Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Big Old Houses: A Virginia Plantation

Big Old Houses: A Virginia Plantation
by John Foreman


Here I am at the gate to Oatlands, built in 1804 outside Leesburg, Virginia by a great slaveholder named George Carter (1777-1846). Carter didn't live to see it, but in the wake of the Civil War his son, George II, was reduced to running Oatlands as a boarding house. But I digress.

Oatlands' builder was the great-grandson of Robert "King" Carter (1662-1732), the richest man in the American colonies. How rich? Answer: 330,000 acres and 1000 slaves rich, not to mention profits from 47 plantations and the (undoubtedly profitable) royal governorship of Virginia. King Carter was a remote and powerful autocrat who, as the saying goes, ate lesser men for breakfast.
King Carter's grandson, Robert "Councillor" Carter III (1727-1804) had 17 children — (poor Mrs. Carter) — the 15th being Oatland's George. Young George's share of the Carter land empire came down to three tracts, the largest covering some 3400 acres just south of the little town of Leesburg. "Councillor" Carter was called the "First Emancipator" because he freed 500 of his slaves. His son George, a different breed of cat, started out at Oatlands with 17 slaves, then bought, sold and steadily increased their number during the rest of his life. "I do not understand the management of slaves," he once confessed, oddly, in a letter to his sister, Sophia, "neither do I think you do, or that either of us ever will."
Dulles Airport may not be close to Washington D.C., but it's quite close to Leesburg. This has had the predictable effect of transforming a once rural town, founded by planters in the 1730s, into a commuter suburb of splanches, garden apartments, and 12-lane boulevards lined with America's usual cast of big-box and mass-market retailers. At least, that's the way it looks on the east. Go west or south and old Virginia still survives, albeit invaded here and there by condo clusters. The views from Oatlands, now protected by viewshed legislation, are wonderfully intact. Alas, the music of birds and fields is underscored by the unrelenting rumble of truck traffic on Route 15.
The Carters laid out extensive terraced gardens east of the house. Indeed, they rest within them to this day, in a hillside mausoleum. Oatlands' gardens were rescued from ruin in the early 20th Century by the last private owners, about whom more shortly.
Sometime in the late 1820s or early '30s — maybe in anticipation of a late life marriage (in 1835 at age 58), or maybe not — George Carter gave Oatlands a very thorough makeover. The view below shows the north, or back, elevation of what had formerly been your basic (and slightly boring) 5-bay, center hall, provincial Georgian brick house with hipped roof surmounted by a large glazed lantern. (Think: Colonial Williamsburg). As part of this makeover the three center bays on the back were blown out and replaced by 3 new floors of elegant octagonal rooms — well, octagonal on the first and second floors and subdivided on the third. Matching hexagonal wings containing twin staircases were attached to each end.
The south-facing entrance facade received a more impressive facelift. Carter, the rich southern planter, had a 2-story porch with grand Corinthian columns fabricated in New York, shipped south by packet, then dragged to his Virginia plantation by teams of oxen. The front door and Paladian window above it were likely features of the original house. The additional fenestration on either side of the porch, the third floor above it and, of course, the flanking wings were all new. Oatlands' original brick walls were covered with stucco and, at least in the beginning, scored to give the appearance of stone blocks.
"I comfort myself in knowing," George Carter wrote, again to his sister Sophia, "that I have no mulatto children — It is a Sin, I am only answerable for, to my God." Which may explain why they kept running away. "(A)s soon as they leave me," he continued, "I consider myself absolved from every type of affection." As for the annoying proximity of judgmental Quakers and the Underground Railroad, Carter struggled "with the most enthusiastic and invincible opposition in the recovery of my property, from the Quakers and others. The sneers, the contempt, and scorn of the whole mass of aiders, advisors, and accomplices of runaway slaves ... (are) ... now triumphing at my shame."
Perhaps the specter of mulatto children led him in 1835 to wed the rich Widow Lewis of Upperville, VA. He was 58, she was 39, and before his death, 11 years later, they produced two sons. Elizabeth Osborne Grayson Lewis Carter (1797-1885), seen below holding a plant before a watercolor of her house — actually, only one of her houses — has a deceptively schoolmarmish air for a woman who, according to the 1860 census, owned 133 human beings. The Battle of Ball's Bluff, fought outside Leesburg in October, 1861, was a Confederate victory, but close enough to Oatlands to rattle the Widow Carter. She packed up forthwith and departed with an entourage of slaves and household good for Upperville, leaving son George in charge of Oatlands.
Now we come to "Gone with the Wind" territory, a world where impoverished southern aristocrats do what must be done in order to eat. George Carter II, married since 1863 to another Upperville belle named Katherine Powell, tried without success to make Oatlands a paying farm, then a genteel girls boarding school, and finally a summer boarding house. Here they are, the boarders that is, in 1895, gathered on the porch of a pretty dispirited looking Oatlands, gazing over an ad hoc tennis court that has been laid out on the lawn.
But wait, it gets worse. In 1897, the last of the Carters sold Oatlands to Stilson Hutchins (1838-1912), founder of the Washington Post. Hutchins locked the place up, never moved in, dawdled around for six years while it filled up with bats and bugs, before finally selling it in 1903.
The new owner was William Corcoran Eustis (1862-1921), grandson of the famous philanthropist and art gallery donor William Wilson Corcoran (1798-1888). (He was also, coincidentally, the brother of my Millbrook landlord's grandmother). Eustis and his wife, Edith Livingston Morton Eustis (1874-1964), installed bathrooms, a heat plant, gaslights, pulled out a labyrinth of rooming house partitions, restored the formal gardens, cleaned, painted, repaired and restored Oatlands to a level of luster that probably exceeded its antebellum state.
These were distinguished people. The Harvard educated Eustis served as an American diplomat in London, then as a captain on "Black Jack" Pershing's staff during the First War. Not surprisingly, he became Director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington. In 1900, shortly before purchasing Oatlands, Eustis married the daughter of former New York Governor and U.S. Vice President (under Harrison) Levi P. Morton (1824-1920). Mrs. Eustis occupied Oatlands until her death in 1964 at the age of 90.
What Oatlands lacks in Beaux Arts sophistication it makes up for with pedigree. Design-wise, it is a lavish antique, somewhere on an arc between high style American Federal and Greek Revival. The Eustis upgrades, largely completed by 1908, barely affect the early 19th century architectural gestalt. The furniture, most of which looks as it did in Mrs. Eustis' time, lends a delicious air of old family upper class authenticity.
Oatlands' Regan Reedy took me on an excellent tour that did not omit one square inch of floor space.
The front door (below at right) opens directly into an elaborately detailed hall, which in turn mediates access to an open fan of principal rooms. The smoking room on the southeast is dead ahead; the dining room on the northeast is through the door beside it; an octagonal drawing room on the north is behind the door on the left. Both the library on the northwest and the reception room on the southwest are behind the camera.
The view below looks the other direction, towards reception room and library on the left and right respectively.
The north-facing drawing room is on axis with the front door. Oatlands is a place where so many things have been done right that I hesitate to criticize anything at all. That said, the drawing room furniture was recently removed for better access, and if it were up to me, I'd put it back.
I'm all for decorators whose rooms convey an aura of luxe the likes of which the client's parents would hardly recognize. However, like poker players around a baize table, rooms have "tells." Family photos in black and white, fringed lampshades, a lot of real books, good antiques mixed with comfortable but undistinguished overstuffed sofas, faded slipcovers, actual ancestors on the wall, and always something (a cup, a statuette) relating to horses, are figurative boxes that not everybody can check.
The small reception room is located on the southwest corner and reads today as more of a passage to the western staircase. Tucked back here is a Eustis era powder room.
From the foot of the western stair, we'll reverse direction and cut across the library and main hall to the door of the smoking room on the southeast corner.
Beyond the smoking room is the eastern stair. Question: Which of these was the main stair? Answer: I don't think there was one. Let's turn left and have a look at the dining room where, among other decorative items, a frame on the wall contains a lock of George Washington's hair.
The dining room also connects to the eastern stair, but instead of going up, we'll head down to the kitchen suite.
The servants, when Oatlands was built, were slaves whose comfort was not overmuch on their owner's mind. Mr. & Mrs. Eustis modernized kitchen and pantries in the style of 1908, after which — except for the occasional insertion of a new appliance — these rooms remained virtually unchanged. Current kitchen excavations have exposed the original cooking fireplace, although where this project is going is unclear.
The servant hall below is adjacent to the western stair. However, we are returning east, for reasons I've forgot, to take the eastern stair to the second floor.
There's a hall bath at either end of the 2nd floor bedroom corridor. Here's the bath on the east.
The bedroom hall is accessed at either end by the two identical staircases. This is practical in an antique sort of a way but hardly a Beaux Arts solution. Oatlands has no "back stair." Two guestrooms are located at this end of the hall, two are on the west, and the owners' bedroom is in the middle.
The owners' bedroom sits above the drawing room. Unlike other bedrooms on this floor, it has its own (disarmingly rural looking) en suite bath. I doubt Ogden Codman decorated Mrs. Eustis's bedroom, but the light colors, charming fabrics and French furniture are very much his look.
The hallway passes another pair of bedrooms before arriving at the hall bath on the west.
Let's backtrack to the middle of the house and take the stair to 3.
Old houses are like horses; in certain ways they're all the same.
I think we've now seen Oatlands.
In 1965, Margaret Eustis Finley (seen below) and her sister Anne Eustis Emmet, gave Oatlands on 261 acres to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Trust's founding chairman, not coincidentally, was Mrs. Finley's husband David. Mr. Finley was also the first director of the National Gallery of Art, chairman of the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts and, interestingly, director of the famous Roberts Commission, whose W.W. II exploits against art-thieving Nazis inspired the film, "The Monuments Men."
Ten thousand visitors tour Oatlands every year, while another 30,000 attend dog shows, horse races, harvest festivals, etc., etc. on the property. Thanks to recent acquisitions, the estate now covers 415 acres, not counting protected viewsheds. Many thanks to the Oatlands Historic House and Garden Archives for use of vintage images. The link is: www.oatlands.org.
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