The grounds and gardens of Stratford Hall are like a pastoral ode to Georgian symmetry. Buildings, gardens and lawns follow strict geometrical patterns. Although the inspiration may be mathematics, the emotional effect is far from the cold world of geometry. Instead one gets a warm feeling of harmony and ease with nature. It's all the more an impressive aesthetic achievement because Stratford Hall was very much a working plantation.
1736 Site Plan (all drawings by Buchanan)
The site plan of Stratford Hall conforms to a strict mathematical design. As with the Great House itself, it follows a pattern dictated by squares, root 2 rectangles and equilateral triangles. The original site of 1736 was divided into equally sized squares 154 feet on each side. These were in turn subdivided into smaller squares 15.4 feet on each side.
As architectural historian Paul Buchanan explains, the designers took root 2 rectangles to fill out the design on the perimeter. One root 2 rectangle was put to the west side of the house. Another one [marked B on Buchanan’s drawing] went to the south and a third one [C] to the east in combination with the squares.
On the west side of the house was the Southwest Dependency comprising what became the Stables [marked L in Buchanan’s drawing of the 1736-1750 plan] and Southwest Out House [K]. To the east was the Southeast Dependency or what became the Kitchen [G] and Smokehouse [H]. There was a work yard between these two structures that was enclosed by a brick wall [F]. There was also a well [J], plus a meat house [I] next to the Smokehouse that has disappeared. There were two high walls [N &O] separating the north and south sides of the house which meant that a person had to go around to the garden to enter on the north side.
The north and south lawns immediate to the house fell within the two central squares of the grid plan [see them in Buchanan's overlay drawing of the 1736 plan]. Stretching north to the river and southward into the distance, the lawns were in Thomas's time open. The formal garden lay on the east side in the rectangle [C] Buchanan describes in the 1736-50 plan. The west side or paddock [A], also a rectangle, was likely a work area and a place where horses and other animals were kept and tended to.
1750 Site Plan
Thomas's son, Philip, who had learned to appreciate fine architecture while studying in England, made substantial changes to the 1736 grid plan. Buchanan is unsure of whether Philip was aware of the plan's existence. Nevertheless, he continued much of it, albeit with adaptations that he devised with the architect John Ariss.
Philip built two dependencies [B & C in Buchanan’s drawing of the 1750-74 plan] at the edge of the north lawn. One was an office [B] and another a gardeners tool shed or tool house [C]. On the southwest side of the house he added larger stables and a coach house [A] to support the work of the stud farm. The size of the East Garden was more than doubled, and it was enclosed on the north and south sides with brick walls [F & E]. Philip also added a "ha ha" wall [G] on the far eastern side of the garden, making it invisible to a viewer from the house and garden. He built an even larger ha-ha wall [R] on the south lawn that separated it formally from the fields.
This alteration changed the circulation manner of the site substantially. Guests now had to drive up to the ha-ha wall and walk up to the house or drive around the other side to enter the house through the river side. In Thomas's time guests could have come right up to the front of the house on the landside.
Symmetry still ruled in Philip's redesign, but he departed from his father's squares and rectangle design when he built the Octagon [K] and Ice House [L] on the north lawn. They form the two points of an equilateral triangle whose third point was the center of the house [see Buchanan’s drawing of the 1750-1774 site plan]. The placement of the slave quarters [I] and the matching buildings outside the ha-ha wall [Q] on the south lawn, one of which was a dovecote, also formed equilateral triangles, replicating in miniature the two large triangles centered on the house.
Not everything, however, conformed to mathematical principles. Philip added an ash house [H] in the kitchen yard and an animal shed [J] near the West Garden that were strictly practical. The animal shed was a wooden building placed just inside the brick-walled paddock area. In Buchanan's rendering of Philip's 1756-1774 grid plan it appears to be slightly unparallel to the paddock wall. Philip also built the springhouse on the grounds northeast of the house, and the burial vault on the far eastern side of the property that included large ornamental steps leading up to the top of the vault.
1796 Site Plan
Light Horse Harry's changes to the site were less dramatic than Philip's. His main alteration was to rebuild the stables and coach house [E & D in Buchanan’s drawing of 1796-1800 plan]. According to Buchanan, his reason for doing so was to get insurance. The old coach house and stable were too close together. To fix the problem he tore down the eastern most part of the old coach house and extended what remained to make room for three more coaches. The result is the larger stables and coach house we see today.
The two dependencies on the north lawn are today called Out Houses. They were built by Philip Ludwell Lee after the completion of the Great House and the dependencies on the south lawn.
The Northwest Out House was likely used as an overseer's office and is furnished today as such. The Northeast Out House may have been used as a gardener's shed (and likewise is furnished that way today). The large windows facing south would have provided ample light for potting and propagating plants. It is entirely possible, on the other hand, that it could have been what was called a "lumber room," or a general storage area.
The Octagon on the northeast corner of the north lawn was also built by Philip Ludwell Lee. It could have been the orangery William Shippen Lee mentions in his 1790 letter. Or it could have been a garden folly, a structure constructed mainly for decorative purposes. Frankly, it could have been used for any number of purposes, including storage or even an outdoor place for private meetings or tea.
The present eight-sided structure was designed by Architect Fiske Kimball who oversaw the restoration of Stratford Hall in the 1920s-30s. He based it on the original octagonal shaped foundation uncovered in the 1930s. In keeping with the mathematical symmetry of the Georgian ideal, the Octagon's eight sides doubly echo the four-sided squares and rectangles used throughout the design of the house and grounds.
The Stables and Coach House have gone through several changes. They have been restored to what they looked like during Light Horse Harry Lee's time. Before the restoration, the west end of the stables near the ravine had collapsed. The edges of the ravine had to be shored up and additional bays were added to return to coach house to its original length. Today the Coach House is filled with a variety of wheeled vehicles, including The Bremo Coach that was used by General Lafayette on his trip to Monticello in 1825. There's also a Laudaulette used by ladies as a fashionable coach. The tack room contains vintage era equine equipment such as whips, bridles, harnesses and saddles.
Reconstruction of Old Stables
The building on the right side of the Stables facing north was originally the stables. It disappeared in the 19th century and has been reconstructed based on the original foundation. An 1801 sketch showed it was made of brick and had a clipped gable roof covered with wood shingles and no chimney.
The Kitchen was among the first outbuildings ("dependencies") built at Stratford Hall. Located on the east side of the south lawn, it was a very busy place. It was used every day all year round, which was necessary to feed Thomas Lee's large family of eight children. The fireplace was huge, large enough in fact to "roast a whole ox," according to Stratford Hall's guidebook. The fire likely never went out, even in summer, and it was used not only to roast pigs and other meats, but to cook vegetables and fruits and to heat and boil water for culinary as well as medicinal purposes.
The smokehouse nearby was rebuilt in the 19th century, and like such buildings throughout Virginia, was used to salt and preserve hams and other meats. They were placed in boxes made from hollowed-out tree trunks and slowly roasted over smoldering hickory fires. The smokehouse is located at the corner of the Kitchen Yard. There raw food was gathered and prepared for cooking. In addition candles and soap were made and laundry chores were performed.
The people at Stratford Hall today have furnished the room adjoining the Kitchen as the Laundry. It may have been a dairy or larder as well. Like the Kitchen, the work of the Laundry was continuous. A family as large as Thomas's would have required a constant washing of clothes not only for the family but the house servants. In the display today is a reel for dipping candles. Here was yet another constant activity. It took hundreds of candles to light the house all year around.
The Southwest Out House is today used to begin tours of the Great House. It was constructed around 1742. According to insurance documents, it was a servant’s house, a servant’s hall and a work shop. The large room off the front door was where servants could eat, work and visit one another. Stratford Hall today interprets the two smaller back rooms as the bedchamber and office for the plantation's clerk, the keeper of financial and other information about the house's and plantation's operations. Sometimes clerks were young indentured boys, but for years William Lee clerked for his older brother, Philip. In the 19th century it is possible the building was used as a coachman's living quarters. The painting of the horse over the fireplace is attributed, by legend, to the coachman's daughter, Sally Payne.
The two stone buildings today designated as the Slave Quarters were reconstructed in 1939. They were the domicile for slaves and their families who worked in and around the Great House, called "home farm" slaves. Because they were built close to the house, buildings were constructed not of wood but of stone. The stone not only lessened the risk of fire but improved the appearance of the buildings. As in all slave quarters throughout colonial America, the furniture of beds and chairs were simple and made by the slaves themselves. Nearby a garden would have been planted in summer to supplement the slaves' diet with fresh vegetables and to sell or trade for services.
Stratford Hall's exhibit of the Slave Quarters focuses on two groups of people. One was an enslaved gardener names Anthony whose name appeared in the 1776 inventory. Other skilled male workers likely lived in the same space. Since women worked as field hands, it is possible that these men had wives who lived in other quarters. The other living space was for a woman named Nelly and her daughter Mary who also appear in the 1776 inventory. Artifacts dug up by archaeologies are displayed, such as cream ware dish fragments, a sewing needle and a shell button.
There were many other small quarters scattered across the plantation to house field slaves. Most would have been made of wood and not constructed nearly as well as these stone buildings. Those intended for field slaves were small and very crudely built, often no more than one room with dirt floors and a single chimney. They were sparsely furnished with built-in beds and pallets for sleeping on the floor or in an upstairs loft.
Interior of Slave Quarters
Slaves were usually provided with a blanket, iron pot and a hand mill for grinding corn. They were given only a minimum of clothing. Men received breeches, two shirts and shoes, while women were allotted shoes, two shifts and an extra petticoat (skirt) for winter. Clothes were made of osnaburg, homespun wool and coarse cotton. House slaves were clothed much better and sometimes were given hand-me-downs from the family. Enslaved coachmen and postillions were outfitted in special livery.
In 1782 there were 83 slaves spread throughout the plantation. This number included children and infants as well as adults. Children usually began working part-time in the tobacco fields at seven years of age. When not working the children they ran errands, watched other children or did odd jobs. Since slaves had little privacy, they often dug "cuddy holes" in the floors of their houses to hide their personal belongings. House slaves were often on duty at all hours, which meant that they would often sleep in different places depending on the circumstances, including on the floors inside the Great House itself.
Slaves were often highly skilled and even trained experts. Colonel Phil owned a group of skilled slave house carpenters and joiners that he hired out to other planters. His coachman was a slave, and two slaves, Titus and Caesar, served as postillions. Thomas had a slave named Boatswain who was likely in charge of river vessel and crew. This was a very important job. Roads were terrible and river travel was vital for transporting not only tobacco crops and supplies, but for travel to Williamsburg and other places for visits.
Beyond the reconstructed ha-ha wall in the East Garden is the Burial Vault. It is not a main burial site for the Lee family. Thomas was buried in the "Burnt House Field" site at nearby Mount Pleasant where his father, Richard Lee, had been laid to rest. Hannah was buried there, too, along with her son, Richard Henry Lee who had died at his estate in Chantilly.
It is likely that Philip Ludwell was the first to build a vault at Stratford Hall. He and his infant son were likely buried there, but it’s unknown whether his remains are still there. Henry Lee constructed a vault on the site as well, and possibly even brought Hannah's tombstone from Burnt House Fields to Stratford. In 1857 Elizabeth Storke tore down the brick house over top of the mound that contained the burial vault. The vault then fell into disrepair, causing Robert E. Lee to bemoan its wretched condition. What visitors see today in a reconstruction built by Fiske Kimball in 1936 over top the excavations discovered in the 1930s.
The Springhouses were hidden by the woods. The slave quarters for field hands were also nowhere in sight, and barns, buildings and work areas associated with plantation operations were likely not in view (at least not in easy view). Nevertheless, in spite of all this strenuous effort to keep the vistas aesthetically pleasing, planted fields could still be seen in the distance.
Not much is known about Stratford Hall's gardens and lawns. When the Robert E. Lee Memorial Association signed an agreement with The Garden Club of Virginia in 1929 to restore them, all that remained of the East Garden was a flat area overgrown with weeds, a few ancient beech trees, and a crumbling brick wall of uncertain origins. We know from a letter written in 1790 by Thomas Lee Shippen, grandson of Stratford's builder, that there were "gardens, vineyards, orangeries and lawns which surround the house." However, we don't know for certain the style of the gardens. Did they have, fruit trees and vegetables planted in the "18th century manner?" Or were they ornamental gardens planted in rose bushes, tulips and ornamental trees? Nor do we know even if there was ever a garden on the west side at all. More likely it was a service area used to support the work of the house.
On the north and south sides of the Great House are two formal lawns. The south lawn is a flat rectangular space divided from the fields and road by a ha-ha wall. The north lawn extends roughly to the edge of the northern dependencies where it stops at a small ravine. The views of the lawns from the house are magnificent. The northern vista is especially beautiful, a long view of narrow tree-lined fields rolling over hills and disappearing into the horizon. The Potomac River cannot be seen. It is almost a mile away and lay below the cliffs. But what can be seen--in fact all that can be seen in the far distance--is open sky, a metaphor for the infinite possibilities colonial Virginians imagined of the New World.
Formal lawns had been first developed in England and France in the 16th century. The first large park size lawns arose in the Jacobean period. It wasn't, however, until the early 18th century that landscape gardening reached its golden age. Under the direction of William Kent and Lancelot "Capability" Brown, large closely cropped lawns evolved into status symbols for wealthy English aristocrats. They were meant to show how owners could afford to keep large swaths of land free of buildings and the pedestrian activity of work. In England, park-like lawns (called "English Gardens") were elaborate displays of fields and trees in a natural setting, but at Stratford Hall the intent and effect were more modest. The lawns there were intended primarily as spaces from which to approach the house, and were only secondarily thought of as visual bridges to the views beyond.
Thomas Lee clearly envisioned the north and south lawns as formal spaces in the 1736 design. But it is most likely the lawns reached their peak under Philip's tutelage. He cared a great deal about his gardens and lavished a lot of attention and money on them. He was also one of Virginia's greatest entertainers and thus likely envisioned the lawns as stages on which to manage the comings and goings of visitors to the Great House.
How were the lawns mowed? We can only make an educated guess. It is likely scythes and sheers were used to cut the grass. The lawns may have been planted with seeds from England, since the natural grasses of Virginia were considered inferior. It is possible that family and guests played the popular game of "bowls" on the lawns. One can imagine also that the lawns were pleasant venues for quiet strolls beyond the hustle and bustle of the house, not to mention the prying eyes of other guests. Of the two, the south lawn was the most important, because it was the space in which people approached the house from landside.
View of House from Orchard
On the northeast side of the House and adjacent the North Lawn is an an orchard that was envisioned in the 1736 site plan.
In spite of all these uncertainties, the restorers of Stratford Hall made the best educated guesses they could abou the nature of the gardens. Today the East Garden is designed in a typical 18th century (1700-1812) English style garden. The 1930s plan was based on research by Herbert Claiborne of Richmond and Harvard University associate Morley Williams. Williams decided to enclose a 400 feet long garden space within brick walls. He graded the area into four descending terraces and planted English boxwoods to outline and divide the flat spaces (parterres) into to a large, irregularly elevated grid. The boxwood edged parterres were planted with a variety of bulbs, annual and perennial flowers. There were some old trees that were incorporated into the plan, but mostly new ones had to be planted. Fruit trees were also planted along the brick walls.
View Facing East
In 1955 Alden Hopkins, the landscape architect for Colonial Williamsburg, changed the layout of the East Garden. He simplified the complicated boxwood design of the early 1930s and eliminated several parterre beds. He then created a central walkway through a center oval to reach the upper terrace. He planted crape myrtles and flowering shrubs to add color and yellow locust trees for shade.
Today the East Garden has a large grassy area in its center surrounded by a circular arrangement of shrubs. It is reminiscent of Williams’ original design. The English armillary sphere was placed at the center of the oval in 1984.
The history of what used to be called the West Garden is complicated. Its original designer was New York landscape architect Umberto Innocenti who was hired in 1942 by the Robert E. Lee Memorial Association to develop the area west of the Great House. Old plans had shown the area as a paddock, and Innocenti's design envisioned it as a service area bordered by brick walls to the north and south. A grassy drive would cut through the space as the center axis.
Material shortages of World War II, however, complicated and delayed construction. Brick shortages were eventually overcome and the walls were built. But galvanized pipe to extend irrigation to the west area could not be procured. Some magnolia trees and holly hedges were planted, but the garden planting scheme was temporarily abandoned in the middle of the war.
When work on the West Garden resumed in 1963, it went in an entirely different direction. By this time Innocenti's plan had been abandoned. Alden Hopkins of Colonial Williamsburg had devised a flower bed plan in 1959, but it was not used. Instead in 1963 geometric flower beds were installed. In 1981 the vegetable plots were established by Stratford horticulturalist Ron Wade. A few years later new flower beds were planted that varied the height of the annuals and perennials. In addition small shrubs and herbs were added and stepping stones placed in their midst so visitors could get a closer look. The impetus for most of these decisions was to use the West Garden as an educational tool for understanding 18th century gardens, not as a replica of what had originally existed there.
Because so little was known about the original plan for the West Garden, its design was always subject to alterations. In the 1990s the results of several archeological investigations convinced Master Gardener Jacqui Shoaf to redesign the flower and vegetable beds. Brick walking paths were added to the beds to make access easier. In the late 1990s herb beds were replanted by Thomas Moles, the Director of Plantation Operations.
Today, once again the design of the space is being reconsidered. All evidence from the 1736 plan suggests that the area west of the house was a work yard. Moreover, archeological evidence has revealed remains of brick making, animal remains and trash midden. All this points to a work yard, not a formal garden.
View of Great House and Out Buildings from West Yard
As a result of these findings, this space is being restored as a work area called the West Yard. It is being restored as a space where animals were kept and servants worked in close proximity to the Great House.
About a mile and half from the Great House is the Mill. Perched on a bluff overlooking the Potomac River, it was built in 1939 on the foundation of the original building. Made of plank wood and placed on a stone foundation, Stratford Hall's mill was one of the first major reconstructions of a colonial era mill in America.
Thomas Lee purchased the original mill and surrounding parcel of land in 1743. Behind the building is a pond and dam that provides water for the mill-race. The flow rushes to turn a large water wheel that spins stone millstones inside the building. They were used to grind wheat and corn not only into flour for the family's consumption, but also (and mainly) into products that were sold at the plantation store.
Nearby the mill is a landing on the shores of the Potomac River. There was also a wharf where the tobacco crop was brought and placed on vessels and ships to take to market in England and elsewhere. Plantation wharfs were heavily regulated by the colonial government. In 1759 the legislature ordered that a public warehouse be constructed on the landing for public inspection of the plantation's tobacco crop. It was built in 1762 by workers appointed by the county and possibly extended 100 yards out into the Potomac River.
Although the wharf, docks and buildings have long disappeared, they were places of bustling activity. Large ships lay at anchor in the deep channel of the river, while smaller river craft tied up in the landing carried tobacco and other materials back and forth from ship to shore. During the growing season sea captains, tobacco farmers, colonial officials and visitors from other plantations mingled about the docks and in and around the warehouse and store that was constructed nearby. There may have even been a tavern to keep visitors entertained while waiting for ships to take them to their destinations.
Activity was at its height when Philip started a shipbuilding business near the wharf. There was likely a saw mill that, in addition to use for shipbuilding, made wooden products such as staves and headings for the West Indian market and for shipment to Britain as ballast. In 1764 Philip owned a square-rigged six sail vessel of 90 tons with a crew of 10 men, called the "Mary of Virginia." It had had been a French ship captured by the British during the French and Indian War. One trip of the "Mary" to Barbados carried 9,300 staves, 11,255 feet of plank, 1,111 bushes of Indian corn, 1.130 heading pieces, 8,598 feet of scantling, 135 pounds of myrtle wax, 57 empty hogshead, 40 empty barrels and 38 anchor stocks.
Despite all this activity and commercial promise, it was not long lived. In 1769 a devastating hurricane destroyed or severely damaged much of the wharf area, including the warehouse, plantation store and inspection station. To Philip's disgust, the legislature discontinued the warehouse the following year and built one instead at Persimmon Point on Currioman Bay. Tobacco prices were in decline and the government wanted to reduce the number of inspection stations. By the early 1770s the heyday of the wharf and landing was largely over. It is estimated that the shore of the Potomac erodes about one foot a year. All evidence of the buildings that once stood at the water's edge has thus vanished. Stratford Hall has built stone groins and wooden jetties to try and slow the erosion of the shoreline.
The Cliffs on the Potomac River
From the moment he saw them, Thomas Lee was attracted to the chalky white cliffs along the shoreline on the Potomac River. He bought the property in 1717, having to sail to London to complete the transaction. Called the "clifts," they marked the near perfect site to build a plantation and estate house. Behind the high bluff above the cliffs was a rolling plateau with magnificent trees and beautiful vistas. It rose to flat ground about a mile from the river on which Thomas built his mansion. The surrounding fields south of the Great House were relatively flat and rich in soil for planting. Most importantly was the access to the river itself, which was the commercial interstate highway system of its day. On the grounds there were streams and wells for fresh water, rich red clay to make bricks, and plenty of wood in the forests for firewood and construction.
On the shoreline of the Potomac, the Miocene Cliffs are a natural wonder. They are extremely rare, only one of four such places in the world. Made of compacted sea matter dating back to the Miocene era (from 5.3 to 23 million years ago), such formations can be found only in the Los Angeles Basin, Austria and Belgium. Many rare sea fossils have been excavated from the cliffs, including a 15 million old whale. Some of these fossils are on display in the visitor's center at Stratford Hall.
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