The Grandest House in America…and Monticello

* This was jointly written by Nichole Lidstrom and Amelia Butler.

The Ruins of Rosewell

Four stories.  Sixteen fireplaces.  Dozens of intricate window keystones. A quartet of marble-topped chimneys. Roswell was the grandest structure that early eighteenth-century visitors to the house had ever seen, and yet most NIAHD students have never heard of it. The students and instructors of the Colonial Seminar met Dave Brown in the middle of a modern soybean field and walked up to the ruins of Rosewell much akin to how colonial visitors would have approached what was then a sprawling complex of brick structures lorded over by Mann Page, one of the wealthiest men in the colony (aka super-gentry). Though a fire in the early twentieth-century left only a few walls of the house standing to this day, students could feel the grandeur of the Page family seat as they stood in the shadow of the brick facade to escape the summer heat. Dave Brown told the students how the Pages carefully controlled access of certain rooms to their enslaved Africans and visitors by how the home and outbuilding were constructed. Architecture was control on a grand scale. The top 2% of the Virginia population used their wealth to construct physical symbols of their power onto the natural landscape and to control the access that the bottom 98% had to them. And it didn’t stop with private homes.

 

The Colonial Seminar headed next to Christ Church, the life-or-death mission of Robert

Historic Christ Church

“King” Carter. After lunch in the modern visitor’s center, students read out the tombstone of this larger-than-life character, a long list of accomplishments including serving as Acting Governor of the Colony of Virginia, the highest position a native-born Virginian could achieve at the time. Carter was king of the colony in the political realm, but like Mann Page, he had to prove it. So he ordered a grand Georgian house called Corotoman to be built and right next to it he planned out a beautiful brick church in the shape of a cross. In a relative wilderness like eighteenth-century Virginia, church services were a meeting place for Virginians of all classes. To construct a church near your private home, like Carter planned, was another way the super-gentry could control the bottom 98% of the Virginian population. Unfortunately King Carter didn’t survive long enough to see Christ Church completed, but he left money in his will for his heirs to complete its construction. NIAHD students toured the church where Carter’s heirs worshipped and gained a healthy respect for the difference between English and Flemish bond brick designs.

Rosewell and Christ Church
 

The Civil War class today took a long drive to another grand home, this one still standing.  Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello is arguably the finest example of Neoclassical architecture in the United States, and many would say it was Jefferson himself who popularized the style in the New World.  Students were treated to a house tour which examines many of Jefferson’s possessions and innovations and does a good job of putting them into context with his politics and time.  Unfortunately, due to a mix-up at the ticket office, we were unable to attend the plantation tour which examines the lives of Jefferson’s slaves more fully.  However, the house tour has improved markedly in the past several years in its own treatment of the grimmer side to Monticello’s story.

 
 
Monticello and Ash Lawn/Highland
 

After a delicious picnic lunch, we hopped a couple of miles over to Highland, the home of James Monroe (fifth president of the United States and another alumnus of William & Mary).  Like the contrast we saw on Friday between the homes of John Marshall and John Wickham in Richmond, the homes of Jefferson and Monroe in the countryside also display alternative interpretations of what an American was and ought to be.  Monticello, like Wickham’s house, is bold, striking, Neoclassical.  Highland (also called Ash Lawn by a later owner) is much more akin to Marshall’s plain, practical, Federal house.  Perhaps tellingly, Thomas Jefferson died over $170,000 ($2M today) in debt, while James Monroe died solvent and able to leave a small inheritance to his daughters.  Whatever differences there are between the two, however, probably meant little to those who constructed and ran both plantations — enslaved African-Americans.

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