Day Two of Garden Week in Virginia....Let's Head to Westover!
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On the James
There are three beautiful areas with equally beautiful houses and gardens open for touring on Day Two of Historic Garden Week in Virginia (Sunday, April 22, 2018), but I’ve decided to focus on the James River Plantations--specifically, Westover. After having explored the York and Ware Rivers on the Gloucester-Mathews tour on Day One, why not go for a third Virginia river on Day Two?
As an infant, I was brought home to a gorgeous 1925 Colonial Revival home that was situated on the banks of the James River in Newport News, VA. Even as a very little girl, I loved looking out at the water, and I used to sneak into the living room and up onto the sofa, where I would stand, parting the curtains, just to see the sun glistening on the water. My filthy feet on what was then a white (or was it cream?) sofa always gave me away, but it was those early years with what seemed like such a never ending expanse of water in front of me that instilled in me a love of the water--and of houses on the water.
Each of the James River plantations is special in its own way, and each holds a very important place in the history of Virginia and in the history of our country. However, Westover has always been my favorite--there’s just so much going on there historically, architecturally and horticulturally that I can never get enough of it!Imagine how excited I was, then, when Andrea Fisher Erda agreed to answer some of my questions about her family home for today’s blog post. Andrea, along with her husband Rob and their family, are the current stewards of the home, which has been in Andrea’s family since 1921. And they are so amazing and welcoming that it makes visiting Westover even more fun than it might otherwise be! We’ll get to my conversations with Andrea after I do my thing and provide a little bit of background on the plantation and its early history. And I should note that most of the general Jamestown history and the early Hundreds history that you’ll read about later in the post comes from my memory--after all, I attended Hampton Roads Academy and then the University of Virginia, so I should have a pretty solid foundation in Virginia history.
However, I am human, and so to be sure to avoid errors, I have relied on Jamestown's website for history after the “starving time.” And I have also relied very heavily on Westover's website for specific historical details related to the establishment, building and restoration of the plantation, as well as to the chain of ownership of the property. As we all know, Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in the Americas, having been established along the James River in 1607. We also know of the many trials the original settlers faced in this new land. Between the years 1607 and 1699, when the capital of Virginia was finally moved from Jamestown to Williamsburg, the settlers faced quite a few hardships. There was, of course, the “starving time” of 1609-1610, which wiped out all but one fifth of the original settlement. Things started to look up for the new settlement in the mid 1610s. Pocahontas married John Rolfe, and that union served to lessen tensions with the Indians, at least for a while. The Virginia Company was tasked with creating the Virginia Assembly (a government with uniform rules for all of Virginia was viewed as progress). Unfortunately, after the death of Pocahontas’s father, her uncle took control of the Powhatan tribe and launched a full scale attack on the colony, though the fort itself was spared. The result of this attack was a tremendous loss of life and revocation of Virginia’s charter by the King of England. Jamestown became a Crown colony within only 17 years of its creation. It remained the capital of the Colony, but eventually, after rebellion and fire, the capital building at Jamestown was destroyed, and the “new” capital was to be established at Williamsburg.
Meanwhile, several members of the colony were already thinking ahead and researching their possibilities for the future.Westover, before actually having been “established” as a plantation, emerged in concept as one of the “Hundreds” envisioned by a small group of colonists who were interested in moving up the James, away from the Jamestown Settlement, and forming their own settlements with populations of approximately one hundred settlers each. (Please see William C. Wooldridge's book "Mapping Virginia" for an in depth look at Virginia's history from the years before the Jamestown Settlement through just after the Civil War. It is a historian's-- and a cartographer's-- delight and an incredible collection of the rarest maps in existence.) Westover was likely named for the West brothers, who were part of the group of “Hundreds” visionaries. The idea of the "Hundreds" settlements moved from concept to reality beginning in 1637, when the Colonial Governor deeded 2,000 acres of a plantation (called Westover, of course!) to Capt. Thomas Pawlett, the plantation’s first recorded owner. He then sold to the Blands, and they eventually sold Westover to William Byrd I in 1688. For quite some time, William Byrd II was credited with building the house that now stands on the banks of the James. However, in recent years, that understanding has been called into question. And we can all thank the science of dendrochronology (tree ring dating) for giving us a more precise time frame for the building of the house. According to tests that were performed on an attic beam, the house is likely to have been built by William Byrd III around 1750. (See Westover website for more about these particular details) Tragically, William Byrd III committed suicide in 1777. While his burial place is unknown, we do know that his father, William Byrd II, is buried at Westover. His tomb is located in the center of the gardens, where the eight different garden rooms meet. William Byrd I is buried in the original cemetery, located 1/4 mile from the house.Westover remained in the Byrd family for several years after William Byrd III’s death. It was not until 1814 that the property was sold out of the Byrd family. Since that time, it has had eight subsequent owners. All of the owners are listed, along with years of ownership and possession, on the Westover website.
The history of Westover between 1814, when it was sold out of the Byrd family, and the Civil War, when the house and grounds served as a station for Union soldiers, is a bit murky, as is the history between 1865 and 1899. I asked Andrea about these time periods, and she told me that her father would be the one to ask about the early to mid 1800s, but that she did know a bit about the period during which the Selden family owned the property, as well as about the period following the Civil War. According to Andrea, the Selden family owned the property before the Civil War (1829-1862), and the patriarch of the family was an agriculturalist who worked the land and grew wheat, corn and oats. In fact, there is a fascinating analysis of Mr. Selden's daily journal, detailing his days at Westover, that was published by Smith College in 1921. The Smith College analysis of Mr. Selden’s daily musings is worth a read in you are interested in the detailed thoughts, activities and spending habits of a 19th century plantation owner.
I was curious about what had gone on at Westover during the Civil War, just after Mr. Selden had sold it (which sale occurred in 1862), and I was also curious about the fire that occurred in the east wing of the house during the Civil War. Apparently, the house was hit by a cannon ball during the Civil War, and the resulting fire destroyed the east wing of the house. Because the east wing was not attached to the main house at that time, according to Andrea, the former east wing remained a pile of burned out rubble until well after the Civil War, when finally someone with enough money to rebuild and restore the property came along. That "someone" turned out to be someone quite familiar with the property and its history. Mrs. Clarice Sears Ramsey, a Byrd descendant, purchased the property in 1899, and she immediately got down to business rebuilding the war torn wing, adding hyphens to connect the main house to the dependencies. In so doing, she created one long house. She also took this time to modernize the house for the next owners, Mr. and Mrs. Richard Crane. The Cranes purchased the property in 1921, and the house is still in the family, having as its millennial inhabitants and stewards, Andrea Fisher Erda (the Cranes’ great-granddaughter) and her husband Rob Erda and their family.
Because Westover is so steeped in history, I couldn't resist asking Andrea--because she is just as important as any of the prior owners of the property, after all--what her favorite Westover item or memory might be. In the style of a true historian and great-granddaughter left to wonder about her family's history in the house, she told me that she was most intrigued by the guests who came to call upon her great-grandparents. (Andrea's great-grandfather, Richard T. Crane II, was the first U.S. Ambassador to Prague under President Woodrow Wilson.) "Yes, I think [about] that all the time, and I wonder what FDR and Eleanor spoke about here with my great-grandparents. Was Churchill thinking of being PM in the future when he was here in ‘36? And I had no idea Lindberg was so handsome!" Meanwhile, I am left to wonder what my daughter's ancestors, particularly her great-great aunt, Lady Nancy Astor (Nancy Witcher Langhorne Astor), must have discussed with Andrea's great-grandparents. They likely talked politics (and maybe Churchill!) with Nancy Astor and decorating and gardening with Astor's niece, Nancy Lancaster. I suppose we'll never know. But it is an intriguing thing to think about. And because so many people--dignitaries and luminaries, alike--came to call on the Cranes at Westover, I can't imagine the questions she must have. What fun it must be to think about this sort of thing while heading up the grand staircase or sitting in the parlor or hosting a dinner party for 12 in the lovely dining room. But I have gone astray. (It's so difficult not to go in all different directions when thinking about Westover. There are just too many things to captivate the imagination when it comes to this special place...) Now that we have the history of the property all untangled, it’s time to move to the grounds--and to the exterior of the house. While the interior is incredible to see and to learn about, the exterior is what is so recognizable to history lovers the world over.
The Exterior of Westover
Now that we have the history of the property all untangled, it’s time to move to the grounds--and to the exterior of the house. While the interior is incredible to see and to learn about, the exterior is what is so recognizable to history lovers the world over.
The house is universally viewed as being one of the first and finest examples of Georgian architecture in America. And the “Westover Door” is only part of the reason for such an honor.
The structure, the structure’s famous door and even the siting and landscaping of the house are all important parts of what makes Westover such a perfect example of the English Georgian manor house--of a simple, elegant house that is truly one with its natural surroundings. Upon entering Westover, after having meandered down the long tree, meadow and farmland lined drive to the house, the first thing that comes into view is an impressive display of boxwood that delineates the formal garden, which contains eight formal garden rooms and too many different flowers, plants, trees and shrubs to count. And then...the incredible wrought-iron gate. An imposing, yet beautiful and graceful work of art, the gate stands majestically guarding the house and its immediate grounds and gardens. This gate, along with the other two wrought-iron gates on the property, is one of three 18th century English wrought-iron pieces created and imported specifically for Westover. On the north side of the house, the wrought-iron clairvoyee (photo below) serves as the modern “front gate” and is particularly delicate and seems to me almost feminine in nature, with its graceful curves, its relatively thin balustrades and its finials of stone, each carved into a shape representing one of the icons of virtue: along the clairvoyee is an acorn, representing perseverance; a pineapple for hospitality; a Greek key, representing wisdom; an urn with flowers to signify beauty; a cornucopia for abundance; and a bee hive, which represents industry. William Byrd’s initials also happen to be woven into the ironwork on this gate, as well.
The Byrd coat of arms tops the side gate that marks the entrance to west lawn (photo above).
Once inside the gates, the expansive lawn leading down to the James River, the 150+ year old tulip poplar trees and the mature boxwood lining the pathway up to the house, propel the visitor into another world. It is easy to imagine how the earliest inhabitants of the grand house and its property must have loved it.There are eight garden rooms, arranged in a large square, on the west side of the property. They are formal gardens with a variety of plants, flowers and trees growing abundantly. On my last visit, I remember seeing tree peonies, phlox, poet’s laurel, boxwood, dogwood and more varieties of plant material than I think I’ve ever seen in one place! I asked Andrea a bit about the garden. She told me that the the Westover gardens contain too many different kinds of plants, flowers, trees and shrubs to count (so I'm not off base in thinking that there is *quite* the variety!). She also mentioned that Westover’s gardens are known in particular for its tree peonies and old lilac and poet’s laurel.
And while these gardens were planned and created by Mrs. Clarice Sears Ramsey around 1899, Andrea told me that the gardens that existed during the Byrd family tenure on the property, though no records of them are available, were well known around Europe as being some of the most beautiful and lush gardens in the colonies. When I asked about the boxwood in the garden and along the south entrance to the house, Andrea told me that "...some old trunks are easily several hundred years old, but most of what is alive and growing today is in the 130-180 year old range." Wow. That is true Virginia boxwood for you! Finally, I asked about the Westover crops, because Westover is still a working farm. According to Andrea, "historically, tobacco was grown for commercial sale, and grain crops were grown to feed workers and family. Today, wheat, corn and soybeans are grown here." There is quite a history, then, not only with the house itself, but also with the land and how the land was and is used for farming and growing.
Further Details and
Notes Regarding the Interior
So let's turn back to the house and sum things up...The house itself is a three story brick structure, simple and symmetrical in form and perfectly proportioned. The steep pitch of the roof tops off this incredible example of English Georgian architecture as it was interpreted in the Colonies. The dependencies to the east of the house (the ice house, the “necessary”, the original kitchen and a few barns) are also in keeping with Georgian estate planning. Perhaps the most iconic element of the house, however, and certainly one of my favorites, is the “Westover doorway.” The doorway, which is composed of stone, “consists of Composite order [‘descriptor for the fusion of the Ionic and Corinthian’] pilasters supporting a broken ogee pediment and a full entablature with pulvinated frieze. The design is a replication of Plate XXVI in William Salmon’s Palladio Londinensis (London, 1734), described as a “Frontspiece and Door of the Composite order.” (From Calder Loth’s 8/12/2012 ICAA publication, "The Composite Order, An Overview: Classical Comments by Calder Loth") The doorway, so imposing and formal, while also so simple, is one of the most recognized and replicated architectural elements in America. See below for photo illustrating the replication.
Inside the house, there are several notable elements that are not to be missed. The first is the grand stairway, situated to the left in the off center entrance hall. The wood panelling running along the stairway is said, along with most of the other ornamental millwork throughout the house, to have been imported from London. The front to back view from and through the entry hall is also quite lovely, though its original purpose was more utilitarian than aesthetic. Many houses of the south incorporated these to provide for cross breezes in the heat or for fresh, crisp air in the fall. Westover Staircase.
Note wood panelling and curved/turned balustrades. Also note a bit of an ornate ceiling element in the entry hall. The parlor ceiling was notable for its ornamental designs in plaster, and there is a wonderful photographic exhibit of the restoration of the plaster ceiling that provides a detailed, step by step explanation of the restoration (which was required because of water damage). But interestingly, according to S. Fiske Kimball’s “Domestic Architecture of the American Colonies and of the Early Republic,” (1922), the presence of plaster and of intricate designs in plaster was rare for the colonies. Meanwhile, much earlier, William Dunlap, in his “History of the Arts of Design in the United States” (1834), vol. 1, pp. 286ff., proposed that most of the house was actually imported from London. He included in this theory that the bricks used to build the house, along with some of the interior elements, including all of the wood panelling, all of the hinges, the marble overmantels/chimneypieces and the facings for the fireplace openings in the house--all were likely imported. And that would also mean that the ceilings and their ornate molds would also have to have been imported. That theory has been questioned through the years, and I’m not certain of what the current state of thought is on the issue. I just know that the entire house is beautiful. As you can undoubtedly surmise from my “post,” which reads more like a “book” (!!), I love everything about Westover. But even with all of the natural and man made beauty, my favorite thing about the house is that it is so alive. The Erdas are perfect stewards of this magnificent and special property. They cherish and appreciate the past, but they also focus on the present and the future. They don’t tiptoe around the house. They live in it, as it was meant to be lived in. And they care for it as it was meant to be cared for. Their children are growing up in a way that not many children do in this day and age (aside from the fact that most of us don’t grow up in such historically important houses!). They are free to roam and play and explore, but they, too, contribute to the success of the household. They are growing up as responsible stewards of a national treasure. And they, along with their parents (and their pets!) are what make this magnificent house a true home. Enjoy your day!