Stratford Hall was built by Thomas and Hannah Ludwell Lee in 1736-40 in Westmoreland County, Virginia. It is the birthplace of Robert E. Lee and Richard Henry Lee, who introduced the resolution for independence at the Continental Congress. It is one of the finest examples of high Georgian architecture in America.
In 1729 Thomas Lee and his wife, Hannah, were living on the rented property of one the Lee family plantations, called Machodoc, in Westmoreland County. In the middle of the night someone broke into house and set it on fire. The loss of this house led Thomas and Hannah to construct a much grander house on another property on the Potomac River known as the "Clifts." On this site was built a grand mansion named Stratford Hall.
Construction of the Great House began in 1736. Its design was chosen by Hannah, and she was most likely the dominant force not only in building the house but operating it after it was completed. The plan followed the rather well known H pattern used in the recently built Capitol in Williamsburg and at Tuckahoe in Goochland County.
Stratford Hall historically represents a modification of the Palladian style of architecture, commonly known as Georgian Architecture. Its hallmark feature is a strict symmetry, seen in the fact that the north facade of the house is exactly the same as the south. The house’s design also follows geometrically strict proportions.
Floor Plan 1736-50 (Buchanan)
In the original design (between 1736-50) there were two double entrance doors facing north and south and four interior passageway doors reaching the most important rooms in each quadrant of the house. These were 1) the red and green rooms (today making up the parlor) in the northwest quadrant; 2) the white and blue rooms (today known as the library and the blue room) in the southwest quadrant; 3) the dining and cherry tree rooms in the northeast; and 4) the library and chamber (known today as the nursery and the chamber or master bedroom) in the southeast quadrant. The passageways in the center of the house were for servants only and not for family use.
Stratford Hall’s brickwork is a mixture of styles. Above the water table the orange, pinkish bricks are lighter and were laid out without glazed headers. Below the water table a Flemish bond style with glazed headers is used and the color of the bricks is slightly darker. The water table is marked off by a protruding line of shaped bricks that were cut and sawn after being fired in a kiln to create molded shapes.
There is nothing quite like Stratford’s two arched and clustered chimneys in Virginia or anywhere else in America. Laid in Flemish bond, each chimney has four shafts that rise in a cluster to a cornice capped of molded and corbelled brick. The bond shafts are subtly framed by vertical single lines of different colored bricks and are connected by arches and balustrades (a railing supported by balusters) on four sides. They ascend dramatically above a hipped roof, and at various times in the house’s history formed monumental bookends to a balustrade walkway that ran across the top of the roof.
Floor Plan 1750-74 (Buchanan)
Most of the monumental designs and ornamentation we see in Stratford Hall today were added by Philip Ludwell Lee after 1750. The interior of the house had been quite plain in Thomas’s time. In those early years there were only wooden steps into the house. Later Philip added brick and stone steps on the south, east and west sides of the house
The next big changes to the house occurred under Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee’s occupancy. Henry’s first wife, Matilda, had been content to leave the house as it was. But Henry’s second wife, Ann Hill Carter, was more ambitious. It is likely that Henry and Ann were impressed by architectural designs of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., which they visited frequently after they were married.
Henry added a semicircular porch on the north side of the house that required taking out Philip’s stone steps. He also connected the two chimney clusters with a roof walk (it’s possible a roof walk existed in Philip’s time, too).
Like many great colonial houses, Stratford Hall fell into disrepair in the 19th century. Photographs at the turn of the 20th century show a tired and neglected old house with clumsy, utilitarian additions and rundown yards and fields. The house was restored in the 1930s under the direction of Fiske Kimball, a prominent architectural historian and architect of the 1920s and 30s.
Stratford Hall is best known for its Great Hall, which at the time of its building had no other rival, not even at the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg. Its basic layout was present in the original house, but it lacked the fine paneling we see today. Paneling and pilasters were added by Thomas’s eldest son, Philip, after 1750. He employed a local architect, John Ariss, who had been trained in England, to help him with the design. Paul Buchanan believes the original designs for the Great Hall came from James Gibbs second book on architecture.
At twenty-nine square foot, topped by a tray ceiling of 17 feet, the Great Hall is an architectural ode to Georgian symmetry. The walls are paneled in light gray-blue painted units with the largest section sitting on top of a smaller one (called a dado). The panels are molded with the bisection profile style described in William Salmon’s book, Palladio Londinensis, or the London Art of Building, which was published in 1738.
Portrait of Richard Lee the Immigrant hanging in the Great Hall
Adding to the monumental effect, windows and doors are flanked by Corinthian pilasters set on pedestals. Hung all around the room are family portraits, including not only Thomas and Hannah but Thomas’s father, Richard the Scholar and his grandfather, Richard the Immigrant.
In the original design (between 1736-50) there were two double entrance doors facing north and south and four interior passageway doors reaching the most important rooms in each quadrant of the house.
Unlike other grand houses of the period that featured grand staircases in the center hall, such as Rosewell, Stratford Hall’s staircases were small and moved out of sight, used largely for service and to reach the work rooms and lesser guest rooms on the lower level.
The room that is today called the Parlor has had many different configurations. In the original house (1736-50) it was divided between two rooms, the larger “Green Room” and a smaller “Red Room.” There were two fireplaces, one in each room, and a small closet was placed on the north side of the Red Room. One or both of these rooms were most likely bedchambers in these early years. This configuration remained through Philip Ludwell Lee’s time, but was changed substantially by Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee.
Between 1796-1800, Henry replaced the red room with a stair case leading to the rooms on the lower level. The entrance to the old Red Room became the entry way to the stairs, which was called the Upper Stair Passage. The Red Room’s fireplace was closed and the Green Room’s wall was extended several feet into the area that became the Upper Stair Passage.
Most historians believe that Henry was inspired by the new Federal style with its emphasis on light colors, delicate woodwork and larger rooms. The woodwork on the stair passage and the new fireplace mantel was inspired by the classic revival fashion of the time. The room’s floor is today covered by a remarkably purple colored carpet that was designed and woven in the United Kingdom and shipped to Stratford Hall.
The reconfigured parlor may have had a variety of uses. It could have been a family gathering room in winter, or it may have been used by Henry as a withdrawing room for meetings and entertainment.
The dining room at Stratford Hall served many purposes. It was, as it name implies, a place for formal and informal dining. When Philip Ludwell Lee wished to host a formal dinner he would pull out drop leaf tables from the side of the room and set them with Queens China, assorted glassware, and coin silver, ivory and black-handled knives and forks.
Whereas the parlor could be used as a family gathering area, the dining room was the real center of family life at Stratford Hall. A hearty breakfast was served between nine and ten o’clock. Dinner, which usually consisted of two courses, was the main meal of the day and was served between two and three.
This large meal held everyone for the rest of the day. Only at eight o’clock would the family gather again for a light supper before bed.
Serving Area (Cherry Tree Room)
The area (sometimes called the Cherry Tree Room) next door was a smaller chamber used for a variety of purposes. Philip called the room by this name in his 1776 inventory, possibly because most of the furniture was made of cherry wood. During Thomas’s time it had been listed as a Parlour.
Even after Henry Lee replaced the door with an archway, the room remained what it likely had always been: A withdrawing room or small parlor to retire after dinner, to smoke and drink wine, coffee or tea, or to read and listen to music.
CHAMBER, NURSERY, BLUE ROOM AND PASSAGE
The Chamber is one of the two main bedrooms on the first floor of the house. It is a large room that faces south and east toward the garden. Next door is a smaller room, today designated as the Nursery that likely was also used as an office or library by the early inhabitants of the house. The Chamber is today decorated in the federal style favored by "Light Horse Harry" Lee, who changed the room in a number of ways. He enlarged the main room, taking space from the adjoining nursery, and he added raised paneled interior shutters on the windows to regulate heat and light. Originally there was a closet where the entrance door is today, which was added by Harry.
The Chamber is most famous as the birthplace of Robert E. Lee, who was born here in 1807. His walnut spindled crib draped with mosquito netting is often displayed in the room. Very often private bedchambers were used by the mistresses of the house for private entertaining. It is highly likely that the chamber was used for this purpose, as a place to entertain the mistress's closest friends and family members, and to serve tea. In addition, the mistress would also have likely used the room to read to and instruct her children.
Office/Nursery (Under Reconstruction)
Next to the Chamber is the Nursery. It had originally been intended as a library, but it is believed that Philip Ludwell Lee turned it into a nursery. Today there is a strong belief among the experts at Stratford Hall that this room may have been used at one time by the mistress of the house as an office from which to manage the plantation. There is a small fireplace in the room depicting two winged cherubs over the date 1745. The significance of the date is not known, but tradition holds that four year old Robert E. Lee said farewell to the cherubs when his family moved to Alexandria.
On the other (west) side of the house is another bedchamber, called the Blue Room (or "blew" room in the 1758 inventory). In the original house it was paired with the "white" room that is today the library. As with all other rooms set off from the Great Hall, the Blue Room's original entrance had been to the Hall. However, that door was closed and, as with the Chamber, a doorway was opened into the service hall. Often displayed in the room is a mahogany cradle at the foot of the bed that is from nearby Pecatone Plantation. It had been used by Hannah Lee Corbin, the daughter of Thomas Lee.
Connecting the east and west sides of the house is the servants' hallway, which is divided into the East and the West Passages. Originally it was intended exclusively for use by servants. There were no doorways from the Chamber, Blue Room or any other formal room into this hallway.
When Philip Ludwell Lee added doorways from the Chamber and other rooms into the passages, he recessed them so there would be solid walls next to the fireplaces in the rooms. This created created recessed areas in the passages that could have been used to place food or drink while entertaining. Conversely, they could have been created merely for decorative purposes.
The room interpreted today as the Library has had many uses over the lifespan of the Great House. Thomas Lee likely used it as an office from which to exercise his duties as a leader of the colony.
The Stratford Hall authorities speculate that Thomass Lee likely wrote notes in this room for his involvement in the 1744 Treaty of Lancaster. This treaty recognized the Blue Ridge Mountains as the boundary line between the Virginia colony and the Five Nations of the Iroquois. Thomas likely used this room as well to carry on his private correspondence and to tend to the business of the plantation. It was also likely a withdrawing room for men who retired there for drinks, smoking and cards.
Once you light from the lower stair passage, the most prominent room you reach downstairs is the School Room. Today it is furnished with the bedstead and chest for the school master and desks for children.
There were two tutors that we know of, both Scotsmen; David Currie and the Reverend William Douglas. Their job was to prepare Thomas's sons for a higher education in England. Interestingly, even though Thomas expected his children to be educated in religion, manners and morals, he also insisted that they learn "any profession or Trade, so that they may Learn to get their Living honestly." He knew, as his own experience had taught him that his children could not rely on their inheritance alone to make their way in the world.
There are two other large bedchambers on the lower level. The one on the north side of the west wing is furnished as a boy's room. The other bedchamber on the south side of the west wing is furnished with two bedsteads. It's interpreted today as a room for girls, but it could also have been a guest room.
The long travel distances between houses in colonial Virginia required that guests stay overnight, and in some cases for extended of periods of times during holidays and parties. Three or four people could sleep in the beds a time, and there were trundle beds and "pallets" (mattresses) for overflow guests.
Wet and Dry Stores
The main work area on the lower level is the Wet and Dry Stores. Its function as the name implies was storage. It occupies the center of the lower floor in the "hyphen" of the H-design. Early on a partition divided the space into two unequal, separate rooms. It has been removed and today there is just one large room.
The walls were originally made of exposed brick, hence the name "brick rooms" in the 1758 inventory. They were later covered in plaster. Although today there is a brick floor, it was likely covered in dirt in the early days of the house.
Spinning and Weaving Room
Down the hallway in the east wing is what is interpreted today as the Spinning and Weaving Room. It likely had many other functions over the years. The large loom on display there today emphasizes the importance of spinning and weaving fabrics to keep the plantation's large work force clothed. Since Stratford Hall was largely a self-sufficient operation-- a remote village miles away from any town or market-- clothing and other living items had to be made on site.
Adjoining the Spinning and Weaving Room is the Housekeeper's Bedchamber. This is not only where the housekeeper slept and maintained her private life, but where she helped to manage the operations of the house.
The Housekeeper was a very important and respected member of the household, even sometimes being a family member, such as a widow or spinster who needed a place to stay in exchange for her service. She managed every detail of the house's operations--the cleaning, the cooking and the supervision of the servants--under the watchful eye of the mistress.
On the far eastern side of the lower floor is what is thought to be the warming kitchen. It was where food cooked in the outside kitchen was brought to be kept warm and prepared for serving in the dining room. Food could have been reheated in the small fireplace off the main room. Meats were likely carved and dishes arranged for their final presentation on tables set throughout the room. There is a single door that opens up outside on the east side of the house and onto the walkway leading to the kitchen that is only a few steps away.
The outside kitchen where the actual cooking was done was kept separate from the house for three reasons: 1) it lessened the threat of fire; 2) it kept the odors of cooking away from the main house; and 3) it reduced the heat from the kitchen's fires in summer.
Adjoining the warming kitchen is a small room thought to be a Servant's Hall. It could have been where servants met to perform household chores such as polishing silver and brass objects and mending clothes. It may also have been a common room for where the servants met to receive instructions from the mistress or the housekeeper.
Today there is a flight of stairs beyond the door of the Servant's Hall leading up to the main level. Through this banister staircase servants carried food prepared in the warming kitchen to the dining room upstairs. There has always been stairs of some kind in this area dating back to the beginning of the house in 1736.
View of Steps from Servants Hall
There is a beautiful view of the south side steps from the window of the Servants Hall.
At the east end of the lower passage is the Cellar. It is built of brick vaults and, because it is underground, can store wine and other beverages at a cooler, more stable temperature. Most of the wines kept here were Madeira, claret and port, which were popular throughout Virginia. At a time when alcohol beverages were the main drink, the wine cellar had to be kept well stocked to service the many visitors and guests to the Great House.
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