The oldest part of the building we know and love today is the north end, which includes our theatre (I’ll call this the first floor), our third floor dressing room (the Pat Carroll room for fellow old-timers), and the two second floor rooms that fall in between (what Pete, Nancy and Muriel used as their living room and dining room). The Pat Carroll room is so named because it's the room Pat lived in during the various runs of Nunsense.
This northern section of the existing Hanover Tavern was built in 1791 as a private dwelling for Paul Thilman and his family. The front of this house faced west, toward what we now think of as the backyard. During the American Revolution and up into the 1790s, Thilman also owned the original Hanover Tavern, which stood nearby, but no one knows exactly where.
So all the Patrick Henry, George Washington, and Cornwallis history that we hear about actually took place in a building that no longer exists, but was located on a site very nearby. We'll call this no-longer-standing building the original Hanover Tavern.
We know that the original Hanover Tavern was in existence in 1733, when records show that Peter Marks, a wealthy Hanover landowner, held an “ordinary” license to operate a tavern at Hanover Court House. The experts I've read speculate that the original tavern was constructed in 1732.
Records indicate that the original Hanover Tavern was purchased by Patrick Henry’s father-in-law, John Shelton, in 1760, and that Henry and his wife moved in with the in-laws in 1763, living either in the original Tavern itself or another building adjacent to the original Tavern. Legend has it that Henry tended bar at the original Tavern in his father-in-law’s absence, and there is no reason to believe that this legend is untrue.
Legend also has it that Washington and Lafayette both stayed at the original Tavern, or at least ate there, during the Revolutionary War period—again, there's no reason to suspect that these legends are untrue. A first hand account from a French general assigned to George Washington’s troops discusses the French general’s stay at the Tavern in the early 1780s, shortly after Yorktown. In this first hand account, the French General states that Tavern master Thilman told him that Lord Cornwallis and his troops had quartered there on their way to Yorktown, and had left hastily without paying any compensation. So, unless Thilman was engaging in hyperbole in the 1780s, that story is true.
No one knows what happened to the original Hanover Tavern, but early in the eighteen hundreds it was no longer standing. Most likely it was destroyed by fire, a common occurrence in those times.
From the late seventeen hundreds until 1846, the stage coach route from Richmond to Williamsburg passed by the Hanover Court House community, almost certainly to the west of the Tavern. This would explain why the Thilman home had been built with its original orientation toward what we now think of as the backyard. After the original Tavern was destroyed, the Thilmans apparently wanted to continue their commercial venture, and so they built a new tavern immediately to the south of their home.
The L-shaped building that makes up the southern end of today’s tavern is what remains of this new tavern built by the Thilmans. Using a scientific evaluation of the timbers, it has been dated to 1822, a date supported by tax records showing an increased assessment in 1823 due to new construction the previous year.
This L-shaped building and the Thilman home were permanently connected to each other in about 1832, according to scientific analysis of timbers from the central section of today's Tavern, creating the one large building we know today.
So the current Hanover Tavern has three phases of construction: the north end built in 1791 as a private home, the south end built in 1822 as a replacement for the original tavern, and the connecting middle section, built in 1832 to join the north building and the south building into one large structure.
One story that is patently false is the one that was featured on the plaque mounted to the Tavern's exterior wall at the time of the 1953 purchase. The plaque indicated that John Chiswell, a member of the House of Burgesses, murdered Robert Routledge in the bar room. Chiswell was involved with Routledge's death, but many believe it was an accident and that Routledge fell on his own sword. In any case, this altercation took place not at Hanover Tavern, but at Mosby Tavern, which still stands today in Powhattan County, and is pictured to the right and above.
Beginning in the early eighteen hundreds, the old stage road served as a main transportation route between Richmond and Washington, and the Tavern was a frequent stopping point for many travelers. In the not too distant future, I’ll recount what the experts tell us about the famous people who may have visited the existing tavern during those heady times.