WARSAW — The old house at the end of the lane that starts as gravel and ends in dirt has seen better days. Part of the roof has fallen in, some of the walls have crumbled. In places, you can see straight through to the other side.
To some, Menokin, the 18th-century home of Francis Lightfoot Lee, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, would appear a lost cause; to preservationists, it is a prize worth saving, but in an innovative way.
Since acquiring the house in 1995, the Menokin Foundation has worked to stabilize the house while developing a plan — and raising money to finance it — to preserve what’s left in a manner that would appeal to new generations of visitors while effectively telling the story of the people who lived and worked on the plantation.
The foundation decided not to follow a conventional path and reconstruct the house and decorate it with less-than-authentic furnishings, but instead to protect what remains and essentially leave it as is, showcasing the bones of the house and a cross-section of construction that would enable an unusual perspective for those wanting to know the history of the place.
The project received a welcomed boost recently when the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded the foundation a $500,000 challenge grant for its Glass House Project. The 3-to-1 matching grant requires the foundation to raise an additional $1.5 million.
As the home of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Menokin long ago was designated a National Historic Landmark, and the 500-acre property (325 acres of which are under a conservation easement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) is well-known for its unspoiled waterfront and migratory bird habitat.
Even with all of that going for it, the NEH award is viewed as a game-changer, in terms of money, attention and credibility.
“It’s a really big deal,” said Leslie Rennolds, assistant director of the foundation, as she gave me a tour of the ruins of the house, which have been somewhat protected from the elements for almost 20 years by a carport-like steel canopy. “It’s like having the ‘Good Housekeeping seal of approval’ on your project.”
Calder Loth, retired senior architectural historian at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, describes the NEH grant as “a good shot in the arm.” An honorary trustee of the foundation, Loth says the primary reason Menokin merits preservation is pretty simple: “We owe Francis Lightfoot Lee a debt. He put his life on the line to found this country. All of the other homes of the [Virginia] signers … are secured. That’s what we must do for our Founding Fathers. It’s a National Historic Landmark, plus it’s a place of historical architectural interest. That’s what we as preservationists are supposed to do.”
Loth’s interest in Menokin goes back more than half a century to his days as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture. He and a couple of classmates, Peter Hodson and Robert Nylander, decided to take a tour of colonial landmarks. They wrote the owners of the various homes and were invited to visit. Menokin was the lone exception. It was not occupied at the time, and they had no idea whom to ask.
Knowing generally Menokin’s location, they drove onto the Northern Neck one day in 1963, asked directions and found themselves at the end of the dirt road, staring at a once-grand house abandoned and wide-open to the world.
Dressed extremely respectfully for trespassers, the young men in jackets and neckties took a self-guided tour of the dilapidated house. The Georgian-style mansion made largely of sandstone, brick, white oak and pine is relatively small as mansions go and never had electricity or plumbing. It apparently hadn’t been occupied since 1941, based on a calendar Loth and the others found.
Nylander made a few photographs — some of the last pictures of the house, it would turn out, while it was still largely intact. When they returned two years later, the house was even more dilapidated, and its woodwork had been stripped. (Loth discovered years later the historic woodwork had not been stolen but stripped off by the owner and stashed away for safekeeping.)
As the house continued to crumble through the years, Loth remained involved with Menokin through his roles at the Department of Historic Resources, trying to work toward its preservation and ultimately helping shepherd the transition from private owners to the foundation.
He was recently honored at a gala held by the foundation that raised about $300,000 toward matching the 3-for-1 NEH challenge grant. In fact, the foundation has dubbed the final corner of the house needing stabilization and rebuilding “Calder’s Corner,” an honor to be sure, though Loth jokingly has questioned “whether something unstable and out of plumb should be named for me.”
Once “Calder’s Corner” is shored up, the glass-and-steel work can begin (though it will require another estimated $3.5 million for that phase of the project). Loth describes the plan for Menokin as “high-tech anastylosis” — anastylosis being “a scholarly architectural term for recreating a ruined ancient structure using surviving fragments” and filling in missing sections with new, identical material.
At Menokin, the idea is instead of using new material to use steel framing and glass so visitors can see the internal structure of the house: what it was built with, how it was built, even things such as the fingerprints of slaves who made the bricks.
“Nothing quite like this has ever been done with a historic site,” Loth said.
The foundation also works to tell the story of others who have lived on the land, including Rappahannock Indians and slaves. Archaeological work uncovered evidence of field slave cabins, and new, 18th-century-style structures have been built in the footprint to represent the living quarters of those who worked the land.
Woodland trails and a place to launch kayaks (as well as rent them) make Menokin an appealing place for outdoor enthusiasts.
“We want people to realize it’s kind of like Maymont … it’s a resource for the whole region,” Loth said. “People can go there anytime and walk the trails, go kayaking, enjoy the outdoors, come and see what‘s going on.”
The foundation has worked steadily on the house for the past 25 years, as available funds allow, and that sort of measured progress has served well the long-term vision of the place. But as Rennolds notes, although an estimated 80% of the house’s original fabric remains in remarkably good shape, it continues to crumble, small chunks of plaster at a time. There are other considerations, such as the locust tree growing through the wall of the south portico.
The steel canopy is meant to provide only temporary protection until the glass-and-steel phase is complete and it provides only partial protection anyway, as the sides are wide open.
“We’re one good storm from losing it all,” she said. “We’ve got to hurry.”