There’s no telling who the initials WWH belong to, or when they were neatly etched into the glass pane in the window overlooking the side porch at Mansfield, the circa 1740s Dinwiddie County home of Neil Nordheim and his wife, Joanna Gragnani.
But they aren’t the only set of window initials found around the old house. Loopy cursive E’s — maybe? — scroll across one kitchen window. In another, E’s — or maybe G’s — can be found in a pane near the top.
Nordheim and Gragnani purchased Mansfield at an auction in December. The property, a stone’s throw as the crow flies from historic Old Towne Petersburg, occupies a 2.5-acre corner lot within a quiet residential neighborhood, though blink and you’d drive right by it. The roughly 3,000-square-foot home is surrounded by tall cedar trees, a bevy of chestnut, pecan, pear and cherry trees, and flowing crape myrtles. Tangled grapevines bursting with green and purple grapes invite one to stop and get picky.
An old wooden fence lining the property’s perimeter seemingly stands only to hold the past inside.
Nordheim and Gragnani knew the house they bought last winter was aesthetically significant. They saw investment potential in its detailed architecture: the elaborate fireplace mantels and wall moldings, tall plantation-style shutters and original knobby pine floors. Enough to move their family of four — including 4-year-old son, Freddie, and 2-year-old daughter, Jolene — from South Richmond just a few months ago, once the kitchen and bathrooms had been updated.
But for all of the house’s outward charm, it’s what they can’t see that captivates them the most. Stories that come from strangers and neighbors alike of lives lived centuries ago within the rooms they now call home.
Of all the old houses Nordheim has bought and renovated throughout Church Hill, Battery Park and South Richmond, Mansfield, he admits, might be the most ambitious. Dinwiddie was a tad farther than his normal stomping grounds. And the house was, well, really old.
“I really just fell in love with it, irrationally,” said Nordheim, who makes a living giving new life to old houses across the Richmond area. He prefers homes that are older than 1900, though not necessarily mid-1700s. He said they visited Mansfield twice before deciding to bid on it. Although the home’s internal systems had been updated for modern times, it’s T-shaped footprint exists today as it did hundreds of years ago.
Four rooms wide, one room deep, plus an entry hall and large living room at the back of the house. Upstairs are three bedrooms and multiple bathrooms. In addition to the main house, there’s an old garage with an upstairs apartment that needs attention, as well as a dilapidated and gutted servants’ house that they hope to restore.
Mansfield is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as well as on the Virginia Landmarks Register.
“The architecture and the land and the house itself was a big selling point, but the price was really good,” Nordheim said. The starting bid was $75,000. He won the bid at $127,000, plus auction fees. “I wish I could say there was a whole lot of logic and planning — there wasn’t.”
As with any auctioned property, he said, “there are a lot of variables, and you just hope for the best and go with your gut.”
Neither Nordheim or Gragnani was familiar with its history, however. They dived into research, only to discover they were living in a virtual history book, walking the same halls as people who helped shape a nation, for better or worse.
“Mansfield is recognizable to people who follow the history of the area — they call it the Keckley house,” Nordheim said, referring to Elizabeth Keckley, a slave who spent four years at Mansfield as a young woman, and later bought her freedom. She went on to become a sought-after seamstress in Washington, D.C., eventually catching the eye of Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of President Abraham Lincoln. Keckley was Mary Todd Lincoln’s personal seamstress and confidante, and in 1868, she published her memoirs, “Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four in the White House.”
“That was the real jumping point — we were really interested in her history,” Gragnani said about Keckley, but not just that. They want to share it, too. “We want to tell the perspective from the other side and not gloss over the fact that slaves lived here.”
Her husband echoed those thoughts, saying, “A lot of times that stuff kind of gets washed over,” Nordheim said about references to slavery. “It’s tough to talk about; it’s tough to acknowledge, [but] this house wouldn’t have existed without the labor or slaves.”
But before Keckley, there was Roger Atkinson, a tobacco merchant from England who bought the house in the late 1750s, though historic records indicate someone else built the home in the 1740s. The original house was two rooms over two rooms. Atkinson added rooms on each side, as well as the entry hall and the large room at the back, likely sometime during the 1760s.
Mansfield was included in a 2009-10 survey by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, in partnership with Dinwiddie’s planning commission, where it was called one of the county’s “most important dwellings.” The report notes that the large room at the back of the house — now the family’s living room — is one of the “most unusual and important features of any house in the county.” That’s because it not only provided a separate entry point to the house, but also provided a “fashionably appointed” public entertaining space consistent with other significant homes of that era.
The report also notes that the original staircase in the entry hall is among “the county’s most decorative,” with its ornamental brackets and balusters.
After Atkinson was Hugh Garland, a politician, lawyer and staunch slavery supporter who participated in the early stages of the landmark Dred Scott case that preceded the Civil War. Garland worked for Scott’s master, John Sanford, but he died several years before the U.S. Supreme Court’s stunning 1857 decision, which upheld slavery in free U.S. territories and denied African American citizenship.
Mansfield was also home to another prominent merchant family, the McIlwaines, who are said to be descendants of the Atkinsons. They lived in the home from the late 1800s through the early 20th century, and added the columns on the front porch as well as built the servants’ quarters adjacent to the house.
“The house has a certain elegance,” said Petersburg historian Dulaney Ward, who’s been to the home a few times over the last few decades, both with previous owners and most recently to talk with Nordheim and Gragnani about its history. He called its layout — small rooms in the front and one large family room at the back — “funky” and “unusual.”
“One of the reasons people buy old houses [is] because of the remarkably interesting people who lived in them,” Ward said, and at Mansfield, “at least three different families of great importance walked around in that house.”
He noted with Keckley that her influence likely extended beyond Mary Todd Lincoln to President Lincoln, and with those dynamics in the White House during the Civil War, “it cannot be overemphasized how important a figure she was.”
Prince George County resident Bettie Guthrie, her husband and three children lived at Mansfield from 1980 to 2003. They purchased the home when cedar trees lined a long road leading to a circular driveway in front of the house — a scene replaced decades ago, much to their disappointment, by the development of the current neighborhood.
“There are some very important structures in Dinwiddie,” she said, and as history unfolded during their time there, she worked — unsuccessfully — to bring the idea of historic zoning to county officials so they could preserve these historic treasures.
At Mansfield, “there was just something about that house … we just felt good about it,” she said. They knocked out two walls and took out a door, but otherwise kept the home as they bought it.
“Once you’re there and you’re on that property and in that house, it changes you,” she added. “It was our honor and privilege to live there.”
Beanie and Juno, Nordheim and Gragnani’s four-legged family members, happily traipsed around the yard on a hot morning last month as Nordheim showed off a brick — likely made on-site when the house was built — that he found inside the walls during the kitchen’s renovation. A small paw print is imprinted on one side, made by a mischievous critter from another era.
The kitchen and upstairs bathrooms have been updated, but there’s more work to be done. The family shares a large bedroom upstairs while two other bedrooms are getting renovated. Gragnani said she’s fascinated by the gardens around the home and hopes to learn more about them. They’ve uncovered what appears to be foundation stones at the back of the yard — for what, they can only wonder.
They’ve heard unsubstantiated stories of the house being used as a Civil War hospital. (Soldiers’ initials in the window panes, perhaps?)
They’re not into ghosts, though they joke that when items have suspiciously fallen from shelves to the floor without breaking, it’s the work of Roger Atkinson’s 10-year-old son. The boy’s headstone is the only legible one in an overgrown family cemetery found just beyond their property.
“When stuff like that happens in any other house, you don’t think twice about it,” Nordheim quipped. “But because you’re here, you start thinking twice about it.”
Nordheim and Gragnani said that when they bought the house, they weren’t sure they wanted to make Mansfield their permanent home. (They’ve tossed around the idea of opening a B&B or some sort of event venue.) Day by day, though, they’re more enamored with their house.
“It’s been such an interesting process — learning history, meeting all these new people,” Gragnani said. “It’s so meaningful now that it would be really hard to give it up.” She hopes the house becomes a way to connect with others.
“That would be our ... ultimate goal,” she said, “that people come talk to us about it.”