Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Carter's Grove

Photo:  HABS.
One of America's most architecturally significant residences of the colonial period is Carter's Grove, a stately brick mansion dating from 1755.  The centerpiece of what was once a 1,400 acre plantation on the James River near Williamsburg, Virginia, it was open as a museum until January, 2003.  Carter's Grove has been in the news lately because of allegations of irreversable damage due to neglect and foreclosure actions against the current owner.  There have been a number of newspaper articles revealing the dealings of the parties involved, including an article in the Washington Post Magazine.  

Aerial Photo:  DRH.
Previously owned by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, decreasing revenues from drops in attendance and reduced income from the investment portfolio led to the property being closed in 2003 and offered for sale in 2006.  A conservation easement for 400 of the 476 acres prevents any commercial or residential development for perpetuity and requires maintenance of the property at the highest standards.  The estate was sold in 2007 for $15.3 million as a private residence for internet investor Halsey Minor;  he paid $5 million down and financed the balance as a loan from Colonial Williamsburg.  Featured on the cover of a 1998 issue of Forbes Magazine as one of the wealthiest Americans under the age of 40, a series of financial reversals resulted in the stopping of payments in mid-2010 with less than $4 million still owed to Colonial Williamsburg.  Minor never moved into the house, nor made any repairs, some of which allegedly were required at the time of his purchase.  A February 15, 2011, sale on the courthouse steps was halted when the limited liability corporation formed to legally own the property filed for bankrupcy.  As of this writing, the issue has yet to be resolved.
Exterior Measured Drawings, HABS.
The mansion Carter's Grove was built for Carter Burwell and his wife Lucy Ludwell Grymes on the land that he inherited from his grandfather Robert "King" Carter.  Legend has it that Carter Burwell lived in the completed house only 6 months before his death in 1777.  Carter's Grove was inhabited by the Burwell family until 1838.  When Archibald McCrea, a Pittsburgh industrialist, and his wife Mollie bought the estate in 1928, it was occupied by tenants.  Under the direction of Richmond architect Duncan Lee, noted in his day for the renovation of historic houses such as the Virginia Governor's Mansion, the house was modernized and expanded with "hypens" built to connect the main block to flanking dependencies.  Although Mr. McCrea died in 1937, his widow continued to live in the house until 1962.  The Rockefeller Foundation bought the furnished house from the estate and gave it to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in 1969.
Archibald and Mollie McCrea, 1936.
Photo:  Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
In a change from the typical Williamsburg interpretation where Colonial furnishings were presented, often as a 'best guess' of what would have been, Carter's Grove was seen as a Colonial Revival house, furnished in a mixture of antiques of various periods and reproductions as it was during the occupancy of the McCreas.
Measured Drawings of the Basement and First Floor Plans.
HABS.
The plan is not particularly typical for an American house of the Georgian period.  The north and south elevations are similar except for the number of windows.
Photo:  R.C. Smith, 1962, University of Pennsylvania.
The panelling of the Entrance Hall had previously been painted, probably since the house was built.  Mollie McCrea had been quoted as saying the staircase balustrade was almost black from the dirty, aged finish when she first saw the interior of the house.  The cleaning of the staircase no doubt led to the stripping of the paint from the adjacent panelling.
Photo:  R.C. Smith, 1962, Universtiy of Pennsylvania.
A detail of the millwork reveals traces of paint.  (New houses of the Colonial Revival style often had  paint pigment rubbed into the grain of new millwork to simulate this stripped and waxed appearance).
Photo:  Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
The Southwest Parlor, or Drawing Room, was known as the Refusal Room because in it the marriage proposals of both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were refused by ladies who lived in the house.
Photo:  Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
The Northwest Parlor was used by the McCreas as the Library, filled with their collection of hundreds of first edition books.
Photo:  R.C. Smith, 1962, University of Pennsylvania.
The new Sitting Room occupied the west hyphen.
Photo:  The Washington Post.
The Smoking Room, noted as the Office on the floor plan, occupied the western terminus of the house.

Photo:  Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
The Dining Room occupied the Northeast Parlor.
Photo:  Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
A Breakfast Room occupied part of the new hypen on the east.
Photo:  Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
There was a small utilitarian kitchen for the McCreas in addition to this one that occupied the eastern terminus.
Measured Drawings of the Second and Third Floor Plans.
HABS.
The second floor of the main block contained an arrangement of rooms identical to the first floor.  The renovation provided bathrooms and more bedrooms.
Photo:  Washington Post.
The staircase is particularly handsome.  According to legend, Banastre Tarleton rode his horse up (and down) this staircase one night in 1781 swinging his saber.  There are various reasons given for his doing this and no one seems to know for certain why, but metal slivers are said to still be seen in the balusters.
Longitudinal Section of Main Block.
HABS.
On the second floor, the room above the Entrance Hall was used as a Study.
Photo:  Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

The detailing and volumes of the second floor rooms are as handsome as they are on the first floor.
Photo:  Northeast Auctions.

A photo from the auction catalog of the McRae furnishings shows more of the details of the Study.
Photo:  Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
The Master Bedroom featured an elaborate Chippendale style bed.  In the May 17, 2008, Northeast Auctions, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, sale the bed and hangings brought $11,000 plus fees.
Photo:  Northeast Auctions.

In 1976, archaeological studies found the remains of Wolstenholme Towne on the Carter's Grove property.  A fortified settlement established about 1618, the English settlers were killed and their houses looted and burned by Native American Powhatans in 1622.  A $4 million center was built for visitors, but reports now state that mold due to leaks may have made the building unusable.
Photo:  Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
Although the house was shown as the home of the McCreas in the 20th century, Colonial Williamsburg built slave quarters and had costumed docents present representations of slave life on the plantation from the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  One can only imagine the possible misunderstandings from tourists.

A federal judge has turned the property over to a trustee and the insurance has been renewed and the utilities restored to the caretakers' cottage.  Mr. Minor has stated that his problems are only due to temporary cash flow issues and will soon be resolved.  That is hoped to be the case, and that soon the preservation of this landmark property will be assured.











22 comments:

  1. Great post John!

    This old house makes the Kluge place look terribly nouveau, but I'd rather be nouveau than no-dough!

    Dean

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    1. Dean, Carter's Grove is the ultimate 'quiet quality' house that certainly carries prestige, but might not be flashy enough for many of today's billionaires. Also, Williamsburg might be too quiet for those who would prefer the Hamptons, for example.

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  2. I suspect the owner would be "de-lighted" to be rid of the house. So I'm grateful, TDC, for the publicity you've given to the house.

    There are perhaps five or six great houses in Virginia still in private hands. This is one of them.

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    1. The Ancient, the owner's San Francisco mansion, which has a whopping bill for back taxes, is on the market for sale. Some think the owner has held on to Carter's Grove to use a collateral for a big cash loan; I have no idea, of course. Despite the general state of the current real estate market, this property is so special that I would like to think that a sympathetic private buyer could be found.

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  3. I went to college with the current owner. How sad it is that the he has not been able to maintain the house. I hope someone who has the ability and funds to take care of it will buy it.

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    1. Helen, I don't think Carter's Grove is currently for sale. But should it come on the market, I hope there is already interest building among those who could afford to own it. Thanks for commenting.

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    2. From everything I've read it's not for sale yet, but I'll bet at the right price Halsey would sell...although the property seems to mean something to him.

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    3. I'm a resident of the Grove community and honestly you wouldn't know if you drove past the plantation. The property is and has been for sale since your comment in 2012. Minor filed bankruptcy in 2010 and he was going through legal battles with CW - he claimed they sold him the plantation with a lot of issues he was no aware of. Workers for CW came forward about the condition of the house and testified on his behalf. This case was plastered all over the papers here for month. It's selling for 19mil and CW has since repaired the property. I lived directly across the street from Carter's Grove Plantation :)

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  4. I'm descended from that house and admire this posting without reservation - especially in its restraint of delirium, so common in such presentations.

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    1. Carter, although the owner and former owners are necessary sub-plots, the house and the four hundred year history of the property are the real story. Your comments are appreciated.

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  5. I don't suppose I should go into what I see as the idiocy of Colonial Williamsburg's decision to sell Carter's Grove. A rant is likely if I go there so given it's Sunday and I'm a gentleman ...

    A very good post and, despite the problems attending the house, a pleasure to read.

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    1. Blue, at least there was the foresight to establish the conservation easement. That will discourage a Trump-like investor from making it a golf course surrounded by ugly condos.

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  6. Wonderful post. Carter's Grove was one of the first houses to awaken my young aesthetic awareness (Richard Pratt's Treasury of Early American Houses). Aside from the obvious, the trajectory is disturbing on so many levels---the idea that even historic houses of first rank are not safe in the America of today---and that their stewards abrogate their responsibility---that an average of 'only' 565 people were visiting, thus the house was unsustainable as a museum site (so lower ambitions and costs folks, and concentrate on preservation and duty). I'm president of a small historic house museum that would be thrilled to have 'only' 565 visitors a MONTH---but there is no danger that we will shut down, as we understand the importance of holding some things for the public good.

    And is this not a cautionary tale of the new Philistines?

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    1. D.E.D., there is a tricky balance for those in charge of museums, especially house museums, to be aware of both business and preservation. But that is the nature of the job and the challenges must be met. A mistake can result in an irreversible loss. Your comments are greatly appreciated.

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  7. Replies
    1. The house has inspired many copies, not just residences but schools and office buildings also. Thanks, MLHG.

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  8. Dear Devoted Readers, please remember that ANONYMOUS comments cannot be published (despite the option given on the submittal).

    But to address the issue of the panelling having been painted, a Google Image search of 'Carter's Grove Virginia' will produce an early twentieth century black & white photograph that clearly shows a paint scheme in the Hall of two, if not three colors, in contrast with the natural finish of the stairs. The image is reversed and the source could not be found, so it was not included in this post.

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    1. Thank you for commenting, DVCM. Your readership and following is appreciated.

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  10. It is truly an architectural masterpiece! I was looking for pictures and info about it because I found out that Halsey Minor, founder of CNET, had owned the property after one of my friends who lives in Virginia drove past it one time. Thanks for posting all of these cool pictures, I might have to check it out the next time I visit my friend!

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  11. My maternal grandmother was born a Burwell. I grew up hearing about Carter's Grove and my Burwell ancestors. I hoped to visit the area with my 10 yr old daughter this summer and share the experience with her as well. Myself and my younger brother, an architect in Kansas City, are very interested in an update on the property.

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  12. Great Post! My father took me to Carter's Grove when I was a kid and I loved it! He kinda freaked me out when he told me that the plantation was haunted by ghosts of it's founders...my dad is crazy sometimes hahaha! Once I got there, I saw a mansion with beautiful architecture and lovely scenery. Each room resembled an artistic masterpiece. At that point in my life I have never seen something so elegant!

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