The John and Landon Carter Mansion on the Watauga River at Sycamore Shoals, Elizabethton, is one of the oldest and most architecturally significant houses in Tennessee. Local tradition holds that the house was built by John Carter, an early settler and political leader of the Wautauga Association, who died in 1781. Documentary evidence does not refer to such a large house until the 1790s, indicating that his son, Landon Carter, may be responsible for building the house prior to his death in 1800. Based on its architectural styling, typical of the 1780s, either Carter could have been responsible for the house's construction.
John Carter traveled to Tennessee from Virginia in 1770, and by 1775 he had gained title to the section of land where the mansion stands. John Carter's most famous son, Landon, may have resided with his parents, since he did not marry until 1784. Serving as administrator of his father's estate, Landon inherited the 640-acre home place in 1781. References to such a grand house do not appear until 1796 and 1800, when French botanist Andre Michaux and Governor John Sevier visited the Carters.
The imposing two-story frame house combines a common Pennsylvania interior floor plan with interior details typical of more academic design. It is composed of six rooms, three on each floor, plus a cellar and garret. Its first floor follows the Penn plan with a large hall on the right and two smaller rooms with corner fireplaces on the left. The builder embellished this plan by raising the first-floor ceiling to nine feet and employing carpenters and painters to create an elegant interior.
Typical of fine homes of the eighteenth century is the floor-to-ceiling paneling throughout the first floor and its distinctive chimney pieces. The great hall features a fireplace adorned with a curvilinear pediment resting on fluted pilasters. At the rear of the great hall is a small cabinet stair with square, fluted newels and turned balusters. Of the two smaller rooms, the south parlor is the most completely academic room with a quartered and reversed circle design above the mantel and a hanging wall cabinet. These elements and the doorways of this room are embellished with finely carved keystones.
The second floor's fine styling is evident in its wainscoting and painted details. The smooth, flat, pine surfaces were painted to simulate marble, wood veneer, and wood paneling. The large second-floor bedroom contains an overmantel painting featuring a hunt scene, with hounds chasing a stag. The unknown artist created a similar country scene for the fireplace of the north parlor on the first floor.
The unadorned stone cellar with its dirt floor and large fireplace was most likely used for storage since it lacks access to the first floor. The large garret finished with wide boards may have been used as sleeping quarters for children although there is no evidence of partitioning; nor did it have a fireplace.
The house remained in the Carter family until 1882. In 1973 the State of Tennessee bought the house and several acres. After restoring the mansion to its original appearance, the state opened it to the public as part of the Sycamore Shoals State Historical Area.