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.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Sky Meadows State Park

Sky Meadows State Park straddles land in Fauquier and Clarke counties on an eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The name Sky Meadows comes from former owner Robert Hadow, who named the property "Skye Farm" after a site in his native Scotland.

Totaling more than 1,800 acres, the park has 12 miles of hiking trails and offers direct access to the Appalachian Trail, which crosses Rt. 50 just west of the village of Paris. The park is a three-day hike from Harper’s Ferry, WV, and two days from Shenandoah National Park. Close to northern Virginia's center of equestrian culture, it includes riding trails, as well; two bridle trails traverse six miles of paths (separate from the hiking trails). There are facilities for pond fishing and picnicking.

Annually the Delaplane Strawberry Festival is held here on the Saturday and Sunday of Memorial Day weekend.

The park is in Delaplane, less than two miles south of Paris, Va., via Rt. 50 to Rt. 17 South (or seven miles north of I-66, Exit 23 on Rt. 17 North). Although the park lands are on both sides of Rt. 17, the park entrance proper is on Rt. 710. There are no cabins or campsites with hookups at this park, but primitive camping is allowed by reservation.

The historic Mount Bleak House not only serves as the park's visitor center and office, it is furnished as a middle-class farmhouse, giving visitors a glimpse of middle-class life during the 1850s. From the rear of the house is a spectacular panoramic view of mountains and rolling hills. Picnic tables, restrooms, and gift shop are located behind Mount Bleak House.

Mount Bleak House, built in 1843, is open for guided tours on weekends and holiday afternoons from mid-April through October. In 1731, Lord Fairfax sold a 7,883-acre tract of land just south of Ashby’s Gap to James Ball. Isaac Settle of nearby Paris bought land from the descendants and in 1812 built a large estate house called “Belle Grove.” In 1842, he sold Belle Grove farm to his son in-law, Lewis Edmonds, who subsequently sold 148 acres to Settle’s son, Abner, who built Mount Bleak House. In 1868 Mount Bleak became the property of George Slater, who had been in Mosby’s Rangers during the Civil War. Slater and his son lived there for 55 years.

In 1975, Paul Mellon of Upperville purchased and later donated this 1,132-acre tract to the state for development as a state park, sparing the land from real estate development. Another 248 acres were acquired in 1987, thus providing access to the Appalachian Trail. In 1991, Mr. Mellon donated another 248 acres, designated the Lost Mountain Bridle Trail Area.

Click image to enlarge:

Sky Meadows State Park

Photo above courtesy Rob Tabor

Monday, April 20, 2009

Salamander Farm

Sheila Johnson's 165-acre estate, Salamander Farm, is located on Zulla Road between the Plains and Middleburg. When Johnson discovered that the property’s second owner, Rhode Island governor Bruce Sundlun (who was given the code name Salamander in World War II and received honors for his valor as a pilot), had called the farm "Salamander," she changed the name back. A salamander is the only creature that can mythically walk through fire and still come out alive.

“My daughter’s love of horses brought me to the area,” Johnson says. “But I bought the home because of the view. The view is hard to duplicate.” Johnson lives on the majestic property that overlooks the Blue Ridge Mountains with daughter Paige (a Grand Prix horsewoman), son Brett and her husband.

Recently Sheila Johnson became an owner of the Washington Mystics, Wizards and Capitals sports teams. A former music teacher at Sidwell Friends School in Northwest Washington, billionaire Johnson still plays violin and remains passionate about music. She recently donated $3 million to endow a Performing Arts Center at the private Hill School (Middleburg).

Entrepreneur Johnson lived in a double-wide trailer on the grounds of Salamander Farm while renovations to the stone house were taking place (the relatively modest home was expanded to 14,500 sq. ft.). In order to preserve the original stone facade, the additions were primarily constructed on the lower floor and in side wings. Consequently, contrary to the layout of most estate homes, the principal rooms of the house are on the lower level. She employed Washington-DC-based interior designer Thomas Pheasant to realize her vision for furnishing her home.

Ms. Johnson created resistance and much controversy when she announced plans to develop another property (the estate of former ambassador to France, the late Pamela Harriman) into a hotel/conference center complex right at the edge of the village of Middleburg. Approval was eventually granted, and construction is still underway. An opening date for the 120-bed Salamander Resort and Spa has been pushed back to early 2011.

700 guests descended on Salamander Farm when Ms. Johnson married Arlington County Circuit Court chief justice William T. Newman Jr., in 2005. An avid cook, these days he spends much of his time in the elaborate kitchen at Salamander Farm, baking cakes, pastries and making home-made ice cream. Coincidentally, Newman was the presiding judge over Johnson’s divorce from Robert Johnson in 2002, with whom she founded the cable network BET.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Hunter's Head Tavern - Upperville

Open for dinner daily; afternoon tea Tue-Wed-Thu;
Lunch Tues-Sunday; 540-592-9020
Outdoor seating available in good weather.

Sandy Lerner’s Hunter’s Head Tavern is housed in a 250-year-old structure that sits directly on Rt. 50 in Upperville (Fauquier County). It serves a traditional English pub menu that features on-tap beers, wines, and locally raised organic farm products from nearby Ayrshire Farm (also owned by Lerner, co-founder of Cisco Systems). The ordering system is true British tavern style. Guests place an order at the bar’s open Dutch door and then take a numbered wooden spoon to be placed in the empty wine bottle sitting on the table; servers look for your number and deliver your order directly to your table in one of the atmospheric tavern rooms or outside on the terrace, in good weather.

Photo: Lerner's 800 acre Ayrshire Farm

This tavern became the first restaurant in the nation to receive an animal rights group's certification for a menu with humanely raised and processed fare. The "Certified Humane Raised and Handled" label assures consumers that meat, poultry, egg, and dairy products have been produced according to precise standards for humane farm animal treatment.

The Old Carr House, now the site of the Hunter’s Head tavern, began life about 1750 as a log cabin built by Scotsman Steven McPherson. The history of this house is essentially the history of the village of Upperville, which was founded by, and originally named for, Joseph Carr, a grandson of John Carr, who had emigrated from Ireland in the 1750s. Joseph Carr purchased McPherson’s farm, mill and log cabin, and later opened a general store. By 1798 the town was named after him: Carrtown. At Carr’s death in 1828, he owned some 2,500 acres in the Upperville area. As his businesses flourished, Joseph Carr moved his family from the present tavern structure to a larger brick house across the road, hence the historical name, the Old Carr House.

At the time of its last purchase in 1997, the upper-story addition to the original cabin (the east end of the building) was falling into the first floor because the original, one-story cabin’s ceiling beams in the east room were inadequate to support the second floor, added sometime in the early 1800s. The central portion of the 1790s addition (the area which today includes the bar and west dining rooms) was structurally unviable due to the removal of most of the roof ridge beam at some point in the house’s history. According to one builder who worked on the restoration, “I’ve been in this business for thirty-five years and I have no idea why it’s still standing.” The house had settled so much that most of the windows were inoperable and the doors unable to close; the stone foundations and the fireplace in the west room had to be completely rebuilt.

The structure retains its original log cabin walls, fireplaces, mantels and, on the upper stories, its floors. It is rumored that the heavy gate into the walled garden is from the old Upperville jail. The house is reputed to be home to several ghosts. One, a middle-aged colonial man dressed in brown, seems to be a happy spirit, possibly because the old Carr House is now an ordinary serving food and drink, after almost 100 years as a tenant house, antique shop, and office.

1. Do not refuse the complimentary bread and butter. Superior!
2. It's easy to drive right past this tavern.
If you see the Trinity Episcopal church on your right, you've gone too far. Driving west on Rt. 50, look for a bright red London-style phone both on the right. It's at the entrance to the parking lot. Enter the tavern through the back door terrace area.
3. Owner Sandy Lerner's hobby is jousting in period costume, so she's good with a spear. Her efforts to open a restaurant in Upperville were repeatedly blocked, particularly by the monied horsy set. Consequently, fox hunters are not allowed to cross her property, and her disdain for them is reflected in the restaurant's name: Hunter's Head.

Below: Turkey pot pie and organic meat loaf.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Mighty Midget Kitchen - Leesburg

The Mighty Midget Kitchen is a Leesburg landmark, originally crafted in 1946 from the metal fuselage of a WWII B-29 bomber. Relocated about a block from its former location, it now serves German food as part of a restaurant and entertainment complex called Hamburg Döner on Harrison Street, directly across from Tuscarora Mill.

There were seven of these metal structures made in the late 1940s by a company in Glendale, California. Most were used as food stands, but at least one served as a newsstand. This is believed to be the only one of the set of structures left.

For nearly 50 years The Mighty Midget was popular as a hamburger, hot dog and fries outlet. The Mighty Midget closed in 1994 and was moved from the juncture of Loudoun and Market Streets to location a block away in 1996, when it resumed operation as a restaurant. In 2001 a new tenant arrived: B’z BBQ. Its ribs and pulled pork were cooked on a BBQ smoker in back of the building. Proprietor Brian DeVaux offered ribs only on Fridays and Saturdays, but his pulled pork was available every day. B’z BBQ closed in December, 2007.

In late March, 2008, the Mighty Midget reopened as “Hamburg Döner,” where it sits on a deck outside the restaurant proper. Since 2006 Hamburg Döner had operated out of a food truck at Leesburg’s Virginia Village Shopping Center, and the vacant Mighty Midget Kitchen tempted owners Nicole Marschall and Timo Winkel to make a permanent home for their popular food offerings. Today they welcome the public by keeping alive the local tradition of the Mighty Midget, for which the locals retain a heavy streak of nostalgia. Hamburg Döner serves the German take on the Turkish döner sandwich, which is made with hot meat atop salad covered in sauce, served on toasted flatbread; this is the most popular sandwich served in Germany today. Other selections include German bratwurst and schnitzel. The restaurant also offers German beers, some indoor seating and outdoor seating at German biergarten tables, relocated directly from Germany.

On March 28, 2009, they celebrated their one year anniversary at the Mighty Midget Kitchen at 202-A Harrison Street. That day was also the first day of operation under their new name – Döner Bistro.

Open from 11:00 a.m.; closed Mondays.
Live music Fri/Sat from 7 pm. 703-779-7880

Monday, April 6, 2009

James Monroe's Oak Hill

In 1794 James Monroe, our fifth president, purchased the 4,400 acres of land on which Oak Hill was located from Colonel Charles Carter. The Carter family owned Oatlands (main house c. 1800), a neighboring Loudoun County estate now owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. James Monroe and his wife Elizabeth visited and stayed at Oak Hill often before taking up residence there after Monroe’s retirement from his term of presidency from 1817-1825.

On the property was an older stone estate manager’s house containing six rooms. It was used as a residence by Monroe's brother, Andrew, in the period of 1808 through 1817, when Andrew managed the farm. James Monroe and his wife Elizabeth stayed in the manager’s house when visiting the farm in earlier years and while arranging for construction of the larger manor house, built of brick with a large Greek-styled portico, in 1822. The house was planned by Irishman James Hoban, architect of the White House, incorporating many architectural drawings and design suggestions made by Thomas Jefferson, a close friend of the Monroes. The builder was William Benton.

This mid-1800s etching of Oak Hill contains several erroneous architectural details. The portico was distinguished by five 9-ft. diameter, 30-ft. tall, stuccoed brick columns -- not six. The arcaded pediment supporting the portico thus contained four arches, not five. The width to height ratio is also distorted.

During his retirement years at Oak Hill, Monroe served as chairman of the Virginia Constitutional Convention, as a local magistrate in Loudoun County, and as a member of the Board of Visitors for the newly-organized University of Virginia. John Quincy Adams (who succeeded Monroe as President) and General Lafayette both visited Monroe at Oak Hill. Life-long friends Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were frequent visitors, as well.

Monroe's wife died at Oak Hill in 1830. After her death, Monroe moved to New York to live with his youngest daughter. He wrote to James Madison on April 11, 1831, stating: “It is very distressing to me to sell my property in Loudoun, for besides parting with all I have in the State (of Virginia), I indulged a hope that, if I could retain it, I might be able occasionally to visit it, and meet my friends there.” Monroe died in New York City on July 4 of that year.

Monroe, born in Westmoreland County, Virginia, was a student at the College of William and Mary, but dropped out to serve in the Revolutionary War, in which he rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. From 1780-82, he studied law under Thomas Jefferson, although he never completed a higher education degree. Immediately thereafter Monroe served as a member of the Continental Congress, then went on to complete a distinguished career as a public servant. In 1790, he became a U.S. Senator from Virginia. Four years later he became Minister to France. From 1799-1802 Monroe served as the Governor of Virginia. In 1803 he assisted US Minister Robert Livingston in negotiating the Louisiana Purchase. From 1803-1807, Monroe was Minister to Great Britain. In 1811 he was appointed by President Madison to Secretary of State and then Secretary of War (posts held simultaneously).

The area of Monroe's greatest success, however, was in foreign affairs. This was the era in which much of South America achieved independence from Spain. Monroe wanted to insure that no European regime interfered with this independence process. He issued the Monroe Doctrine, which warned European states not to become involved in the affairs of the Western hemisphere. Monroe crafted this important historical document while in residence at Oak Hill.

Today the Oak Hill estate is in private hands, since 1948 the residence of Thomas DeLashmutt and his wife, Gayle, who on occasion graciously welcome the public to the house and extensive gardens for special events. Gayle DeLashmutt is president of the Mosby Heritage Area Association.

The house, located nine miles south of Leesburg (near Aldie), contains furniture that once belonged to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Dolley Madison. Two ornately carved Italian marble mantelpieces were presented to the Monroes by the Marquis de Lafayette, in gratitude for saving Mme. Lafayette from the guillotine during the French Revolution in 1795 (Monroe was then serving as Minister to France). Civil War soldiers chipped off some of the carvings, to take as souvenirs (the house was used by both armies during the Civil War). Some of the slate floor stones were brought from the White House after the fire of the War of 1812; other floor stones contain dinosaur footprints found on the estate.

North facade:

South facade:

The property, designated as both a Virginia Historic Landmark and a National Historic Landmark, fronts onto the James Monroe and James Madison Highway (Rt. 15), formerly known as the Old Carolina Road, a Native American route linking present-day North Carolina and Pennsylvania via central Virginia. The 175-mile section from Gettysburg/PA to Charlottesville/VA features Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, James Madison's Montpelier, James Monroe's Oak Hill and Ash Lawn-Highland, Theodore Roosevelt's Pine Knot cabin, and Dwight Eisenhower's farm.

A) Two U.S. Navy ships have been named "USS Oak Hill" after the estate (Moroe served as Secretary of War).
B) William Benton, who was the builder of both Woodburn and Oak Hill estate houses, defied Virginia State Law by teaching all 19 of his slaves to read and write.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Woodburn Estate: Loudoun County

Woodburn Estate (3 miles SW of Leesburg on Rt. 704, off Rt. 15)

This 240-acre Loudoun County estate contains a fine 13-room brick Federal farmhouse and an important collection of ancillary structures. The property was patented in the mid-18th century by George Nixson (born 1730 in Enniskillen, Ireland), who put up the oldest buildings, including the 1777 log “patent” house. In colonial times, construction of a 16-by-20-foot cabin was a requirement for obtaining a “patent” (title to the property).

Nixson also built the stone and frame gristmill in 1777 and the stone miller’s house in 1787. Nixson’s son George had the main brick house built by William Benton around 1820 (aside: two years later Benton also built the Oak Hill estate house for President James Monroe, six miles farther south). The unusually large scale of the house, including its extensive rear wing, earned it the name “Dr. Nixson’s Folly.” The main house is distinguished by magnificent brick work laid in Flemish and American 5-course bond, as well as interior features such as molded plaster cornices and fine mantels. Contemporary with the house is the springhouse and an impressive elaborate brick barn with an arcaded ground level and brick lattice vents. The barn is considered the largest and finest of its type in existence (in the 1970s I had a friend who rented the miller’s house, so I was able to see this remarkable barn up close; it was unusual for such architectural detail and costly construction materials to be lavished on a barn).

A small village grew near the estate house, but by the year 1900 the village of Woodburn boasted only 15 residents.

Thomas Hawkins Clagett, a physician, owned Woodburn during the years of the Civil War. He was successful in warding off a Union soldier burning raid in 1864 that resulted in tremendous destruction of property in Loudoun County. Union Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan was ordered to carry out a “Burning Raid” to root out John Mosby and his Rangers. Sheridan burned barns, mills and many other structures suspected of harboring John Mosby and his supporters. Clagett sent several of his slaves to inform Sheridan that Mosby was lying in wait to ambush them, and Sheridan’s troops thus passed Woodburn by – it was all a successful ruse to spare Clagett’s property.

Owners of the Woodburn estate in modern times were the ballet superstar Rudolph Nureyev and Hugh Peal, Esq., who was successful in getting the property listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976 (main house and six ancillary buildings: log patent house, stable, mill, smokehouse, barn and miller’s house). A notorious time for the estate was when it was leased to political extremist Lyndon LaRouche (1985). The house remains in private hands and cannot be visited, although it is clearly visible from the bend on Rt. 704.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Bush Tabernacle - Purcellville

In 1903 noted Loudoun County builder Arch Simpson and his crew designed and constructed the wooden building which is now the Purcellville Roller Rink. Originally, the building was called “The Tabernacle” and built as an auditorium for the Prohibition and Evangelical Association for Loudoun County's annual "Bush Meeting," held each summer from the Centennial year (1876) right up until 1931, when the Great Depression ended its run. The Bush Tabernacle remained the largest structure in Loudoun County until the construction of Dulles Airport in 1962. It could hold up to 3,000 people and cost $2,500 to build.

The Bush Meeting grounds were located on a tract known as Dillon's Woods, and thousands made the trek to Purcellville to attend the ten day session of temperance meetings, which soon expanded to include musical entertainment and spirited speeches, of both a religious and political nature. In most ways these annual gatherings mirrored the Chautauqua movement that began in New York State. An educational, social and cultural phenomenon, this movement brought to rural America the best speakers, teachers, musicians, entertainers and specialists of the day.

The most famous speaker to attend one of Purcellville's Bush Meetings was Democratic presidential nominee and then Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, who repeated his famous “Cross of Gold” speech here in 1913.

The Bush Meeting acquired its name from the initial meeting place, held under a brush arbor (bush meeting) near Lincoln, Virginia. In 1877, the meeting moved to the Tabernacle's permanent location, then known as Dillon's Woods. Dorms, tents and concessions lined the grounds. By the 1890s the Bush Meeting lasted over a week and was held in an 80 by 120-foot oval tent, destroyed in 1903 by a freak tornado that struck during one of the meetings. The new permanent Tabernacle building was completed in time for the next summer's gathering. A map from 1908, the year Purcellville was incorporated as a town, shows the Tabernacle structure abutting a clutch of Bush Meeting cottages and a boarding house (town population at the time was 350).

Following the Depression, the tabernacle would become a skating rink (1939) that also served as a venue for wrestling matches and concerts by country singers, such as local favorite Patsy Cline. In 1955 this structure hosted Loudoun County’s first 4-H Fair. Because it is some distance from the town’s commercial area along Rt. 7, this building survived the two disastrous fires of 1914 (a week apart) that destroyed most of Purcellville’s early architectural heritage (there was no fire brigade until 1923).

The Bush Tabernacle serves today as the Purcellville Roller Rink.