts.
Bythell said this discovery reignites his appreciation for the University’s history.
“It’s amazing. You know, every once in a while when this happens, once every six or seven years, it’s just really fascinating. I don’t know what else to say.”