Tavis, John Dietrich (1814-1889)
John Dietrich Tavis, a mid-nineteenth century house carpenter and member of the Moravian community in Salem, is among the few builders of his time and place to whom specific buildings outside of Winston-Salem have been attributed. A native of Hanover, Germany, he maintained his identity as a “German architect” traditionally associated with several antebellum Greek Revival houses in the Germanton area. Although only one of these (no longer standing) is documented to him, stylistic features and local tradition point to others as his work.
John Dietrich Tavis (Taves) was born Johann Dietrich Tewes in 1814 in Hanover, Germany. (“Tavis” would be the German pronunciation for Tewes.) According to an obituary in the July 4, 1889, Salem People’s Press, he arrived in the Salem area as a young man, and in 1845 he petitioned the Moravian Church for membership. By then, he had been established in Salem for several years, and in 1847 he married Henrietta Winkler. The 1850 census listed the couple in Salem with Tavis employed as a house carpenter. Tavis’s obituary describes him as a well-known and respected citizen, and the Moravian memorabilia of his eldest son, Christian Heinrich Tavis, mentions John Tavis’ contracting business, which Christian took over as his father aged. Christian’s sons, William and John D., also went on to be carpenters and cabinet makers in Winston.
Although Tavis appears to have prospered, little of his work in present Winston-Salem has been documented. Court documents from an estate settlement tie him to the Alspaugh-Gibson House (no longer standing) in Winston, but his only known extant work stands to the north, in and around Germanton, where oral tradition had long linked a group of houses as the work of a “German architect.”
Tavis’ work at Germantown exhibits bold Greek Revival designs distinguished by individualized handling of certain details. Especially consistent is his treatment of entrances with a sidelight configuration in which a single vertical muntin is offset, either closer to the interior (door edge) or closer to the outer edge of the composition. He also employed broad, pedimented gable ends and single-bay, double-tier entrance porticoes with classical or classically inspired columns and flush-board sheathing. His interiors continue the Greek Revival style with post-and-lintel mantelpieces, Greek Revival door surrounds, and two-panel doors.
Only one of Tavis’s houses—the Mays-Bynum House of 1855—is well documented, and photographs of it show distinctive features that reappear on other houses that are attributed to him by these similarities and in some cases local tradition. According to court documents related to William W. Stedman estate in Germanton, Tavis was the builder of a large, two-story house that was under construction in 1855 for Mrs. Ann Eliza Mays. It was to be “suitable for a dwelling house and also of sufficient size and dimensions for keeping a large Female School.” Mrs. Mays died in 1856, and a year later, William W. Stedman, one of the investors in the school, also died. This left several other investors indebted to “Dedrick Tavis the builder of said house.” (Eventually, Dr. Wade Bynum purchased the property and his name is still associated with it.) Although the Mays-Bynum House was demolished in the 1950s, photographs show the two-story house with a single-bay portico and square posts; oral history maintains that it closely resembled surviving houses attributed to Tavis.
Based on local tradition and stylistic similarities, four other surviving houses in or near Germanton are attributed to Tavis. Three of these are two-story houses nearly identical to each other and to the demolished Mays-Bynum House. The Stedman-Rainey-Savage House stands diagonally across the street from the site of the Mays-Bynum House, while two others are located a few miles northeast of Germanton on either side of Town Fork Creek: the Bailey House, probably commissioned around 1855 by John W. Chambers for his daughter and son-in-law, Benjamin and Ellen Chambers Bailey; and the Bynum House, probably built for Hampton and Mary Bynum in the 1850s after an older home burned, and which is the most intact of the houses attributed to Tavis. A fourth house, different in form but similar in detail, is the Samuel and Laura Bitting House, which stands just northeast of the Stedman-Rainey-Savage House and Mays-Bynum House site on Germanton’s main street; the one-story Greek Revival house, probably built in the early 1850s likewise features Tavis’s characteristic sidelight and transom entrance composition and asymmetrical sidelights at the front windows.
Other local buildings of the period, which are less certainly linked to Tavis, have standard Greek Revival finish but lack his hallmark features. The one-story Pepper-Blackburn-Petree House, located in Germanton between the Bitting House and the Germanton Methodist Church, has standard two-panel doors and post-and-lintel mantels along with 12/12 window sash like that at the nearby Stedman-Rainey-Savage House. Tradition holds that it was built as the parsonage for the Greek Revival style Germanton Methodist Church of 1856. Although the builder of the church is not known, Tavis might have been involved, given its style and date of construction.
Although Tavis continued at his trade for many years, no other works have been attributed to him. In 1860 he was noted in the U. S. Census in Salem as a mechanic (a term often used for a builder); the owner of substantial property; and head of a growing family. In 1870 he was identified as a house carpenter in Winston, the twin city to Salem. Additional research may uncover evidence of his work in the postwar era of growth in Winston and Salem.
- Leonidas Gibson Estate papers, Stokes County Records, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.
- Moravian Memorabilia, Moravian Archives, Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
- Old Salem, Inc., personnel files.
- Laura A. W. Phillips, “Germanton Methodist Church,” National Register of Historic Places nomination (1997).
- William W. Stedman Estate papers, Stokes County Records, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.
- Stokes County Architectural Survey Files, State Historic Preservation Office, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.
- Dates:ca. 1860Location:Winston-Salem, Forsyth CountyStreet Address:Unknown, Winston-Salem, NCStatus:UnknownType:ResidentialNote:The estate papers of Leonidas Gibson (1862) record John W. Alspaugh's financing of a house built by Tavis in Winston for Gibson's use. The house was built, but its location is not known.
- Dates:ca. 1855Location:Walnut Cove, Stokes CountyStreet Address:NE corner Brook Cove Rd. and Rosebud Rd., Walnut Cove vicinity, NCStatus:StandingType:ResidentialNote:Although the Bailey House has undergone extensive alterations, including the replacement of the porch columns, windows, sidelights, and transoms, the county architectural survey from the 1980s recorded features associated with Tavis: asymmetrical sidelights, flush sheathing under the porch, and square Tuscan columns as well as characteristic interior woodwork. John Chambers purchased the property in 1854; his daughter married Benjamin Bailey in 1855. When the Baileys bought the property from Chambers in 1857, the deed noted that the couple already lived on the property, presumably in this house.
- Dates:ca. 1855Location:Germanton, Stokes CountyStreet Address:NC 65, N of Terry Rd., Germanton vicinity, NCStatus:StandingType:ResidentialNote:Slightly smaller than the Bailey and Stedman-Rainey-Savage Houses, the house is otherwise nearly identical to those and the Mays-Bynum House. Despite renovations, its exterior is the most intact of the known Tavis houses, displaying original moldings, flush sheathing, windows, sidelights, transoms, double-leaf doors, and pedimented portico. It was built for Hampton and Mary Bynum, and after Hampton Bynum's death in 1860, the house passed to his daughter, Martha Chambers, daughter-in-law of John W. Chambers, builder of the Bailey House.
- Dates:1855Location:Germanton, Stokes CountyStreet Address:6809 Germanton Rd., Germanton, NCStatus:No longer standingType:ResidentialNote:Intended to house "Mrs. May's School of Social Graces for Ladies," the house is known locally as the Dr. Bynum House for the family that owned it from 1900 to 1948. It was noted on deeds as the "Academy property." It was demolished in the 1950s.
- Dates:ca. 1856 and earlierLocation:Germanton, Stokes CountyStreet Address:3623 NC 8/65, Germanton, NCStatus:StandingType:ResidentialNote:Though smaller than other work attributed to Tavis, the one-story house shares attributes with his other houses. The rear ell exhibits Federal-era characteristics and likely dates from the early 1800s. This house may have been the parsonage for Germanton Methodist Church.
- Dates:ca. 1850Location:Germanton, Stokes CountyStreet Address:3639 NC 8/65, Germanton, NCStatus:StandingType:ResidentialNote:The one-story Greek Revival house features a low hip roof and a plan with one large room to the left of the center hall and two rooms, each with a corner fireplace, to the right of the hall. The existing porch was added to the house in the 1920s, but the original porch was a one-story portico with flush sheathing under the porch.
- Contributors:John Dietrich Tavis, attributed builder (ca. 1855)Dates:ca. 1855; 1920s; 1940sLocation:Germanton, Stokes CountyStreet Address:6800 Germanton Rd., Germanton, NCStatus:StandingType:ResidentialNote:The two-story, double-pile, Greek Revival dwelling features flush-sheathed pedimented gable ends, large twelve-over-twelve sash windows, two-panel interior doors, and post-and-lintel mantelpieces. The original double-tier, single-bay portico was replaced with the existing full-height porch in the 1940s, but the original door surrounds with Tavis's asymmetrical sidelights and multi-light transoms exist at both the upper and lower floors. The house was most likely built for William and Olivia Gibson Stedman—he being an investor in the school that was to occupy the Mays-Bynum House—between their marriage in 1848 and William's death in 1857.