Monday, November 30, 2009

Northwest Stair Passage Update

The Northwest Stair Restoration is going at full steam and coming along nicely. Our restoration contractor, Chuck Rackley, has been hard at work and is making great progress. He started with reinstalling the floorboards of the main floor room and framing in the partion wall for the ladder-stair that leads to the attic. After the walls were framed, we began to install a hanging system to hold the load of the main floor after the sister joists were removed. This modern hanging system of steel rods, fabricated hangers, and structural LVL's will be hidden within the floor, partition wall, and attic. This system was neccesary in order to carry the weight of the floor after the floor joists were removed. How "Light Horse" Harry Lee carried the weight is one question that did not have a clear answer; however, we do know that the possible options of how he carried the weight were not acceptable by today's standards, especially being open to the public.

Next came the building of the actual stairs and reconstructing the missing elements. The missing elements include a newel post, hand rail, and various pieces of floor boards. Chuck has been working on finishing the fitting and installation of the stairs and trim elements. We are hoping to start plastering early next week. After the plastering is complete in the spaces, Chuck will return to finish the restoration.

One of the big finds during the project has been a door that can be linked to the Main Floor room of the stair passage. Through extensive paint analysis, conducted by Susan Buck, we have been able to confidently say this is the original door from the partition wall. The original graining of this door was covered with one overcoat of paint. Susan was able to remove this coat of paint while leaving the original graining in place. This door with its original graining and hardware will be reinstalled in its original location.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Thanksgiving at Stratford?

Last week I began thinking about Thanksgiving and wondered how the Lees must have celebrated it at Stratford. After finding no documentation in our research files, I consulted on-line references and came to the conclusion that the Stratford Lees, like most Virginians during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, did not hold annual Thanksgiving observances.

The Internet provided much enlightenment. Even though there exists a controversy about who had the first Thanksgiving—the Pilgrims at Plymouth, Massachusetts or the colonists landing at Berkeley Plantation in Virginia—these celebrations were short-lived. In 1789, George Washington proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday to remember the hardships endured in the war for independence, but the colonies were unwilling to compromise on the date, which conflicted with some local and state observances.

Sarah Hale, editor of Godey’s Ladies’ Book, began earnestly in 1847 to push for Thanksgiving as a nationally celebrated holiday. At her urging, by 1859 Virginia had joined 29 other states and two territories in celebrating Thanksgiving Day on the last Thursday of November. With the approach of Civil War, Sarah Hale continued her efforts to unite the states and have Thanksgiving declared a national holiday.

During the Civil War, there were various days of thanksgiving declared by Presidents Lincoln and Davis to celebrate victories of both armies. On October 3, 1863, Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November as a day of national Thanksgiving. Lincoln’s proclamation, however, was not upheld in the Confederate states and it wasn’t until the war ended that a national Thanksgiving Day was established.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Cultural Landscape Study at Stratford Hall

Arguably few terms cover more “ground” than “cultural landscape.” In fact, almost any part of the world affected by humans can fit within the overall classification. The microcosm of that world which is Stratford Hall’s nearly 2,000 acres can itself be examined as a unique cultural landscape. This, in turn, consists of component landscapes such as the acreage encompassing the Great House, its dependencies, and gardens, as well as the beach, mill, and millpond area on the Potomac River. Carrying this further, the Stratford landscape(s) can then be assessed both diachronically and synchronically, that is examination of continuity and change over an expanse of time, as well as in-depth analysis focused on one or more limited periods of time.

To guide board and staff to a deeper understanding of our spot on the globe, we will soon have historic landscape professionals undertake a detailed study of the Stratford property, the ultimate result being a cultural landscape report. This, and especially its various “treatment” recommendations, will provide the foundation for a landscape master plan which will guide us toward the best ways to manage and interpret our fields, forests, river front, grounds, and gardens. We’ll keep you posted

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Rediscovering the Historic House

As we prepare for the implementation of the Lee Heritage Interpretive Plan in the coming years, one of the principal challenges is finding a way to make a tour of Stratford Hall engaging for the broadest possible audience.

An important step toward resolving this challenge took place on October 28 and 29, when we hosted a symposium called “Rediscovering the Historic House.” The purpose of the symposium was to draw together representatives from a variety of diverse perspectives to consider changes to the current historic house tour model. Extensive visitor surveys and other evidence indicate that the traditional historic house tour model, where visitors are guided through a series of period rooms, does not appeal to a growing portion of visitors.

Thanks to the support of the Chipstone Foundation, we were able to assemble a diverse panel of experts to consider solutions to this challenge. Included on the panel were Erica Donnis, from Reach Advisors; Kati London and Demetri Detsaridis of Area/Code Games; Tom Scheinfeld Director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University; Brian Sturm from the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, who specializes in storytelling and storytelling theory; Philip Kennicott, the cultural critic for The Washington Post; Phil Bigler, a former national teacher of the year and Director of the James Madison Center at James Madison University; Barbara Charles, an exhibit designer with the firm Staples and Charles; and Jonathan Prown, Director of the Chipstone Foundation. Also on the panel were Cary Carson, retired Vice President of Research at Colonial Williamsburg, and Kym Rice, Professor and Director of the Museum Studies Program at George Washington University. Cary and Kym were included to help provide synthesis among the various ideas and perspectives.

The first day of the symposium began with a tour of the Great House and grounds. The panelists were divided into three groups and asked to develop some new ideas for presenting the story of the Lees and their plantation community, focusing on three ideas: desire, boundaries, and senses. These ideas were discussed and served as a starting point for a wide-ranging discussion of the challenges of presenting multiple stories at Stratford Hall. This exercise was highly useful, and might serve as a model for other sites.

The second day of the symposium was open to the public. Nearly one hundred museum professionals and other interested participants were in attendance and were treated to a series of fascinating presentations by the panelists on their ideas for improving the tour model at historic house museums. All these presentations are available on our website as a podcast.

No magic solutions came from this symposium. There were, however, a lot of great ideas. We will be implementing some of these ideas as the Lee Heritage Interpretive Plan progresses. Check back on this blog for further updates!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Fall finds its way into the Historic Area

 The beautiful gold, red, and orange leaves are, well, falling at Stratford Hall (which is keeping our grounds crew very busy!).  In the Historic Area we made a switch into Fall mode this morning - we put away the figs, pomegranates, and plums and pulled out the apples and oysters.

Fireplaces in the Great House are now fully stocked with their requisite cold-weather andirons, wood, and fireplace tools; the beds are all outfitted with their full hangings that could be pulled around the sleeper to keep out the chill; and we, like many of you, are thinking ahead to the Christmas holidays. 

Stay warm and mark December 12th on your calendars for a very special Christmas at Stratford event.