I am currently reading Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow, a monster-novel that spans George Washington’s life from cradle to grave. Don’t ask how far I’ve made it through the 928 pages – I’ll probably lie anyhow. As I read, sitting on the couch with a Virginia bourbon, just down the road from Washington’s birthplace in the historic Northern Neck, I can’t help but turn to the election results of the day’s presidential primary.
It’s hard to read this book about the very messy, bloody birth of our nation while simultaneously watching and hearing our current presidential candidates verbally attack each other for the top of the electoral heap. In some ways, the story today mirrors the dirty and divided process of our early formation. And yet, it’s hard for my sensitive ears to hear, after we’ve come so far to honor and protect the rights and freedoms of all our neighbors. It makes me wonder if our memories are so poor that we can behave like the past two centuries of progress and difficult passage didn’t matter.
I’m not really sure why I’m even writing this post except to encourage everyone to stand in the shoes of our ancestors, listen to the stories that have been told, and truly hear the moments that reverberate through history as milestones of our collective experience. You don’t have to be a lover of history to do this and you don’t have to read 928 page biographies, but you can visit historic sites, research your family history, read the cliff notes, and begin to remember what others before you experienced as a grateful expression for the life that you live today.
One of the first questions people ask is if I’ve seen a ghost on the property or in the old house. Although there have been some unusual occurrences over the past two years, I can’t really say that anything has been a definitive experience. But interestingly, the house does come with a few ghost stories, passed down from generations of past residents. Here are two just before Halloween.
The Ghost Party
One of my favorite stories is of the ghost party at White Plains, as passed down through the Walker family, and finally to me over a cup of coffee in a Washington, DC cafe.
Alex and Caroline Walker stumbled across the listing for White Plains, an abandoned property from the colonial days. The manor house had been vacant for many years, passed between transient owners and developers that never found enough interest to fix up the place. Rumor has it that the house was used for cattle feed storage during the mid 1930s, a time when many of the windows were broken, the original weatherboard siding was falling off, and the roof had begun to collapse.
Having a personal interest in old houses, Mr. Walker hired a realtor to view the house for the first time. He and Caroline toured the grounds, entering on the first floor. After viewing the upper rooms, they proceeded to the basement. As they travelled to the east room that would later become the basement dining room, they heard people shuffling around in the upstairs living room just above them and the faint sound of voices. Confused that someone else would be in the house, they rushed upstairs to find an empty floor. Although further confused, they returned to the basement to continue the tour. In the same east room, they again heard the shuffling of feet on the floor above, this time it sounded more like dancing, rhythmic and strong. And there was the faint clinking of dishes and glass, as if a party were being had in the space above them. They rushed a second time to the upper floor to find, again, no one in sight, but they left with a few goosebumps.
Were there ghosts in the house that day? The remnants of a party from the 1700s? Did it unnerve the Walkers, we cannot know, but it certainly didn’t deter them from buying and renovating the old house at White Plains. In fact, it could have been Caroline Walker’s inspiration when she drew and designed their first party invitation for their new home. The photograph below is of an original invitation created by Mrs. Walker for parties during the 1940s. I am grateful to have been given one by her grandson, who told me this story.
A Death in the Attic
The second story that I’ve recently heard, and perhaps the more chilling of these two, is set in the attic. Renovated during 1940, the Walkers made the attic into a livable space. The children would sleep upstairs during the summer when the weather was warm. You can still see drawings along the fiberboard walls from probably the 1940s and ’50s where children used crayons when they were bored.
One of the Walker’s daughters recalls that she and her siblings were all quite afraid of the attic space, despite spending a lot of time there. The windows were over thirty feet off the ground, catching any extra moonlight that wasn’t swallowed by the trees. One night, the daughter awoke to see, outlined in the corner of the west room, the figure of a dressed woman hanging from the rafters. The story goes that the daughter remembered and told this story often.
Have I seen any ghosts swinging from the rafters? No, but I also don’t go looking for them! There is no doubt that many layers of history, experience, life, and death have filled these rooms. Some may find that unnerving, but I find it inspiring. If only these walls could talk.
We had something really cool happen at White Plains this summer. We found out the house’s construction date through Dendrochronology. Ever heard of it? I hadn’t either until our friends at the Fairfield Foundation and Camille Wells shared this fascinating process with us.
Since we moved to the house at White Plains, there have been so many possible dates offered to define its construction history: Legend places the house’s build date in the 1720s; the Thornley family bible talks about family members born there in 1750; architectural historians have placed it closer to 1815; and yet tax records place it at 1795! In an effort to definitively narrow down its build date, we requested that dendrochronologists William Callahan and Dr. Edward Cook perform a tree-ring analysis of selected structural timbers.
Did I need to know? No. But as someone who likes to know things based on fact, it’s a great feeling. And somehow it allows you to better understand the house within a specific cultural setting, time period, and life cycle in relation to the people who lived here.
Callahan and Cook describe the process’ history:
Dendrochronology is the science of analyzing and dating annual growth rings in trees. Its first significant application was in the dating of ancient Indian pueblos of the southwestern United States. Andrew E. Douglass is considered the “father” of dendrochronology, and his numerous early publications concentrated on the application of tree-ring data to archaeological dating. Douglass established the connection between annual ring width variability and annual climate variability which allows for the precise dating of wood material. The dendrochronological methods first developed by Douglass have evolved and been employed throughout North America, Europe, and much of the temperate forest zones of the globe.
Bill arrived at White Plains in early August for two days of sample collecting to complete the dendrochronological analysis of the timbers. He brought an elaborate, and very well-organized, tool collection that included several bores, all handmade by a famous dendrochronologist in Sweden. 13 samples, all oak, were collected from both the basement and attic timbers using the bores, heavy drills, and lots of patience.
The wood samples collected were processed in the Tree-Ring Laboratory, part of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University by Dr. Edward Cook following well-established dendrochronological methods. As described in the final report, “the core samples were carefully glued onto grooved mounts and all were sanded to a high polish to reveal the annual tree rings clearly. The rings widths were measured under a microscope to a precision of ±0.001 mm….A total of 13 oak samples were analyzed in the laboratory, with all 13 samples providing firm dendrochronological dates.”
The final analysis and report by Callahan and Cook dates the timber cutting and likely construction within a very specific time frame:
Selected timbers of the house strongly indicates a major construction (or renovation) phase for the building beginning in very late 1785 or early 1786. Cutting of the bark-edged timbers occurred … during approximately November to February of 1785 and 1786 respectively. Usage of the materials took place shortly thereafter, for close in situ inspection of the oak timbers indicated that most if not all of the materials were utilized soon after cutting, in keeping with historical woodworking and carpentry techniques. Thus, the specific year of this construction activity is most likely during 1786, perhaps eventually continuing into 1787. The consistency of the datings between elemental locations within the house is noteworthy.
Although the current structure can be dated to 1786, there is no evidence to disprove the theory of an earlier building on the same site. Thornley family stories and writings describe old Aaron Thornley as being born at White Plains in 1750, but it was likely in a different house elsewhere on the property or in an earlier house on the same site, assuming that the family folklore is even accurate. But THIS house can be undeniably dated to 1786, just three years after Aaron Thornley laid out the site plans for Port Conway, VA, making the house at White Plains one of the rare 18th-century buildings in King George County still retaining both its original footprint and historical integrity.
And now we know. I’m so glad that we took this opportunity while we had the chance. Bill was fantastic to work with and we, perhaps regrettably, gave him the unique cultural experience that is Horne’s restaurant. Oh, Bill… next time we promise to take you somewhere with more than one beer option!
Although too many to list, here are some of other regional dendrochronological projects that you may know, also completed by Callahan and Cook:
We received excellent news this week from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources – White Plains has officially been recommended eligible for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register! (For those process buffs out there, this means that our PIF, Preliminary Information Form, was approved.) The next step would be a full nomination application requiring a lot more research and digging (literally) into the archaeological and architectural elements of the property.
And on top of this news, I finally completed Part I of our state tax credit application, which means, if all parts are approved, we would be eligible to receive tax credits on any of the approved rehabilitation costs. Every little bit helps when you are doing a historic renovation on anything less than John D. Rockefeller’s budget!
In addition to sunshine, newly opened daffodils, and the promise of spring, the end of March brought a very exciting group of visitors to White Plains. A descendent of the Thornley family, by way of Major William and Major John Thornley, brought his family to Virginia to see the old Thornley family home in King George County.
They arrived early on a windy and cold Saturday, and we all had the chance to share a few stories about the Thornley family and the farm. It was only recently that they discovered the property was still standing. Family legend said that the house had burned. As you begin to piece stories together, we realized that the east part of the roof had burned sometime in either the late 19th century or early 20th century, just not to the ground. There are still some very charred members in the attic where an obviously raging fire likely opened up the roof. Luckily the east chimney was spared and the fire was caught in time to ensure that the house was still standing for their visit.
They even brought pictures taken in the 1920s that their great great grandmother, Jane Riding Thornley, had taken on one of her visits to the farm. Jane was born in 1870 and died in 1966 at the age of 95. We have two letters from her to two different owners of the property. She shared stories and her knowledge of the “old Thornley place,” as she called it. Although the pictures are only of the west elevation of the house, they are wonderful to have and shed new light on old questions. But like anything else, they also bring up many more questions. I am still hoping to find additional interior or other exterior photos that may be out there. Perhaps they’ve been destroyed, or they were never taken, or they are hiding in someone’s garage, never be found. Perhaps one day!
After some good stories, a bite of breakfast, and a tour of the house, we had to say farewell as they continued on their journey through Virginia. I am confident we will meet again, a new friendship. There is often a tie that bonds people together who share a common love of old spaces and times. The Thornley family gave much to the King George and local Virginia community of Port Conway. The house of White Plains still stands in their memory.
Every year, the Garden Club of Virginia welcomes visitors to over 250 gardens, homes, and historic landmarks across the state for Historic Garden Week. This spring in Fredericksburg, the Rappahannock Valley Garden Club graciously hosted guests at five historic properties in rural Caroline County. Two properties were close by in the small town of Port Royal and three others stood alone in vast agricultural areas along the Tidewater Trail.
I wouldn’t normally post about other historic houses, but I’m always curious to see how other historic property owners, particularly those in rural areas, live and maintain these big projects. Historic Garden Week is a great chance to be inspired and after several years of attending, this may have been my favorite tour yet.
The day started out with breakfast at Horne’s, a Port Royal landmark in its own right. Breakfast served 24-hours a day with my personal favorite: Fried quail, eggs over easy, home-fries, and a homemade biscuit. Yum!
From there, we headed toward the Rappahannock and saw Riverview(1846) and Townfield(1745). Even at the start of the day, the lines were quite long with enthusiastic tourists from Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Northern Virginia, the Shenandoahs, and Norfolk. Riverview definitely maintained a renovated, yet simple, presentation with basic furnishings, highlighting its river overlook. In contrast, Townfield emphasized its varied existence through the 17th and 18th centuries with a mix of period antiques, different architectural and building styles where additions met older elements, and quite a bit of sloping. I was actually quite surprised at the condition of the foundation showing a lot of settling and water damage over the years. The challenges and importance of keeping water away from an old brick foundation keep many a homeowner awake at night!
The next stop was Rose Hill. Although originally built around 1790, the home went through many changes and eventually burned in 1959 except for the chimneys, foundation, and part of the wings added in 1839. Rebuilt in the 1960s in stuccoed brick, the current owners that purchased the property in 2008 maintained this style and previous footprint while gutting and rebuilding most of the entire main house. It’s always a little confusing to know which part is actually historic and which part is a happy reconstruction. Either way, it’s a lovely home with fantastic gardens. This is a good article about the house’s rebuilding as featured in Architectural Digest. Another unusual element is that the home was purchased in 2008 with many 18th and 19th-century antiques that are noted as “original” to the home – at the very least, they have been there a long time. (And the view isn’t to be missed either!)
Moss Neck Manor(1856) was also on the tour with perhaps one of the best interior layouts of the lot. A long central hallway runs along the entire backside of the house, connecting each main room and making flow very easy. Although the interior design was a bit hodgepodge, the flower arrangements created by the garden club, as with each house on the tour, were exceptional. The best part about Moss Neck Manor is the English park-like setting with its numerous mature, towering trees.
The final stop was the gem of the tour, no doubt. Prospect Hill(1842) stole the show with its meticulous preservation, comfortable livability, bucolic setting, functional gardens, and (my favorite) the Scottish Highland cattle roaming the pastures out front. I was sold and thank goodness it wasn’t for sale… I might have cheated on White Plains. A big compliment to Dr. and Mrs. Angus Muir for their commitment to, and vision for, the property.
A great day to tour the Virginia countryside and a much-needed inspiration to enter the next phases of projects here at home. The bar has been set very high!
This little house sits in the east field, its date unknown. Some stories say that it’s a former servant’s quarters and others say that it was once part of the Owens’s farm, originally part of the larger White Plains tract. One story says that it was moved to its current location when it was threatened by the expansion of route 301. All of these stories could be true – a little research will hopefully reveal more. In the meantime, it looks perfect in the snow and I hope to start working to preserve it over the next couple of years. Anyone want to fund this preservation project!?
If Dr. Camille Wells, renowned architectural historian, were to wear the cap of Sherlock Holmes, we were certainly the eager sidekicks attached to her side like good Dr. Watson.
Camille joined us at White Plains on November 1st, last year, to support the ongoing investigation into the many outstanding questions about the property’s history. Some of these questions include the current house’s build date, understanding the various layers of renovation/restoration, and determining whether or not the highly regarded architectural historian, Mr. Thomas Tileston Waterman, had any hand in the most recent renovation in 1940.
The day was perfectly filled with many learning moments, some light demolition (Camille carries her own crow-bar and hammer wherever she goes!), and lunch to keep our spirits up as we moved from floor to floor.
The connection to Mr. Waterman is perhaps one of the most important and most interesting questions. Mr. Waterman (1900-1951) was an architect and architectural historian. He studied and published works on early American buildings, especially in the Tidewater, Virginia area, and between 1928 and 1932, worked on major architectural reconstruction projects at Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia.
Mr. Waterman actually lived in Port Royal, VA, very close to White Plains, during the time that Mr. Alexander Walker purchased the property in 1939 and began to restore it after many years of abandonment. There is a letter from Mr. Walker to the property owners in 1975 that describes the earlier restoration and references to Mr. Waterman’s involvement.
Mr. Waterman was known for making sketches of properties as he travelled from place to place. I am hopeful that a visit to the Waterman Archives at the Library of Congress in the next few weeks will be productive in proving Mr. Waterman’s connection to the house.
As we work toward the possibility of submitting White Plains for approval to State and National historic registers, there will be a great deal more research, learning, and investigation into its history and the cultural landscape of this area at that time. More to come – the journey is well under way!
More about Camille Wells: Camille Wells is a lecturer in the Department of Architectural History at the University of Virginia and at William & Mary. She worked as an architectural historian for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation and for the state historic preservation offices in Kentucky, Maryland, and North Carolina. She has held faculty positions at the University of Virginia, College of William and Mary, and at Mary Washington College. Her major areas of teaching and research include American architecture and landscapes from the period of early European Settlement to the Civil War, women and architectural issues, the theories and methods of material culture, and the relative contributions of architectural fieldwork, documentary investigation, and archaeological excavation to the making of good architectural history. She also recently won a grant from the Jessie Ball duPont Fund to complete dendrochronological analysis of a set of colonial Virginia houses for which dates of construction have long remained a mystery.
Mr. Alexander B. Gouldman purchased over 300 acres of White Plains at a public auction on the courthouse steps in the mid 1880s, after the death of its previous owner, Mr. James Slaughter Quesenberry.
The Gouldmans owned White Plains until the 1920s and were a well-known part of the local community. They were often cited in The Daily Star newspaper, a precursor to the Free-Lance Star that exists in Fredericksburg today.
Click on the images to see larger versions of the newspaper clippings that I found in my research. The first tells of Mr. Gouldman’s excellent hunting skills and his show at the County Fair and the other finds the family doing some weekend shopping in King George.
Mr. Gouldman and his wife, Virginia, loved and cared for White Plains for nearly 40 years and are now buried in the property’s small cemetery. Other graves are identified only with large quartz markers, one of a small child born to the Owens family in 1893. She lived just three days before being laid to rest. An archive letter from past residents of the property talk about the huge cedar tree that once covered the site. While only half of it is left, the periwinkle and small wild flowers still cover the ground.