Tuesday, April 22, 2014

wake up and smell the history.

My inactivity in the history realm due to baby-slinging notwithstanding, I feel like this is a really exciting time for Richmond history buffs. Some stuff that's come through my feeds recently:
  • A citizen is trying to get the eastern end of our much-loved Church Hill Train Tunnel turned into a memorial park with benches, informational plaques, etc. This would be amazing for the neighborhood and just for satisfying general curiosity about the tunnel. I've actually gone through and appropriately tagged a bunch of the posts on this blog referencing the tunnel, which you can find here.
  • The Virginia Historical Society is putting together a documentary based on video submissions from regular ol' Virginians in all walks of life, dubbed Virginia Voices. This is right down the Midnight Society alley -- after all, stories are what got us into this in the first place. Right now I'm wishing for video skills to magically appear in my repertoire so I can participate in this.


  • I know I've harped on this before, but basically my prayers were answered and someone started a Richmond-specific history podcast. If you haven't checked out History Replays Today yet, what better time than the beginning of day trip season? This podcast is not very polished or really edited at all, but it's a labor of love and as painful as some of the sound quality is, I've finished every episode having learned several new facts. Coming from someone who's been on every historical tour in a 30 mile radius (and some repeatedly), that's saying something. Kudos to this guy for getting out there and interviewing all the people who know this stuff.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Staycation 2013: Bacon's Castle and Smithfield.

As our tour guide on Saturday pointed out, it's kind of ridiculous that this house is known as Bacon's Castle. Because Nathaniel Bacon never saw the place, though some of the rebel's men occupied it during their uprising against the colonial government in 1676. And probably if you built an expensive brick plantation house, you wouldn't want it to be known for the group of people who forcibly occupied and looted it one time. Why didn't people just continue calling it "Allen's Brick House?" Mysteries.


Whatever you call it, this house is a marvel. It's the oldest brick home in Virginia. Built in 1665 in the Jacobean style, it's like nothing I've ever seen in my life. I love the Flemish gables. I love the frosted argyle windows. And I love that the "new" part of the house was built in the 1840s. This place makes my late 17- early 1800s neighborhood look downright tacky.

Speaking of tacky, I have to apologize again for the horrible pictures because once again I didn't have my real camera. A couple of miles outside of Richmond I remembered it was sitting on my desk, and kicked myself for forgetting it the entire day. Womp womp.


Inside the house it's pretty spartan, though it's been decked out with plenty of period furniture made both in England and locally. The rough-hewn beams and mantelpieces everywhere give it a rustic look, while fancier touches like green wood paneling added in the 1740s and prints of maps and ladies in high fashion on the walls offer some contrast. It has a zillion stairs and a full cellar and creepy attic rooms and is reputedly as haunted as all get-out. When do we move in?

Though many of the outbuildings have burned over the years, there is still one of the slave quarters in tact and in pretty good condition.



I wished we could have stayed longer since apparently they were getting ready to have a big Guy Fawkes' Day bonfire where the gentleman himself would be burned in effigy, as is only proper at the home of some serious English loyalists. And I do hate to miss a good effigy-burning. It was a beautiful day though, and nice to take a look at a piece of architecture that departs so thoroughly from what I'm used to looking at.


After this we checked out the nearby town of Smithfield and ate lunch at the Smithfield Inn. They have killer she-crap soup there, and pretty much anything fried is good. Dan adored the onion rings with wasabi mayo, and I was really excited about the ham biscuits with poppy seed mustard (a childhood treat that I haven't had in years).

Smithfield is fun to walk around. Here I am spending some quality time with my friend Benjamin Franklin.


We popped into a few antique stores, but in this ritzy little town, most of what we saw was overpriced. Laura and Lucy's had a good selection of things like vintage hats, doilies, and china. And Wharf Hill is one of the most beautifully arrayed stores I have ever been in. The entire enormous place is one huge window display, and I mean that in a wondrous, delightful way, not in an exhausting, Ikea way.

The gingerbread victorian houses just go on and on throughout Smithfield, and we drove around gawking at them for a little while on our way out of town. They come in every hue and every level of ridiculous trim. And most of them are very well-kept. I'd love to go back WITH MY CAMERA (sigh) and get some good pictures of these houses on foot.



Incidentally, this hulking green thing is for sale if you have a spare few hundred thousand just lying around. It clearly needs to have some huge parties thrown in it.


We rolled home down route 10, through endless fall foliage that I never got a good picture of. This beautiful green field doesn't know it's fall yet, and I'll follow its lead and not acknowledge the fact that this amazing staycation is coming to an end.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Staycation 2013: the John Marshall House.

Let's face it, the list of house tours I still haven't been on within city limits is dwindling fast. I've been doing this since for about a decade, and aimless weekend afternoons here and there have pretty much taken care of every house tour in town. Except for the Executive Mansion, which I hope to tackle soon, the last one I'm aware of is the John Marshall House. This one had been on my back burner for a long time, because

1. I'm just not so interested in legal history.
2. I'm a big Jefferson-lover and these guys were cousins, but not friends.
3. Parking is a nightmare in Court End.

But as with most things, my uncontrollable desire to mark everything off the list eventually led me to spend the last weekday morning of my staycation hanging out downtown. John Marshall was the fourth Chief Justice of the US, one of Adams' "midnight appointments" on the eve of Jefferson's succession to the presidency. He served as Chief Justice for 34 years, and was also involved in the XYZ affair as well as the Aaron Burr trial.



Despite what seems like a relatively colorful existence, the house is pretty bland. This doesn't make a lot of sense because it's one of the few houses that has its original, creaky old floors and over 50% of the original furnishings, but I guess it's just not really my taste. This house is like the ugly duckling that looks even uglier in such close proximity to its beautiful Court End siblings, the Wickham House and the White House of the Confederacy. Compared with those incredible specimens, my opinion on the John Marshall House was a resounding "meh."

That being said, they have a couple of really neat artifacts there. In the Marshall daughter's bedroom closet stands a curious piece, and the tour guide asked if I had any clue as to what it was. "It kind of looks like a baby walker," I said, and I was exactly right. This fancy piece of equipment puts all those plasticky things we're used to to shame. But the opening where it should hold the baby under its arms is crazy small. My kid is rather slender for her age, and she's way too young to be learning to walk, but she's probably way to plump to fit into this thing. Ah, the days before children routinely ingested growth hormones. Anyway, the walker looked almost exactly like this one from a museum in Alsace:


Another neat thing they have is this locket that contains the hair of both John and his wife, Polly, which is described here. It's a romantic story, and the tour guide said that just recently some descendants of the the Marshalls came and gave the locket to the museum. It's simple but beautiful, and hanging from an elegant blue velvet string, and I wish I had gotten a photo of it.

The back garden was a little rough around the edges, but still might be a nice place to sit and escape the bustle of downtown if the entire square footage wasn't covered in bird droppings. Ah well.


Though I was not a huge fan of this house, I did enjoy the tour, and years of traipsing through one ridiculous mansion or another has probably made my standards vastly unfair. As with the few other historic properties in Court End, it's a wonder this survived the great gutting that MCV and the city undertook in that part of town, and I'm glad I went and checked it out.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Staycation 2013: Colonial Williamsburg.

My child is four months old now and I'm very cautiously testing the waters of getting back into the adventuring game. I don't know how the average person can stand to stay away from the open road and historic sites, but I've only been away for a few months and it's killing me. I absolutely wilt without a fortnightly house tour. Anyway, the time has come where I can leave her for a few hours without it being a big deal, or take her with me on some of these adventures. So I took advantage of a little vacation time to mark some sites off my list.

On Thursday Kathryn and I did a little wandering around Colonial Williamsburg, which I'm ashamed to say I've never really done as an adult (except for those yearly Christmastime illumination events, which don't count). We are both complete amateurs who left our real cameras in the car, but we got a few cell phone shots while we meandered.




In one area it looks like they were doing an archaeological dig, and being a lover of tedious handicrafts, I was a little jealous.


We didn't have a ton of time to spend, plus we were getting ill from the smell of homemade soaps in all the shops, so I really want to go back soon and tackle DOG street more comprehensively. Plus, it was kind of crowded even on a random Thursday early afternoon, and I really like the otherworldly feeling of Colonial Williamsburg when it isn't swarming with fanny packs.

My favorite thing was reading through some of the old publications you can get reprints of, like a booklet that Kathryn called "old-school WebMD." And in the old post office we looked through a ton of period art prints with satirical and moral overtones, and also just some nature prints.


Wednesday, May 22, 2013

go forth and explore virginia.

Pretty sure I've mentioned this before, but Virginia.org is an incredibly useful site for anybody looking to plan some short (or long) trips around our home state. Check out their list of Historic Sites, their Craft Beer map, and their "Go Old School" feature about journeying around small-town Virginia. There's tons more where that came from, so don't ever come telling me you're bored.