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.

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