Monday, October 27, 2014

Quakers, Frank Lloyd Wright and Dukes of Hazzard Moments at Woodlawn Plantation


Woodlawn Plantation, which was gifted to Nellie Parke Custis by her step grandfather George Washington, holds a few surprises. The first surprise, for me, was the entrance!

I first learned of Woodlawn Plantation while on vacation in Virginia from Texas several years ago. I wanted a hotel near Washington DC to see the sites, but not too close to urbanization. I found a hotel on a corner across the street from Woodlawn Plantation which was quite close to Mount Vernon. (Now I'm wondering if this was originally Mount Vernon land. How neat is that?)  It was a great spot to stay and we took the George Washington Parkway (behind Mount Vernon) into Washington DC which was lovely. However we didn't have time to visit the plantation, so I made a mental note of the corner entrance...and then a few years later we moved to Northern Virginia! Eversince I've had this site on our to-do list, but there are so many sites to see so sightseeing so this didn't happen until this past autumn because of my daughter's art history honors class!

My daughter was in a meeting to decide on the class field trips, since the honors classes have the unique distinction of adding visits to local sites that fit in to the class description. My daughter had known of my desire to visit Woodlawn...and my interest to visit the Frank Lloyd Wright Pope Leighey house which is surprisingly on the property. I was intrigued as to how in the world a mid-century modern ended up on Woodlawn Plantation property I was also curiousity about the distinctives of a Frank Lloyd Wright house. I not only had seen some on hgtv but I also wanted my kids to learn too as part of our own art history and architectural studies throughout the centuries. I confess that we are not modern architecture lovers, but I still believed in including it in our homeschool curriculum because it is history and just because it's not our favorite doesn't mean we shouldn't learn about it. daughter recommended a field trip to the Frank Lloyd Wright house on Woodlawn Plantation and the professor was ecstatic...and an honors field trip was set for late October!

I got to go too and I knew exactly how to get there. The entrance was on the corner across from the hotel...or was it?  I couldn't find it anywhere! I turned on the nearby street, did a u-turn, and came alongside the old entrance as I stopped at the stop light and had time to survey the situation. It was easy to tell it had once been an entrance, but recent construction had covered the short road, the nearby trees opening to the old entrance had grownover pretty much, and worst of all a curb had been built alongside the road, negating any hope of an entrance. Or at least a respectable entrance. This red stop light was pretty long so I sat there in great perplexity. I was in a mini-van. What if I had one of those big 4x4's? Or a hummer? Or...a General Lee. I mean, if Bo and Luke Duke were here, there'd be no hesitation, we'd just zoom and fly in! Um no...surely Woodlawn had a more respectable way of entering the grounds. But where?

Meanwhile my daughter was on the phone with her professor who described another entrance, a brand new entrance that we had passed, which is actually easier to access...if one knows about it, which I would have if I had read their website but I was going by memory! We drove up to that entrance and found a string of cars waiting for the gates to open so that they could respectably drive onto Woodlawn Plantation property.

Hilariously...on the other side of the huge white fence that barred our respectable entrance, were a couple of cars from that found themselves on the other side of the fence. Hmmm, I guess they were brave enough to hazard the Bo and Luke Duke method of entry!

Meanwhile I saw a historic sign near us which stated that Quakers bought the property from the Lewis family. They purposely ran the plantation without slave labor to prove that it could be done! I'm sure Lafayette would have been proud, considering he is known as the adopted son of George Washington who encouraged him to abandon slavery.

Finally the gates opened and we all met up to walk down to the Frank Lloyd Wright Pope Leighey House! So why is this house on Woodlawn Plantation property? Well let me return to the Quakers for  brief history on this land which was originally Mount Vernon. (More fascinating details are here.)

When Lawrence Lewis (nephew of George Washington) died in 1839, Nelly (adopted step grand daughter of Washington and daughter of Marha) went to live with her son, Lorenzo, at his house.  "Desirous of relieving himself from the trouble of a large landed estate," he eventually sold the house in 1846 to some Quakers who supplied timber to ship builders. As previously mentioned, they ran the downtrodden plantation without slave labor. In fact much of their free help came from many of the  slaves that had been manumitted when George Washington passed away. While the Troths lived there this Quaker meeting house was built on the site  The Georgian/Federal house was restored during this time.


In 1850 a Baptist named John Mason bought the plantation. (His wife was a distant relation to Abraham Lincoln.) Interestingly they started Woodlawn Baptist Church in 1872. We always drive by Woodlawn Baptist Church which is nearby, but the afore linked article says this is a different building. This family made no changes to the mansion.

Two owners later, in 1901, Woodlawn Plantation was again in hopeless disrepair. This owner, Paul Kester, renovated and added new architectural details to the estate. Meanwhile his mother's 60 cats habitated the plantation with the family. Although much of the land had been divided among heirs previously and such, Kester restored some of the land to the estate. In 1905 they sold Woodlawn Plantation and moved into nearby Gunston Hall, home of one of America's Founding Fathers, known for the Virginia Declaration of Rights and for refusing to sign the Constitution without a Bill of Rights...George Mason.

The 1905 owner was Elizabeth Sharpe who continued to restore the estate, add more current architectural details and restore more of the land.

In 1925 the new owners were Congressman Underwood and his wife. They too added new architectural details to the estate, in addition to a central heating system.

After Underwood died, his widow leased the estate from 1935-1937 to Harry Hines Woodring who was Secretary of War for FDR from 1936-1940.  Across the street from the mansion is Fort Belvoir. It is thought that perhaps Woodring had the Army Corps of Engineers from the base work on the house.
A private foundation bought the plantation in 1949 to preserve its history and open it for tours. Although they had tours, they didn't have enough funding to restore the home.

As a result they leased the estate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1951. Although a 50 year lease had been signed, the National Trust bought the property in 1957. Because of the National Trust, Woodlawn Plantation not only has been opened for tours, but it has also been slowly renovated based on historical research.

Thus, it was the National Trust that invited the Frank Lloyd Wright Pope Leighy house to come to the plantation. Alas, this post is plenty long. Stay tuned for part III!  

No comments:

Post a Comment