Saturday, May 31, 2014

Carter's Grove is Back in the Hands of Colonial Williamsburg

I think I remember visiting Carter's Grove when I visited Colonial Williamsburg in the mid-1970s. When I was writing and promoting The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America, I was often asked if Fithian served as a tutor on this plantation.  He did not.  Fithian worked for Robert Carter III of Nomini Hall on Virginia's Northern Neck. Carter's Grove belonged Robert's cousin, Carter Burwell.

Over at Boston 1775, J.L. describes the recent fate of Carter's Grove.  Here is a taste:

It seemed clear that Colonial Williamsburg acquired that property in 1969 only because one of the Rockefellers on its board insisted. Other folks in the institution felt saddled with this white elephant of an estate, its main building so altered from its original in the early 1900s that it was impossible to interpret it accurately as a colonial structure.

But then it turned out that the grounds included one of the most significant archeological sites of the British settlement of North America: Martin’s Hundred, or Wolstenholme Town. Colonial Williamsburg archeologists ended up doing many years of work there, and its curators created a museum for the artifacts and preserved the site.

As for the house itself, it was still an interpretive headache. The main outbuildings had been connected to the mansion and the whole house expanded, so it no longer had the size or profile of a genuine Georgian home. When I went, Colonial Williamsburg had come up with three solutions. An outdoor tour highlighted those architectural changes. The grounds had been equipped with barns, enclosures, and livestock to show the lives and work of enslaved farmworkers.

Finally there was the interior of the house, interpreted to display the Colonial Revival and how Americans thought about and celebrated the Revolutionary period in the early 1900s. But that proved a challenge for visitors. Most tourists came wanting to see how Revolutionary America looked. Being shown how our recent ancestors thought Revolutionary America looked, or should have looked, or would have looked if those people had had the benefit of iceboxes and sewing machines, was just confusing. In 2003 Colonial Williamsburg shut the site to figure out what it was doing.

Four years and one hurricane later, the organization sold the mansion to a dot-com millionaire for over $15 million, most in a loan to the new owner. However, as the Washington Post reported, he never moved in. Within a few more years he announced that he couldn’t keep making payments on the loan. There was a lot of concern about whether the house was falling apart.

Government agencies intervened, and a trustee was appointed to handle the property. This spring the Carter’s Grove mansion wentback on the market. And when the auction ended last week, the winning bid was from…Colonial Williamsburg.