Thursday, May 28, 2009

Interpreter Attire

Stratford Hall is currently undergoing some changes related to the Lee Heritage Interpretive Plan, which you have probably already learned from recent posts on this blog. One of those new changes, voted on by our Board of Directors in April, involves interpreter attire. Currently, the interpreters wear 18th-century indentured servant attire, but as of July 1, 2009, this will be changing. 

Because the Interpretive Plan encompasses four different time periods--that of Thomas and Hannah Lee, Phillip Ludwell Lee, Light Horse Harry/Robert E. Lee, and the Robert E. Lee Memorial Association--it has become impossible to provide appropriate attire that can reflect such a long time period. This interpretive plan spans more than two hundred years! As a result, beginning July 1, interpreters will be wearing business casual dress for all regular house tours.

Similar costuming changes have been made at other historic sites, including Montpelier, Monticello, Mount Vernon, and Gunston Hall. Most historic sites--including Stratford Hall--continue to wear 18th-century attire when performing first-person interpretation. Interpreters at Stratford Hall will also wear 18th-century attire when conducting 18th-century activities (including blacksmithing, for example) during school programs.

Do you have questions about this change? Please let us know.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A Real Rat's Nest

The term "rat's nest" makes you think about a real mess - be it a hairstyle or a messy room. But in our world, the term can be a welcome one, especially when the rat in question had such good taste in what she collected.

Like other historic houses,
Stratford's Great House has hosted a variety of residents through its history - from the Lee family, to the enslaved and servant population, to later owners like the Stuart family, to domestic animals and so-called vermin and pests. One such resident (or series of residents) during the 18th century was a rat who moved around the house, collecting scraps
of fabric, ceramics, glass, nails, animal bones, and a pewter button. Her nest was discovered in the 1980s in the attic above the Great Hall. We're not the first historic house to find a rat's nest. Curators love them - the contents can tell you so much about the lifestyle, furnishings, and foodways of a house's residents.

Black roof rats were the typical sort of house rat making such nests in 18th-century coastal Virginia. Rats at that time were venturing across the seas on cargo ships and setting up colonies where people and their foodstuffs were plentiful. The Lee family was importing goods on ships and would have brought these goods directly from the ship into their home, likely storing the crates, barrels, and boxes in the lower level storage rooms.

When completing
work in the Great House in 1984, architectural historians Paul Buchanan and Charles Phillips located a rat's nest behind the paneling of the Great Hall and accessed it through the floor of the attic. Brave board member Ellen Hunter, who was then head of the House Restoration Committee, reached her hand into the small opening to remove some of the artifacts.

Right now I'm working on cataloging the removed artifacts. So far, nineteen artifacts have been examined, photographed, measured, and described. Large ceramic fragments and heavy wooden objects were found at the same time; possibly these were collected by a very strong rat or perhaps there is a human element at work here. I'll continue my research and let you know what I find out!

Photo of store room by Terry Cosgrove.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Gardens at Stratford Hall

This summer will mark the 80th anniversary of the partnership formed in 1929 between the Robert E. Lee Memorial Association and The Garden Club of Virginia to restore the gardens at Stratford Hall. The Education Department is celebrating that continuing association with various activities, including a retreat set for July 26-29, 2009 called “Arranging from the Garden.”

Another way of highlighting the fine tapestry of Stratford Hall’s landscape history will be a periodic look at what’s happening in the gardens. In particular, there will be some discussion of the historical significance of various plants and trees to be found there. A personal favorite is the Carolina Silverbell (Halesia carolina or H. tetraptera), which is just finishing its bloom here. Native to several southeastern and southern states, the Silverbells in our East Garden stand 10’ to 15’ high. Unfortunately, garden references by the Stratford Lees are very limited and do not include Halesia. However, the Carolina Silverbell was available from Bernard McMahon in Philadelphia in 1802 and Thomas Jefferson lists it among his “ornamental trees” in 1817. Thus, it was certainly available while the Lees still lived at Stratford.

While we know the Lees grew roses, once again details are few. One that became increasingly popular in America toward the close of the 18th century was Old Blush (Rosa Chinensis), also known as the “Chinese Monthly Rose” and “Old Pink Daily” (to cite several names commonly used). Old Blush became a particular favorite because of its repeat blooming qualities, this rose providing color in the garden spanning much of spring, summer, and fall. Old Blush could have grown here in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Certainly, one example that is thriving at Stratford Hall in the 21st century is seen in this May 4 photograph. Sadly, our tulips are at the end of their blooming period. Several diehards stood until recently, however, including this one which offers a nod to the magnificent “broken” multicolored tulips so popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. Such tulips in fact were at the center of “tulipomania,” a period during the 17th century when the value of single specimens rose briefly to astronomical levels. As with subsequent “bubbles,” giddy investors were soon financially ruined when prices quickly tumbled.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

More finds in the Northwest Stair Passage

There have been several discoveries in the Northwest Stair Passage since my last update. I have been busy removing plaster and other elements looking for evidence to support the restoration of the stair passage. The picture to the right shows the ground floor room of the Northwest Stair Passage before I began removing plaster and with the mock-up in place. The fragments that we have can also be seen in the mock-up. Just the other day I carried out over three quarters of a ton of plaster in bags from the Great House. I have identified some interesting and exciting things in the past few weeks. The most exciting (to me at least) is what I believe to be areas of plaster that are contemporary to Light Horse Harry’s stair passage. One area of plaster that would have been in the closet appears to have never received a finish coat of plaster. I believe this because the scratch coat appears to have been white washed. This white washed scratch coat was found under a layer of Portland-based plaster from the 1930s restoration. It appears that this type of original plaster also exists in the transition area between the ground floor and main floor in the stair passage opening. This discovery of 18th-century plaster gives me hope that other plaster escaped the earlier restorations and will be found throughout the Great House. The picture to the left shows the original plaster that was found on the south wall and some of the plaster and lathe that was removed.

When removing the floor boards of the main floor room, I also found a number of architectural fragments. Under the Parlor wall, on what would be the ceiling of the ground floor room, I found what is believed to be an original piece of chair railing
. Other finds include wrought nails of different types--mainly lathe nails--a possible fragment of original plaster, and what appears to be a chandelier drop that remains undated. In the near future, the original plaster, chair rail fragment, and plaster fragments will have their paint analyzed to help date them and hopefully provide information in regards to the Northwest Stair Passage’s original finish types and colors.

Friday, May 1, 2009

This Place Matters...

...and that is why all these people in the picture are involved at Stratford Hall--this is more than just a job.

This picture was taken to kick off Stratford Hall's celebration of Preservation Month, which begins today. Many of our staff members are included in this photo, including the Executive Director, members of the Board of Directors, senior staff, interpreters, grounds keepers, housekeepers, volunteers, maintenance staff, and administrative staff. I think it is safe to say that everyone in this picture thinks of Stratford Hall as a special place and works hard to make sure it will be here for generations to come. We hope that you will take time this month and pitch in to help preserve a place that matters to you. No place is too small and every single one matters to our country's cultural heritage.

The theme of this year's Preservation Month is "This Place Matters." Click here to see how you can participate and view other places that matter. The photo of all of us at Stratford Hall is now part of a growing collection of photos over on Flickr. You can even download your own "This Place Matters" sign and take a photo at your favorite place.

Stratford Hall will also be celebrating
Preservation Month with an event on May 16th. Please come help us celebrate this important month and this historic site!