Preservationists raise a glass to innovative restoration of Menokin
Sarah Pope led curious visitors through the gaping hole in the foundation that was once the household entry for Menokin, the home of Francis Lightfoot Lee, and a fine example of Georgian architecture when completed in 1771.
"Some people think it's a shame that we don't simply rebuild the house using traditional historic preservation techniques," said Pope, executive director of the Menokin Foundation, gesturing around her at what little remains standing of the house.
But the foundation has something entirely different in mind for Menokin, the only home of a Virginia signer of the Declaration of Independence yet to be restored.
Theirs is a bold plan to transform what remains into a visible showcase for 18th century building techniques using 21st century technologies.
Of the original house, only one quarter of the plaster, floorboards, and framing are somewhat intact, partially protected by a tall, open carport structure that mostly protects the remains from rain and the occasional winter snow.
One of the visitors was Craig Williams, a plumbing contractor from Bucks County, PA. He was visiting his cousin, who owns and is restoring another colonial era home nearby.
As they looked over the corner of the cellar, where the ceiling and floor are simply gone, Williams shook his head dubiously. "I don't know. This seems like an amazing undertaking." One had the feeling he was holding back his judgment.
Pope agreed. She explained with enthusiasm, "We want to do something different with this property than other historic buildings in Virginia."
It's hard to picture, but the foundation is methodically moving forward with plans to rebuild Menokin with as much of the original building material as possible. But first, they have to undertake what is known as "the glass house project."
The idea is to build a modular structural glass system that is integrated with the standing remains as a transparent enclosure that provides structural integrity and a template for future restoration.
Visitors to Menokin will literally be able to see through the walls during the reconstruction. Meanwhile, preservationists, under the direction of the foundation's advisers, will continue the slow work of restoring and conserving architectural elements so that they may eventually rejoin the original house.
This would not be possible if not for a few fortunate events that occurred during the 1900s as the house suffered a slow decline. In 1940, Menokin was exquisitely documented by the American Home Building Survey, a Depression era program of the Works Progress Administration. The drawings are held by the Library of Congress.
Adding to this was the surprising find of the original 1769 presentation drawings in the attic at Mt. Airy in 1964 by the Tayloe family. Mt. Airy was the home of Col. John Tayloe II, father of Lightfoot Lee's wife, Rebecca Tayloe.
John Tayloe II was one of the richest Virginia planters of his time and owned thousands of acres reaching from what is now Dulles Airport to well beyond Menokin. His dowry for Rebecca was 1,000 acres of land at Menokin and the construction of the house.
Francis Lightfoot Lee personally oversaw construction of the house during his early married years. While he was living at Mt. Airy with his in-laws, he regularly traveled to serve in the Virginia House of Burgesses. Pope said that it is quite possible he was also suffering from malaria.
"You can feel that they wanted to get this house up quickly," Pope told the small huddle of visitors standing in the intact wine cellar, a cylindrical brick arch that supports the floor above.
She pointed out how quality stonework was employed for the front and upper face of the house, while rougher sandstone blocks were used on the sides and foundation.
Pope encouraged her visitors to inspect the original mortar - made of local ground shells, sand and horsehair - and think about building a house in the 1700s.
"Everything that was needed to build this house came from the land right here or nearby. Here at Menokin, we can actually see the link between the natural and built environment. This is just one of the teaching opportunities for us."
What makes this ambitious reconstruction ultimately possible is that Edward Omohundro, who inherited the property from a relative in 1935, removed the interior paneling and woodwork to a storage facility for safekeeping in the 1960s.
In 1995, the Menokin Foundation was formed and received Omohundro's gift of 500 acres of the original plantation on Cat Point Creek and all of the original woodwork. Between 1995 and 2005, the foundation constructed the protective shelter over the house, built a visitors center and a conservation and storage facility. Then, in 2005, they brought the rest of Menokin "home."
James Zehmer, now historic preservation project manager at the University of Virginia, was working as a restoration carpenter for the firm hired to return the materials to Menokin.
He personally handled many of the pieces of Colonial era interior woodwork, helping to organize the woodwork and other building materials and artifacts in Menokin's conservation barn.
Because all of the building materials and components are from the colonial era, Zehmer said that "this site is pristine from a conservator's point of view."
Zehmer explained that the home was never really modernized as it passed from owner to owner after Lightfoot Lee's death in 1797.
From a naturalist's point of view, the Menokin plantation is also remarkable.
In 2005, the foundation deeded a conservation easement on 350 acres of Menokin to the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, which now boasts more than 8,500 protected acres along the river.
At the end of a quarter-mile trail is Cat Point Creek, which flows from its headwaters just a few miles shy of the Potomac River south across the "northern neck" of Virginia to the Rappahannock River.
Paddlers can use Menokin as a put-in for small, hand-carried boats. Visitors can also arrive by boat, following the creek up a few miles from the river to the landing at Menokin, once the connection to the highways of water that served residents of the Chesapeake in the 17 and 18th centuries.
While the main work of planning for the eventual restoration of the house continues, the foundation has added programs to serve its mission "to provide an internationally recognized learning center for heritage and natural resource conservation through innovative practices and technology."
Adult programs are offered in partnership with nearby Rappahannock Community College. Local master naturalists have written nature trail guides for school groups and other visitors. There is also an annual Menokin bluegrass festival.
And then there is the man himself, not nearly as well-known today as so many of the other founding fathers, though this may change as Menokin finds prominence on the itineraries of preservation scholars, tourists and history buffs.
Francis Lightfoot Lee, or "Frank," as he was known to close associates, was one of the sons of Thomas Lee, whose family dynasty included William Lighthorse Lee, father to General Robert E. Lee.
Francis and Rebecca Lee had no children of their own, but were second parents to several of his brother's children. He was known to be a quiet man, more inclined to books and a life of the mind than the political action of his time, to which he lent his talent and confidence.
Francis and his brother Arthur were both heavily involved in the continental politics of 1770s and 1780s that led to the American Revolution and both signed the Declaration of Independence.
In 1877, Mark Twain wrote in an essay: "A sketch of Francis Lightfoot Lee can be useful for but one purpose, as showing what sort of material was used in the construction of congressmen in his day; since to sketch him is to sketch the average congressman of his time."
Contractor Williams exited the house structure at the conclusion of the tour. He stood back and looked at Menokin, surveying the ruins with a new appreciation. "I'm a convert," he said.
Sarah Pope laughed, not at all surprised by this change in attitude. Enthusiasm about the project is infectious and common.
There's something both humble and extraordinary about both the place and the project of Menokin. Here, a remarkable vision and a commitment to the future is embodied in the ground-breaking reconstruction of the home Francis Lightfoot Lee, a quiet founding father.
Francis Lightfoot Lee's Menokin
The Menokin grounds are open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, November through April, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, from May through September.
The Visitor Center is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday year-round.
To assure a guided tour, including access to the house and conservation barn, visitors are encouraged to call ahead.
Amenities include hiking trails, access to Cat Point Creek and self-guided tours of the land. Menokin is dog-friendly.
Menokin is located four miles north of the intersection of Routes 3 and 360 at 4037 Menokin Road. (VA 690) in Warsaw, VA.
For information, call 804-333-1776. The website email@example.com has extensive resources about Menokin, Francis Lightfoot Lee, and the glass house project.
To learn about other Chesapeake Bay Gateways sites, visit www.baygateways.net.
- Category: Heritage + History
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