by Henry Lane Hull
Last week I traveled up to Stratford Hall for the annual open house commemorating Robert E. Lee’s birthday. My focus in going there this time was to see the re-restored dining room. Several years ago The Robert E. Lee Memorial Association, which owns the plantation, began an extensive re-interpretation of the mansion’s appearance.
When the association acquired the estate in 1929 it commissioned the noted neo-classical architect, Fiske Kimball, to supervise the restoration prior to the house being opened to the public. Kimball was a great admirer of Thomas Jefferson’s architectural ability and saw himself as carrying on the tradition of Jeffersonian neo-classicism.
In that vein he sought to return Stratford Hall to what he considered would have been its 18th-century appearance. In the process he removed a staircase that had been installed by General Lighthorse Harry Lee and did away with General Lee’s amendments to the dining room. Fortunately, many of the architectural pieces that he removed were kept in storage, thereby becoming the primary resources for placing them back where they had originated.
In the current system, under the supervision of the late Paul Reber, the executive director of the association who died in 2015, the stairway was re-installed and the Federal parlor returned to its design during General Lee’s stewardship. The dining room has undergone the most profound re-interpretation of all. A separating wall has been moved back to where the General had placed it, and the original colors there have been researched and repainted. The room is spectacular, as is the Federal parlor, also returned to its early nineteenth-century color.
Kimball was a great student of the past, but I think at Stratford Hall he overdid himself. Buildings have organic lives and the additions to the mansion that were incorporated by Lighthorse Harry Lee were integral parts of the building’s history. Because of the recent undertakings, the visitor there today sees the home more as it has evolved over almost three centuries, thus bringing it alive for our time and making the many historical figures who lived there real people as opposed to being mere passersby in history books.
On the first floor the on-going research has brought about a transformation of the large storeroom, located directly under the Great Hall, back to a more plausible understanding of its original purpose. A small section of the ceiling has been left open for visitors to see the massive floor joists and the underside of the flooring of the Great Hall.
Briefly in his early career Kimball was the founding chairman of the University of Virginia’s Department of Art and Architecture and although he left that position to serve for the last 30 years of his life as Director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Virginia remained a vital part of his life. He supervised the restoration of Monticello and designed for himself a Jeffersonian inspired retreat, “Shack Mountain,” two miles outside of Charlottesville.
The latter structure he modeled after Jefferson’s design for “Farmington,” and when he died in 1955, he left the property to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which in turn sold it to an engineering professor at the University of Virginia. The property is a mountain villa similar to Monticello with broad views of the outlying hills and vales. “Shack Mountain” recently was on the market for $3.25 million, down from the initial asking price of $4.4 million.
The work at Stratford Hall is not complete, for as more research is undertaken and more learned of the growth of the mansion over the course of its near three centuries, the understanding of its passage will continue to be re-examined and re-presented.
As I have written on many other occasions, particularly here in the Northern Neck, a visit to Stratford Hall should be part of the curriculum of every local school system. The home and grounds comprise one of the foremost historic preservation projects in America, the study of which affords a splendid way to teach students about the history of our nation.