J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Challenge of Carter’s Grove

I first visited Colonial Williamsburg a little over twenty years ago. [It appears that folks in Virginia think they had something to do with the Revolution as well. Who knew?]

One of the things I most enjoyed about that trip was visiting Carter’s Grove, a plantation mansion some distance from the restored village. And a big part of that site’s appeal was figuring out the story behind it.

It seemed clear that Colonial Williamsburg acquired that property in 1969 only because one of the Rockefellers on its board insisted. Other folks in the institution felt saddled with this white elephant of an estate, its main building so altered from its original in the early 1900s that it was impossible to interpret it accurately as a colonial structure.

But then it turned out that the grounds included one of the most significant archeological sites of the British settlement of North America: Martin’s Hundred, or Wolstenholme Town. Colonial Williamsburg archeologists ended up doing many years of work there, and its curators created a museum for the artifacts and preserved the site.

As for the house itself, it was still an interpretive headache. The main outbuildings had been connected to the mansion and the whole house expanded, so it no longer had the size or profile of a genuine Georgian home. When I went, Colonial Williamsburg had come up with three solutions. An outdoor tour highlighted those architectural changes. The grounds had been equipped with barns, enclosures, and livestock to show the lives and work of enslaved farmworkers.

Finally there was the interior of the house, interpreted to display the Colonial Revival and how Americans thought about and celebrated the Revolutionary period in the early 1900s. But that proved a challenge for visitors. Most tourists came wanting to see how Revolutionary America looked. Being shown how our recent ancestors thought Revolutionary America looked, or should have looked, or would have looked if those people had had the benefit of iceboxes and sewing machines, was just confusing. In 2003 Colonial Williamsburg shut the site to figure out what it was doing.

Four years and one hurricane later, the organization sold the mansion to a dot-com millionaire for over $15 million, most in a loan to the new owner. However, as the Washington Post reported, he never moved in. Within a few more years he announced that he couldn’t keep making payments on the loan. There was a lot of concern about whether the house was falling apart.

Government agencies intervened, and a trustee was appointed to handle the property. This spring the Carter’s Grove mansion went back on the market. And when the auction ended last week, the winning bid was from…Colonial Williamsburg.

According to the modern Virginia Gazette, “Colonial Williamsburg bid $7.4 million, which is equivalent to the balance it is owed on the property.” Thus, the institution received about $7 million and ended up with the same property as before, but probably has to spend a lot to restore it. And it’s still unclear how to interpret the property for the public.


Joe Bauman said...

If I were a Colonial Williamsburg director, I would advocate ripping out the newer additions and restoring the property to the approximate condition it was in during the Revolutionary period. Isn't that what they did with most of their acquisitions?

J. L. Bell said...

That might be possible, but I don't think it would be easy (or Colonial Williamsburg might have done it already). The additions aren't just a new wing. They're brick structures connecting the original house to its closest outbuildings, and at least some of those original structures have also been expanded to the rear with more structural rebuilding and brickwork. The plumbing, electrical, and air-conditioning systems were undoubtedly constructed for the whole house as it exists now.

Would that work be worth it? Carter's Grove is a bit of a drive from Colonial Williamsburg. Twenty years ago I found the winding road through woods to be charming, but these days tourists are spending less time at historic sites and may be even more reluctant to make such a side trip. Also, the road would have to be maintained; the hurricane I wrote about above closed it for a long time last decade.

Finally, in reading up on Carter's Grove, I learned that Colonial Williamsburg owns another colonial-era plantation house closer to its main site. I don't know the state of that house, but the museum might well be able to interpret plantation life there more easily than at Carter's Grove.

meryka said...

You might be interested in a ghost story about Carter Hall:
Virginia Ghosts
By Jenny Lee, Marguerite du Pont Lee


J. L. Bell said...

In September 2014, Colonial Williamsburg announced that it had sold Carter’s Grove again. This time the buyer is a corporation headed by someone with experience in restoring and preserving old properties.