Last week I took advantage of the local free day at Stratford Hall. I had wanted to see the changes that had been, and are being, made in the presentation of the plantation’s history. A new special exhibit, “Stratford at the Crossroads” gives a comprehensive presentation of the course of the property’s history and is a fitting place to begin one’s tour.
For those of us who have visited the plantation many times over the years, the most apparent change has been the removal of the massive magnolia trees on the west side of the house and the elimination of the formal garden beyond them.
Unfortunately, the extensive plantings of English boxwood are beset by the current boxwood blight that is decimating their numbers across the eastern half of the United States. I learned from the docent that the garden had been removed because of the blight and due to more current research that has indicated that such a planting would not have been laid out next to the service area. I miss it, as it was one of the finest examples of formal garden layout that I have seen.
The vegetable plantings have been reestablished off the east end of the house. To make up for the loss of the boxwood, some of those garden squares have been circumscribed by the planting of cylindrical yews. Yews are among the easiest shrubs both to propagate and to grow. Yew cuttings encompassing part new and part older growth readily take root, and they provide a solid dark green texture in establishing defined borders.
The most significant change to the house itself currently underway has been the removal of the exterior brick stairs on the east end of the mansion. When the house was undergoing restoration in the 1930s, the architect, Fiske Kimball, attempted to return it to what he conceived to have been its eighteenth-century appearance. In the process he obliterated much of the subsequent history. For the exterior entrances he designed four sets of stairs, which by modern historic preservation standards, would not hold muster.
The removal of the east set of stairs has assisted in maintaining the nearly three-hundred-year-old brick wall of the house, and it has afforded the opportunity to undertake substantial research into what the original stairs might have been. The course of this undertaking is open for visitors to observe and is instructive in producing greater understanding of current historic preservation techniques.
During his tenure as executive director of Stratford Hall, the late Paul Reber redirected the mission of the preservation effort to tell the whole story of the Lee ownership of the plantation. He saw to the restoration of the Federal Period parlor and most notably, that of the formal dining room. The parlor now holds the massive painting of William Pitt that previously had been displayed at the Westmoreland County Museum in Montross. Quite literally, Paul saw the whole picture, and was instrumental in bringing back heritage breeds to populate the farm operation as well, specifically the Red Devon cattle.
Fiske Kimball had removed several of the changes that had been made throughout the early 19th century by taking out a stairway installed by General Light-Horse Harry Lee, the Revolutionary War hero, and transforming the dining room into what he envisioned it might have been when the mansion was built.
Today the dining room reflects the early Empire taste of the last of the Lee owners. The partition between the dining area and the adjoining alcove has been moved back to its early 19th-century position, and some splendid American Empire furniture has been added to reproduce the aura of the time. The sideboard is of particular note.
Paul Reber died before his work was completed. His successors are continuing to follow the path that he had begun. The plantation is deserving of a visit from tourists and natives alike for it encompasses a great lesson in the history of the Northern Neck and our nation itself.