Day 10: Tuesday, October 13, 2015
Our last stop for the day was further down the Northern Neck, at a historic home called Menokin. Home is kind of a misnomer, as it is actually a historic ruin. But Menokin is a very unusual ruin, with an intriguing story of historic preservation.
Menokin was the home of Francis Lightfoot Lee, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and his wife Rebecca Tayloe Lee. Rebecca grew up on a plantation nearby called Mount Airy; her father, John Tayloe II, gave the Lee’s the plantation and had the home built as a wedding gift (ahhh, to be rich, and get a house and land for your wedding…).
At any rate, Menokin was built in 1769, with Georgian architectural styling and a lot of Neo Palladian influence. The Lees lived there until their deaths in 1797, and then the home fell to a couple of relatives, before being sold out of the family. It changed hands numerous times between 1820 and 1935, when it was in serious decline and vacant.
Here’s where it gets interesting. In 1940, the Historic American Building Survey (HABS), thoroughly documented the vacant home in drawings and photographs. They also issued reports on the home, and its status as an endangered historic landmark. Unfortunately, the owners at the time were unwilling to sell it to a preservation society, so it continued its decline.
By the 1960s, the home had fallen further into ruin and the owners took the drastic step of removing as much of the original wood building material as they could, to put it into storage where it could be protected from the elements. Woodwork was removed and catalogued, including mantels, doorways, windows, flooring, molding and staircases. About 80% of the building materials have been saved.
In 1995, the last private owner of Menokin gifted it to the Menokin Foundation, along with all of the original woodwork that had been in storage since 1968. The home at that time was a complete ruin, and a tree had fallen into one corner of the house.
The Menokin Foundation is not planning to restore the house to its former glory. Their plan is far more interesting. They are going to preserve the home in its current state of decay, with glass walls and floors that will allow a visitor to travel through the home and envision what it would have been like it its day. Once the home is stabilized and protected, select woodwork will be returned to the home, to give visitors a sense of its former grandeur. Imagine walking through a glass historic house!
Our visit to Menokin was at the very end of the day – we got there just ten minutes before the Visitor’s Center closed for the day. The Visitor’s Center is really the office for the Foundation, nothing fancy at all, but the staff there were warm and friendly and insisted on having us watch the video of their dream, and they also took us on a tour of the wood room, where all the original wood from the home is catalogued and stored. It was remarkable, and I love that they are trying to do something radically different than the traditional restored historic home concept. They stayed way past their closing time, and were genuinely interested in how we had heard of Menokin and the fact that we had come from so far away to visit.
After the Visitor’s Center, we headed over to the site, to see the home. As it is not stabilized, you cannot enter, but you can walk all around for good views of the home. It was neat to imagine in person their vision of what it will be when it is completed.
Menokin was truly one of the outstanding gems of this trip – a little out of the way, but truly a fabulous place. If you are in the Northern Neck, and can visit, do! Here’s their website for more information on the unique vision for Menokin.
Our last task for the day was to finish our drive to Williamsburg, Virginia. We checked into our hotel and walked down to the grocery store and liquor store for some wine and hotel room dinner. Jon wanted to try a Trump wine (I believe the winery is owned by Donald Trump’s son), just to say he had – it was actually pretty decent. I got a bottle of the Barboursville Riesling; it was ok – fine, but not really memorable for me. It was a long day, but we got to see some really great things!
Driving Distance for Day 10: 134 miles – Fredericksburg, VA – George Washington Birthplace NM – Stratford Hall – Menokin – Williamsburg, VA
Hotel for the night: The Fairfield Inn in Williamsburg – excellent!