Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Hopewell - Sin City of the South

The tiny colonial village of City Point (now Hopewell) is where General Ulysses S. Grant directed a 10-month siege of nearby Petersburg from the grounds of Appomattox Plantation (above), the ancestral home of the Eppes family.

But present day Hopewell was developed in 1914 by the DuPont Company (Wilmington, Delaware), attracted by its deep port and good railroad connections. Hopewell Farm, part of the Eppes plantation adjacent to the village of City Point (established 1613), was sold to the DuPonts in 1912 for industrial development. Because the Eppes family had come to America on a ship named Hopewell, they requested that the DuPonts name the 800 acre tract "Hopewell."

The company first built a dynamite factory and then switched to the manufacture of guncotton during World War I. An additional land purchase brought the total acreage to 2,400, and DuPont brought in a huge workforce (28,000 employees in 1914), presenting the company with an enormous challenge – how to train and house them.

The changes to the town were mind-boggling. From 1840-1912 the population of City Point remained stagnant at 300. Three years later there were 40,000 DuPont employees laboring in Hopewell. In a matter of just months DuPont cleared the corn fields and pine groves to create a city complete with paved streets, schools, libraries, social and hunt clubs, gymnasiums, churches and shops. The factories stood across the railroad tracks from the town proper, where the thousands of employees were housed in rows of wooden tenements (see photo below). Apartments were rented by shifts to accommodate the crush of factory workers. Hopewell became the largest supplier to Britain of guncotton, the ingredient necessary for smokeless gunpowder. A billion pounds of guncotton were produced during WWI. Hopewell was a dirty, grimy, foul-smelling place, since production required the use of sulfuric and nitric acids.

Because the town population was mostly men earning high wages while living apart from their wives and family, a rowdy street life developed. The town became known as “Sin City of the South.” Floating brothels moved up and down the James River, a saloon occupied every block, and shootings and murders were commonplace. Since there was no local police force, Hopewell was a haven for thieves, prostitutes, con-men and gamblers.

At lunchtime on December 9, 1915, a fire broke out in a Greek restaurant, and strong winds spread the flames all over the town. Within hours over 300 buildings were in ashes, but the foremen called the workers back to their stations for the 11:00 pm shift – the manufacturing plants had been spared. Miraculously, there was no loss of life, and within weeks DuPont had rebuilt the buildings lost to the fire.

By 1918, at the close of WWI, the guncotton plants were shut down, and Hopewell was all but a ghost town. Although DuPont’s development department began considering a postwar role for Hopewell as early as 1915, it was left abandoned at war’s end. However, the Tubize Corporation established a plant producing artificial silk at the old DuPont site in 1923, the same year that the city of Hopewell annexed the neighboring village of City Point. With the addition of a new Allied Chemical plant, Hopewell prospered afterward and became known as the "Wonder City." Dupont eventually returned to Hopewell, and the current plant manufactures Melinex® PET and Kaladex® PEN polyester films at what is the largest polyester film facility in the world.

Trivia: One of the residents who left Hopewell after the fire was William “Billy” Haines, who had run away from his home in Staunton at the age of 14. After working a manual labor job for DuPont, at the age of 15 (!) he operated a popular dance hall in Hopewell that was lost to the conflagration. He then went north to New York City, where he became a model. He entered his photograph in a “New Faces of 1922" contest and won a screen test, which took him to Hollywood, where he signed with MGM. He became one of the greatest silent film stars of the 1920s and early 30s, and was the top grossing male movie star of 1930. He was lifelong friends with Joan Crawford, a staunch Republican, and decorator and confidante to Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

The Beacon Theater (see photo of the elaborate brick work) opened in 1928 as the Art-Deco Broadway Theater and showcased silent films, including those of former resident William “Billy” Haines. Of special pride to locals was the $20,000 theatre organ in place at the time of its grand opening. Sadly, the Beacon closed its doors in 1981, but reopened as a special function venue in 2005. When funds are in place, a complete restoration as a functioning theater will take place.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Natural Bridge

11 miles SW of Lexington, Virginia, Natural Bridge is a celebrated natural wonder located in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Rockbridge County (named for this feature). Natural Bridge is a limestone formation in which Cedar Creek, a small tributary of the James River, has carved out a gorge forming an arch 215 feet high with a span of 90 feet. It is the remains of the roof of a cave or tunnel through which the creek once flowed. Natural Bridge is both a Virginia Historical Landmark and a National Historical Landmark (designated in 1998).

Natural Bridge was a sacred site of the Native American Monacan tribe, who believed it to be the site of a major victory over pursuing Powhatans centuries before the arrival of European settlers in Virginia.

In 1927 a large stone was found with engraved initials “G.W.” and bearing a surveyor's cross, which historians accept as proof that George Washington surveyed the bridge around 1750.

In 1774 Thomas Jefferson purchased 157 acres of land including the Natural Bridge from King George III of England for 20 shillings ($160 in today’s money). He called it “the most sublime of nature's works.” Jefferson built a two-room log cabin, beginning its use as a retreat. While President in 1802, he conducted a personal survey of the property. In 1817 Jefferson leased 10 acres of his land at Natural Bridge to Patrick Henry, a "free man of colour" who cultivated the land "on the sole conditions of paying the taxes annually as they arise, and of preventing trespasses."

After Jefferson’s death Natural Bridge was sold in 1833 as part of his estate, and soon thereafter lodgings were erected for the increasing number of visitors. The bridge remains in private hands to this day.

Natural Bridge was one of the wonders of the new world that Europeans visited during the 18th and 19th centuries, second in popularity only to Niagara Falls. Vacationing guests from all over the world took day trips from Natural Bridge on horseback or horse drawn carriages to explore the countryside.

A famous painting by Frederick Church, c. 1852

Today, in order to view the bridge from below, tickets must purchased. The top of the bridge can be seen for free from U.S. Highway 11, which runs directly on top of it. However, fences on either side of the highway block the view of the canyon from the bridge.

Following the trail under the bridge, in addition to seeing it from its less-often-photographed side, visitors may walk to the end of the trail, beyond which may be seen the remnant of the waterfall that helped form the bridge.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Poplar Forest - Jefferson's Retreat

While already in his sixties and serving his second term as president, Thomas Jefferson designed and built a brick octagonal villa in Palladian style at Poplar Forest, a plantation inherited from his wife’s father. Jefferson usually went to Poplar Forest several times a year to oversee plantation production, but a primary reason for these extended stays was to avoid visitors at Monticello, his principal home. Jefferson's original vision for this private retreat was a place to read, think and spend time with his grandchildren after he retired.

Poplar Forest was 90 miles southwest of Monticello and reaching it required a three-day ride by horse and carriage. At the time of construction, Poplar Forest was at the cusp of what was then regarded as wilderness. Most Americans didn’t know what lay west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and for the first few visits Jefferson used a guide to be able to find his inherited estate.

The plantation originally spanned more than 4,800 acres, and in 1806 Jefferson began construction of an eight sided villa atop a gentle hill that afforded a view of the forest and the twin Peaks of Otter. By the time of his death Poplar Forest was a working tobacco and wheat farm with 94 slaves on the property. Two centuries later, the property is now partly surrounded by subdivisions and acreage that the Corporation for Jefferson’s Poplar Forest wants to acquire, so that it can restore the area surrounding the home to its original appearance. It has spent $8.5 million to reclaim more than 600 acres since 1984 and hopes to continue to create more open space.

Poplar Forest is believed to be the nation’s first fully octagonal house. Numerous windows allow natural light inside and integrate the interior with the outside landscape, a design feature uncommon of American houses of that era. A 100-foot-long side wing housed a kitchen, storage room and smokehouse, and the wing’s low, flat roof served as an outdoor terrace (photo below).

Anchoring the house is the central dining room, now restored to its former 20-by-20-by-20-foot cubic dimensions. Because it was a windowless space, it was lit by a 16-ft. long narrow skylight. Renovators took out attic space that private owners had added and reinstalled the skylight, which was twice destroyed by hailstones in Jefferson's time.

Four octagonal rooms surround the dining room, including the parlor where Jefferson kept more than 900 books and spent much of his time reading alone or with his grandchildren. That room features floor-to-ceiling, triple-sash windows (when fully raised these windows serve as doors) and opens to a four-columned portico (photo below) overlooking the south lawn, which in Jefferson’s days included a sunken garden he designed in European style. Poplar Forest’s landscape restoration has just begun.

Above photo: Rob Tabor
The northeast and east rooms of the home remain unfinished, allowing visitors to see how Jefferson’s workers framed and constructed the house and how restorers discovered the original home’s “footprint.” The bedchambers contained beds placed in space saving alcoves, echoing Jefferson's bedroom at Monticello. Twin staircases leading to the lower level rooms are housed in bump outs on the east and west sides, so as not to disrupt the symmetry of the interior spaces. Two octagonal "privies" were placed on a horizontal axis with the house, but shielded from view by artificial "hills" planted with trees (watercolor at end of post shows placement).

Above photo by Rob Tabor

Unfortunately, twenty years after Jefferson's death the house fell victim to a disastrous fire, leaving only a burnt-out shell. It was rebuilt, but not according to Jefferson’s designs.

Jefferson struggled with debt in his final years and willed Poplar Forest to grandson Francis Eppes (1801-1881) in order to remove it from his estate. During the last three years of Jefferson's life, his grandson occupied the property and villa. Jefferson died in 1826 thinking Eppes would raise a family at his beloved retreat, but two years later Eppes sold the house and nearly 1,000 acres to a neighbor at about a quarter of the property’s assessed value. Eppes then moved with his wife, baby daughter and slaves to Florida. This is perhaps understandable, since the house at Poplar Forest, designed as one man's private villa retreat, was so idiosyncratic that it was unsuitable for raising a family.

The house, situated southwest of Lynchburg, VA, was dramatically altered by subsequent owners in an effort to fashion it into a workable farmhouse. It remained a private home until 1984. A $6 million, 20-year restoration to return the house to its original floor plan and condition during the time it was occupied by Jefferson is still underway.

The immediate grounds around the house as they appeared in Jefferson's time are shown in this watercolor rendering. A circular drive with a 500 foot diameter surrounds the house, and the south sunken garden ornamental border plantings are evident. Two small tree mounds at the end of the wing axes shield octagonal brick privies. The twin Peaks of Otter are shown in the distant horizon.

Poplar Forest, a National Historic Landmark, is open to the public April through November, Wednesday through Monday (closed every Tuesday and Thanksgiving Day) from 10:00a to 4:00p. Adults $14.00; Seniors (age 60+) and Active Military $12.00; College Students $7.00; Youth 12-18 $6.00; Youth 6-11 $2.00; Under 6 free. Admission includes a guided house tour and self-guided grounds exhibits. 434.525.1806

Google Maps, Mapquest and GPS use 1542 Bateman Bridge Road, Forest, VA.
Poplar Forest is located in Bedford County, approximately 20 miles southwest of Lynchburg.
Driving directions are found on the estate's web site: