History by the Sea—The Unpainted Aristocracy of Nags Head

Interview by Kip Tabb with Brim Silver –

Some of the Unpainted Aristocracy from the Nags Head Beach.


The Nags Head Beach Cottage Historic District is home to some of the most unique beach cottages on the Outer Banks. Classic examples of function over form, they seem a natural part of the landscape—the colors the natural hues of the shoreline, the slope of the roofs matching the dunes.

The Unpainted Aristocracy is part of this district—homes often built over 100 or 125 years ago and left largely intact. The phrase was coined in the 1920s by Jonathon Daniels, editor of the Raleigh News and Observer, to describe both the people and homes of Nags Head.

Brim Silver’s family has extensive ties to the history of the Unpainted Aristocracy and when we thought about writing a story about the homes, she seemed like a natural resource.

What is the history of the houses in the Unpainted Aristocracy?

The date range of these glorious homes is as unique as their construction. The ongoing architectural style of Nags Head’s Unpainted Aristocracy was first found circa 1830 on the sound, and like the cottages themselves, has survived more than a century and a half along the Outer Banks.

Around 1830 Francis Nixon, a Perquimons County plantation owner, brought his family to the coast in an attempt to escape the illness and heat of the inland farms in summer. It was thought that a stay by the sea with clean breezes and moist ocean air would help keep your family healthy.

By the 1850s there was a thriving soundside vacation community in Nags Head, complete with docks, summer homes and a hotel. In 1855 Elizabeth City physician, Dr. Pool, built the first oceanside home. Pool later bought several seaside acres from the Midgetts and sold the acre lots for a dollar apiece to the wives of his friends back home in an effort to please his family.

Soon families moved from the soundside to the oceanfront. Even Midgett’s Store moved across the sand dunes with demand. The first oceanside resort on the Outer Banks was born, complete with hotels, our Episcopal Church—St. Andrews By-the-Sea, Midgett’s Store and Harris Grocery to sustain us, and later the entertainment of the Nags Head Casino in the 1930s, whose fun our parents can never seem to forget.

At the window of the Wood-Foreman Cottage, c.1916. Brim’s husband and his family were photographed gathered in a propped open shuttered window for a North Carolina magazine in the 1980s.

What is your family’s connection to the Unpainted Aristocracy?

My family ties to these cottages run deep, and for those of us that are lucky enough to be a part of this history, we hold it tight to our chest.

Both my husband and I have family ties to homes along the sound. My mother-in-law remembers how cool she thought it was as a girl to sit on the porch and eat peaches for supper, while watching the sun set over the sound.

My Great Great Grandfather, Capt. ER Outlaw built one of the original 13 cottages, c.1885, with wood he cut down on our family farm in Bertie and barged here. It is still owned by cousins. My Grandmother, Lucy Outlaw Gillam, passed down the little ER Outlaw Cottage to my mother, a smaller L-shaped cottage built in 1903 by my Great Great Uncle, Edward R Outlaw, Jr. It is still owned by my mother.

My father-in-law’s family owns the Winston-Wales Cottage, c.1875, having been passed down from generation to generation for more than a century. My husband’s mother shares the Wood-Foreman Cottage, c.1916 with her sibling where my husband his family were photographed gathered in a propped open shuttered window for a North Carolina magazine in the 1980s.

Are there specific features that make the cottages unique?

The architecture reflects the importance of function over form. Beautiful in their simplicity, the seaside homes were built to withstand the elements first and foremost, while keeping the families comfortable through the summer season.

The huge wraparound porches would usually grant you a cool spot, and narrow rooms were built to maximize cross breezes with windows and doors strategically laid out to do so. No AC was a characteristic of these homes and it seemed it was one of those things we had all agreed upon, like the lean-out benches, propped shutter windows, full width dormers, and gabled roofs. The wood cedar shakes were weathered and unpainted, the cottages constructed completely of local woods like juniper, pine, and cedar.

The little Outlaw Cottage.

What is the sense or feel of the interiors? Are they light and airy? Do they have an older, sort of antique feel?

The little Outlaw Cottage has our “honeymoon room”, a private room and bath separated from the house by a breezeway, a popular feature throughout the district. The whole cottage is only the width of one room, tiny at that, to help maximize those ocean breezes. All the interiors of even the grandest of these Cottages have a casual barefoot-only feel to them.

Each year as the families return we get out the brooms to sweep out the buckets full of sand. When you have no insulation or sub-flooring, some even without interior walls just the inside framing, sand finds its way in the cracks relentlessly. Each night as a child, you would sweep sand off your sheets, sit on the edge of your bed and dust your feet, then tuck them gently into bed, only to find the sand still within.

What do you think the future holds for the Unpainted Aristocracy?

Just like the families within, our weathered wood is a testament to the character earned with age and time by the sea. The Cottages reflect the families that built them so long ago, and continue to repair and replace them today in the same style.

Few of the original 13 cottages stand, at last count six I believe, though the families built back Cottages mostly reminiscent of the ones that they were unable to save. There have been two new constructions within the historic beach row in the last few years, where the owners made every effort to maintain the architectural integrity of our Unpainted Aristocracy.

As a child of this heritage, I was blessed to run amongst these pilings and across the wide porches in search of the breeze.

I have a son now, and the roots of my son’s family tree run deep in the Unpainted Aristocracy. We will always instill in him a love and respect for them as both a local child and Nags Header alike. He is only 2 years old and you can drive down the beach road with him and hear him holler out the names of his family homes with pride.

Brimage Spruill Silver is a Real Estate Broker in Nags Head with Resort Realty. She can be reached at 252-216-7733, unpaintedaristocracy@gmail.com, brimsilver@gmail.com or visit her website at www.salesbythesea.com.