Sunday, November 1, 2009

Humpback Covered Bridge (Covington)

Photo by Fabio Brazil

Venerable Humpback Bridge lays claim to being the oldest of Virginia's eight remaining covered bridges. Located in Alleghany County, just west of Covington, it was built in 1857. The road that passes through the bridge was part of the James River and Kanawha Turnpike. Humpback Bridge stretches over Dunlap Creek, a tributary of the Jackson River that joins the Cowpasture River near Iron Gate to form the great James River.

The first structure was built in the 1820s and was washed away by a flood on May 12, 1837. Just five years later the second fell victim to the flood of July 13, 1842. The third, as the annual report of the turnpike company put it, "gave way" in 1856.

The 100-foot-long, single-span bridge cture is four feet higher at its center than it is at either end, thus the name, "Humpback". Traffic across the bridge ceased in 1929 when a "modern" steel truss bridge was built, bypassing the wooden structure. The covered bridge stood derelict (and was even used by a nearby farmer to store hay) until 1954. That year, thanks to the fund-raising efforts of the Business and Professional Women's Club of Covington and the Covington Chamber of Commerce, it was restored and preserved as part of Alleghany County's history.

It can be reached from I-64 by taking exit 10 to Route 60 and traveling one-half mile east, or by taking Route 60 west from Covington.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Historic St. Luke's Church (Smithfield)

For nearly 200 years, Historic St. Luke's Church was affectionately called "The Old Brick Church." Historic St. Luke’s, circa 1632, is the oldest church of English foundation, the oldest continually standing brick structure, and the only surviving original Gothic building in this country. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960 and listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.

Historic St. Luke's Restoration, Inc. (1953) took on the enormous task of restoring the "Old Brick Church" when the building's foundations were discovered to be crumbling and the walls buckling. Fully restored and rededicated in May 1957, this Gothic structure stands as a unique link to America's historic past. The Flemish-bond brick work, especially the crenelated gable flanking the wall of stained glass windows, is exceptional (see photos at end of post). Since the 1957 restoration, the organization has also repaired 19th-century stained glass windows and completed an extensive study about the circa 1630 English Chamber Organ.

While the church is in fair condition, time and the elements have taken its toll. Historic St. Luke's Church, as a “Save America's Treasures” Official Project, will begin a new phase of preservation. Save America’s Treasures (Department of Interior) was organized by First Lady, Hillary Clinton, and then chaired by Laura Bush.

Christ Episcopal Church of Smithfield Virginia often holds an 11am Sunday service at Historic St. Luke's Church. Christ Church is the daughter church of St. Luke’s. Traditionally, when the congregation moved from St. Luke’s in 1832, they continued to use St. Luke’s as a summer chapel and later a community worship location.

History Of The 1630 English Chamber Organ

The organ now housed at Historic St. Luke’s Church was owned by the Le Strange family of Hunstanton Hall, Norfolk, England, for over 300 years. It was purchased in 1630 by Sir Nicholas Le Strange, who belonged to a family of talented instrumentalists; so much emphasis was placed on music that several music teachers and composers lived in their household.

With the end of WWII, the burden of estate taxes and expenses of maintaining large manor houses was too great for many English families. Hunstanton Hall was sold and divided into apartments. The contents of the estate house were sold at auction in 1949. The chamber organ was described for the sale as "The Unique Tudor Organ - a Positive Organ in paneled oak case, the painted front pipes of wood mounted in perspective (circa 1660). The inner sides of the folding doors are painted with representations of David before Saul and Jephthah's daughter. The organ has a compass of four octaves and is in playing order."

The organ was bought by Captain J. Lane, an eccentric collector of musical instruments. In the mid 1950s Historic St. Luke's Church was undergoing restoration and the organ was purchased from Captain Lane, who represented it as a "rare English organ c.1665 and built by Bernard Smith". (Smith was a noted maker of organs in the late 17th Century.) The attribution is now known to be wrong and the instrument has been proven to date from before Smith's time, thus making it contemporary with the church building (1630s). When the organ arrived in Virginia, it was still somewhat playable, but climatic conditions and amateur attempts to repair it eventually silenced it.

In 1990 an article by Linda McNatt in the Virginian-Pilot began to stir new interest among early music enthusiasts. Andrew Ashbee, a leading authority on 17th century viol music and John Jenkins, had suspected that the organ sold by Capt. Lane was that purchased by the Le Strange's in 1630. In 1994, John and Linda Shortridge and music historian Barbara Owen spent a few days examining and documenting the organ. This led to a re-examination of the instrument's "paper trail" and correspondence with Ashbee and other British historians, as well as organ-builder Noel Mander, who had initially packed the organ for shipment.

The organ is now on display in the church where it has stood for 50 years, there for the enjoyment of the public. Organ benefit concerts have been held annually to pay for its restoration. Note: this organ is not used for worship services; a modern pipe organ is located in the balcony

Click link at right for Bacon's Castle, another 17-century brick structure located west of Smithfield.

Directions to Historic St. Luke's Church:

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Prestwould Plantation

Situated on the bluffs high above the point where the Dan and Stanton Rivers converge in Southside, Virginia, is the family house of English-born Sir Peyton Skipwith (1740-1805). Built by slave labor in 1794 in a post-revolutionary Georgian style, Prestwould Plantation prospered to become one of the wealthiest properties in America and today remains the most complete gentry home in Virginia. When the house was built, the countryside (now Mecklenburg County) surrounding it was practically a frontier. There are original stone walls and metal gates surrounding the lawn, and a huge oak tree still stands watch over the river banks. Many of the original outbuildings and Lady Jean's Garden remain, and the original two-family slave house still stands on the manor house property. The site has one of the largest collections of slave writings in the country. Detailing life from the plantation from the slave perspective, it has attracted much scholarly attention.

Orchestrated by Dr. Julian Hudson, the Executive Director of Prestwould, several leaders in the preservation movement have worked closely together to restore one of America's finest historic sites. Considered one of the most documented non-political American families, the Skipwiths left an incredible trail of paperwork including books, diaries, detailed invoices, letters, certificates, etc. After spending the majority of her life in Britain, Jean Miller returned to Virginia in 1786 in preparation for her marriage in 1788 to Sir Peyton Skipwith. With her she brought enough glass and ceramic tablewares, cooking implements, flatware, fire tools, lighting devices, and table and bed linens to admirably furnish a large house, clearly wishing to duplicate the British gentry's style of life to which she was accustomed. Lady Jean Skipwith ran the plantation after her husband died in 1805; her library was one of the largest assembled by a woman in America.

Prestwould Plantation contains over 5 generations of decorative history. The legacy began with Lady Jean's English influences as reflected in her wallpaper selections of delicate, small scale, repetitive, leaf designs such as "Angle Leaf" that was installed on the dining room walls. She was particularly fond of green colors, which included arsenic green. In sharp contrast to the light and airy fashions of the late 18th century, Humbertson Skipwith and his wife Leila Robertson, the second generation, transformed the interior decoration in 1831 to the bold, masculine neoclassical style. Richly colored, wool flocked broad borders, side papers, and three magnificent sets of block printed scenics were imported from France to grace the walls of Prestwould. One of the most spectacular rooms to view the 1831 French papers, grained walls, richly carved and painted furniture, and red moreen seat covers is the first floor family room called The Saloon, measuring 27 by 23 feet.

Among the most remarkable features of Prestwould is the large number of documented Skipwith family furnishings that survive. They offer an intimate view of the gentry's way of life in the Virginia Piedmont just after the American Revolution, and they reveal much about the trade network that supported the comfortable standard of living on comparatively remote estates such as this. When Prestwould was completed in 1795, the Skipwiths began a furnishing campaign that lasted several years. From London came wallpapers; Scotch, Brussels, and Kidderminster carpets and accompanying borders; substantial quantities of "furniture callicoe" and "Sattin hair cloth" for upholstery; and furniture that included "a Pair [of] large Pier Glasses, fitted up in handsome gilt Pillar Molding Frames." The looking glasses arrived late in 1799 and remain in the drawing room today.

Also still in the house is the pair of "new British Globes with Compasses in Standing Mahogany Frames." Made in London of plaster and papier-mache, they cost more than fifteen pounds, a substantial sum at the time. Other surviving British furnishings include an unsigned clock of about 1800, now on the parlor mantel, and a mahogany clothespress of about 1775 with the painted mark "HM" for Hugh Miller (d.c. 1761), Lady Skipwith's father, a Scottish merchant. The Skipwiths' family ties must have facilitated their access to many British goods.

Tradition has it that Sir Peyton Skipwith won the land on which Prestwould was built (5,342 acres) from William Byrd III in a marathon poker game. A manor house such as Prestwould was not easy to build in the late 1700s. Stone and wood were abundant, but all hardware, paint, wallpaper and rugs had to be ordered from England. The lime-sandstone used to build the house was quarried from the plantation, and the lumber came from the property, as well. The stone construction is unusual for a manor house of the period, when most great houses were built of brick or wood. The house has a hip roof and porches on three sides. The windows have nine over nine light sash (six over six on the upper floor). Other original buildings include a gazebo, a plantation business office, a loom house, slave house, meat house, and a spring house. The original landscape plans are intact and are illustrated in a free brochure available when touring the estate. All doors/frames and windows/frames are original, and all of the original hardware remains intact. Original to the house, an early punkah (Indian-style fan) was suspended from the ceiling of the dining room (see photograph). Slaves or servants would pull the fan back and forth by one or two ropes, providing cooling to the diners while keeping flies and other insects off the food below.

Outwardly conventional, the house is distinguished from earlier American mansions by a marked division between rooms used for entertainment, family life, and service. This was played out in the creation of distinct zones for each activity. The hall was the only true public room, and it was here that access to the different realms was regulated. The west side of the first floor housed reception rooms, along with the saloon beyond. Private family quarters were placed to the east, with additional bedrooms and a nursery on the second floor. A side door and secondary staircase provide direct service to the dining room and upper bedrooms. Servants were relegated to outbuildings and the cellar, where there is a large central room resembling an English servants' hall, along with two well-finished, heated rooms that were probably quarters for high-ranking household staff.

Photos: Octagonal garden summer house and slave house.

With all her many accomplishments, Lady Jean Skipwith is best known today as the mistress of one of the most important gardens of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The detailed records she kept of her garden at Prestwould make it one of the best-documented gardens of the period and were invaluable to the Garden Club of Virginia, which undertook an interpretive restoration in 1980. The plan, consisting of a grid of walks with garden beds in between, is quite like the kitchen gardens of James River and other southern plantations, but several elements show that it was carefully adapted to Lady Skipwith's needs as a plant collector and experimenter. A traditional garden, for instance, would have been on axis with the main hallway of the house, but at Prestwould the garden is sited along the east side of the house, visible from the entrance drive, as if to make a statement that gardening was a separate and special activity at the plantation. The north-south central walk in the garden is fifteen feet wide, to accommodate a pony cart, and extends the length of the lot, 630 feet. Three crosswalks, also fifteen feet wide, traverse the 230-foot width, dividing the garden into six beds. The central crosswalk continues through an orchard to the walled graveyard. Customarily, a summerhouse was placed at the end of one of the garden walks, but Lady Skipwith's summerhouse, complete with a cellar for the storage of roots and plants, was situated to one side of the main walk. Here she spent many hours, reading and keeping the plantation books and her garden journal.

Visitors to Prestwould Plantation, on the north side of the Roanoke River (Kerr Reservoir) opposite Clarksville in south-central Virginia, can enjoy the gardens and octagonal summer house (photo above), separate office house, loom house, slave garden and more. The house is open for tours May 1 through October 31 and is the site for various festivals and weddings. Prestwould is located three miles north of Clarksville on US15, and was declared a National Historic Landmark in 2003.
Call Edith at 434-374-8672.

The following photographs are of the front facing the river (the "social" facade); the first photo at the top of this post is of the land facing, or "business" facade. Note that all three porches (front, back, side) are of identical design. The black and white photograph shows the river facade of the manor house before the most recent restoration.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Jefferson Pools - Warm Springs

The 1761 octagonal wooden structure covers the men's bathing pool; there is an octagonal opening in the roof that lets steam escape. The round ladies' bath house (1836) is pictured below.

In Warm Springs, five miles north of the vast Homestead Resort (an astonishing 15,000 acres), is an old, octagonal wooden building with steam rising from its roof. The sign reads Jefferson Pools, named in honor of the author of our Declaration of Independence, who in 1818, at age 75, lowered his arthritic body into the healing waters daily over a period of three weeks. The pool holds 40,000 gallons of clear mineral spring water with a constant natural temperature of 98 degrees. It is considered the oldest spa structure in America, dating back to 1761; it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a Virginia Historic Landmark. In the late 18th-century the village of Warm Springs (the county seat of Bath County, which abuts West Virginia) expanded rapidly as a spa resort. Hotels, dining rooms and kitchens, taverns, livery stables and a blacksmith shop, a church, laundry and related buildings were built to accommodate the growing numbers of guests.

Today there is a separate, larger spring-fed pool and wooden structure (1836) for use only by women (Robert E. Lee's wife, Mary Custis Lee, was a fan of the women's bath); both are operated by the Homestead Resort and are open to the public (open seasonally 540-839-7741; bathing is segregated by sex, and during adult-only (18+) hours, clothing is optional), $17 for one hour.

Fortunately, the buildings retain their primitive, authentic ambience. The Jefferson Baths sit directly on U.S. Rte. 220, just south of the intersection of Rte. 39 in the quaint village of Warm Springs, home to several atmospheric and bargain-priced hostelries, notably the Inn at Gristmill Square and the Warm Springs Inn.

Update: October 4, 2009
KSL Resorts, new owners of the Homestead Resort, is commissioning an architectural study to determine what should be done to restore the historic structures, which are in a serious state of disrepair. For details, click on this link:

If traveling to Warm Springs west from I-81 near Lexington, VA, the lucky motorist will travel along the Maury River through Goshen Pass, one of Virginia's great nature spots. This area is within the George Washington National Forest and is almost entirely rural. Take normal precautions when hiking through this area, which is a natural habitat for bobcats, raptors, rattlesnakes and black bears. No kidding. Cell phone coverage is spotty.

Between Warm Springs and Covington (along Rte. 220 just west of the Homestead Resort in Hot Springs) is Falling Springs, which can be seen from a roadside pull-off. No hiking necessary, but those who do are rewarded by a path that goes behind the falls to a pleasant swimming spot.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Boxwood Winery - Middleburg

Boxwood Winery is a new addition to the Virginia wine industry (vines planted on 16 acres in 2004), producing only estate-bottled red wines in three distinct styles. Topiary is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec in the St Emilion style. Boxwood reflects the Médoc style with Cabernet Sauvignon as the principal grape. Rosé is a dry rosé wine produced every year in limited quantities from Boxwood varieties. The wines are aged in French oak for twelve months; once fully established, the winery will produce no more than 5,000 cases annually.

Boxwood is owned by John Kent Cooke, son of legendary Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke (1912-1997). Hugh Newell Jacobsen, renowned Georgetown architect, designed the multiple structures on the property.

Visitors are welcome by appointment for a tour and tasting. Tours of the winery, located just one mile outside Middleburg (2042 Burrland Rd.), last approximately forty-five minutes and are limited to fifteen people per tour. $20. The Boxwood Estate is a National Historic Landmark, one of the earliest established farms in historic Middleburg, the epicenter of Virginia's Hunt Country. 540-687-8778.

Wine bars & shops: Boxwood Winery has three satellite Tasting Room locations: downtown Middleburg (open Thursday through Sunday), Reston Town Center (1816 Library St., Reston, Virginia; open seven days a week 703-435-3553) and Chevy Chase (Maryland). The Reston location (see photo below) features live jazz on Thursday evenings (no cover). The Tasting Room boasts enomatic wine dispensers stocked with mixed wines, including homemade vintages and select Bordeaux imports, with a variety of tasting options: by-the-ounce (in three sizes), by-the-glass and by full bottle. Wine-friendly snacks — primarily charcuterie, artisan cheeses and gourmet desserts, are offered.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Culpeper Packard Campus Theater

Culpeper is home to the Library of Congress Art Deco-style 206 seat Packard Campus theater that showcases classic American films, all of which have been named to the National Film Registry. Currently there are three shows a week: Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm., and admission is free. One program a month is a silent film presented with live musical accompaniment (piano or theatre organ).

To reserve a seat call 540-827-1079 x79994 or 202-707-9994 no earlier than one week prior to the screening you plan to attend. Directions are provided on either phone line. The current schedule may be found at:
The reservation phone line is open Mon-Fri 9-4 (closed holidays). Reservations for Saturday screenings may be made on the Friday of the previous week. The facility is approximately 70 miles west of Washington, DC.

Packard Campus audiences are treated to cinematic delights in a handsome theater with superlative sound, state-of-the-art film projection, and comfortable seating (you won’t remember when you last had so much leg room in a movie house). The state-of-the-art projection booth is capable of showing everything from nitrate film to modern digital cinema.

Packard Campus of the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center is a 45 acre state-of-the-art facility where the Library of Congress acquires, preserves and provides access to the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of films, television programs, radio broadcasts, and sound recordings. The preservation facilities are not open to the general public for tours.

The exacting techniques of proper storage take place in the Collections Building and the Nitrate Film Storage Building. Both areas are underground and climate controlled, but whereas the underground bunker that became the Collections Building had to be completely gutted before being reconfigured, the Nitrate Film Building was built from scratch and has specially designed blast-proof vaults for storing the unstable nitrate film used for motion pictures before 1953 (cellulose nitrate film is flammable and highly explosive). Both buildings are well suited for the low-temperature, low-humidity storage that is necessary for long-term preservation.

Trivia: The Packard Campus Collections Building occupies the 1960s era decommissioned underground bunker site of the Federal Reserve that once warehoused $3 billion in U.S. currency to be used to replenish public supplies in the event of a nuclear disaster.

Click on link for a detailed article about the facility:

Click on photo to enlarge:

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Bacon's Castle (Surry County)

Bacon’s Castle
465 Bacon’s Castle Trail
Surry, VA (south shore of the James River)

With its cruciform shape, triple diagonal chimneys and curvilinear gables, Bacon's Castle is a rare surviving example of Jacobean architecture in America, and one of the oldest surviving brick homes still standing in English North America. Built in 1665, the house was home to a prosperous planter, Arthur Allen, who also planted a garden adjacent to his house for the use of his family and household. The house passed to Major Arthur Allen at his father's death; Major Allen was a wealthy merchant and a Justice of the Peace in Surry County. A supporter of the colonial governor and member of the House of Burgesses, Allen was driven from his house in 1676 when Nathaniel Bacon and his men staged what came to be known as Bacon's Rebellion. Bacon was the leader of the rebels who revolted against Royal Governor Berkeley. The house was taken over by some of his men during the revolt.

The house had many owners throughout the eighteenth century. John Henry Hankins purchased the Castle in 1844 and later built a Greek Revival addition. Later in 1880, Charles Warren purchased the house. His grandson, Walker Pegram Warren lived in the house until his death in 1972. This important early colonial site was acquired in 1973 by the Association for the Preservation for Virginia Antiquities and opened to the public in 1983 as one of its museum properties. Bacon’s Castle is a National Historic Landmark. National Register of Historic Places #66000849.

Note: only three Jacobean plantation houses survive in the Western Hemisphere; the other two are in Barbados -- Drax Hall and St. Nicholas Abbey -- both constructed in the 1650s.

Visitors today can step back to the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century through the doors of Bacon's Castle. Using the Allen's inventories from 1711 and 1755, furnishings have been selected to interpret daily life. Much of the early and original massive hand hewn beams are evident on the upper floors of the home. On the first floor, the raised panel woodwork in the downstairs chamber and great hall reflect the early eighteenth-century renovations of Elizabeth Bray, wife of Arthur Allen III. Several dependencies survive, including a smoke house and slave quarters, and the recreated garden can be visited.

Bacon's Castle is located across the James River from Williamsburg on Route 617 in Surry County, just north of the intersection of Route 617 and Route 10. Admission is charged. Seasonal opening dates, but always closed Mondays and Tuesdays and July 4. Phone 757.357.5976.

The multi-story staircase is contained in the shallow brick projection at the rear of the house, and thus takes up no interior space; these two projections give the house its rare cruciform shape.

Friday, May 8, 2009

1797 Wayside Inn in Middletown


The Wayside Inn, since 1797, has been serving the public for over 200 years. Nestled in the Shenandoah Valley, at the foot of the Massanutten Mountains in Middletown, this historic inn trades on its 18th-century ambiance. On offer are 22 guest rooms and suites, each decorated in period themes. Dining features regional American cuisine served in seven dining rooms by a waitstaff dressed in Colonial costumes.

The first travelers to the Inn started coming in 1797, pausing for bed and board as they journeyed across the Shenandoah Valley. The Wayside was then known as Wilkenson's Tavern. When rugged highways were hacked out of the wilderness twenty years later, and the Valley Pike, now Route 11, came through Middletown, the tavern became a stagecoach stop, a relay station where fresh horses were readied, and where weary passengers could dine, drink, rest and refresh themselves in comfort while the team of horses was being changed.

During the Civil War, soldiers from both the North and South frequented the Inn in search of refuge and friendship. Serving both sides in this devastating conflict, the Inn offered comfort to all who came and thus was spared the ravages of the war, even through Stonewall Jackson's famous Valley Campaign swept past only a few miles away.

Jacob Larrick bought the Inn before the war, changed the name to Larrick's Hotel. In the early part of the 20th century, when it was again sold, the new owner Samuel Rhodes, added a third floor, wings on each side, and a new name, The Wayside Inn. In the next few years, as pot-holed pikes were transformed into paved roads, and automobiles begin touring the Valley, the Inn proclaimed itself "America's First Motor Inn."

In the 1960s a Washington financier and antique collector Leo M. Bernstein, with an enthusiasm for new projects and a fascination with Americana, purchased the Inn, which he restored and refurbished with hundreds of antiques. He also bought and refurbished another Shenandoah Valley hostelry, the Battletown Inn (c. 1809) in nearby Berryville. Mr. Bernstein died in the fall of 2008, and the future of the Wayside Inn is uncertain.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Stratford Hall

Stratford Hall, one of the great houses of American history, is known for the family of patriots who lived here. The mansion sits atop steep cliffs above the Potomac River in the Northern Neck area, some 40 miles southeast of Fredericksburg.

Thomas Lee purchased the land in 1717 and built the brick Georgian Great House in the 1730s. A successful tobacco planter and land speculator, Lee owned more than 16,000 acres, distributed between Virginia and Maryland. In a single generation during the 18th century, six Lee brothers lived here. Two became members of the Virginia House of Burgesses; two others were signers of the Declaration of Independence; the other two represented Virginia in Europe. General "Light Horse Harry" Lee, a relative, lived at Stratford Hall; his son, the great Confederate general Robert E. Lee was born here, January 19, 1807. The estate was owned by the Lee family until 1822.

Stratford Hall is preserved essentially the way it was 250 years ago. The plantation still operates as a farm, on 1,670 of its original acres. Visitors can tour the Great House, outbuildings and the plantation grounds and gardens. The “H” shaped edifice features a distinctive tapering exterior staircase, hip roof lines and eight massive chimneys. Its bold architectural style and complex brickwork set it apart from other Virginia plantation houses. The home is furnished with an outstanding collection of 18th-century American and English decorative items.

Four out buildings (including a kitchen) flank the corners of the Great House, and the estate is complete with a mill, farm buildings, coach house, stables and slave quarters. Visitors may stay overnight on the estate grounds in cabins and guest cottages.

Stratford Hall is open daily from 9:30 am to 4:00 pm. (admission charge). From the Visitor Center guests can take Great House tours (on the hour) from 10:00-4:00 and visit museum exhibits. Gift shop on premises. Dining room open Tuesday-Sunday 11a-3:00p.

Stratford Hall is on the National Register #66000851, and also a National Historic Landmark.