Thursday, August 17, 2017  

Virginia's Most Unusual Preservation Project

If you’ve ever driven past what remains of Menokin, one of colonial Virginia’s great houses and former home of Francis Lightfoot Lee, signer of the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation, you may not realize it’s the site of one of the most innovative historical restorations in the country today.

Saving the Past with Glass
Exploring a unique approach that uses structural glass to better preserve the house, the Menokin Foundation has assembled an interdisciplinary design team, including renowned structural engineer Tim Macfarlane of London-based Dewhurst Macfarlane & Partners, who are determined to rebuild the missing parts of Menokin using glass as an innovative construction material. The glass shell would reveal the structural and decorative elements of Menokin—girders, joists, posts, paneling—as they are returned to their original locations. The team is also exploring sustainable methods of heating and cooling the structure, using water, wind and solar resources. Sarah Pope, Executive Director of the Menokin Foundation, says, “I don’t know of any other historic sites in Virginia that have used glass to this extent.”

Architects will be able to see the “bones” of the original structure through the glass house, making it easier to understand construction concepts through a study of component parts and pieces. When complete, architectural conservators will benefit not only from studying the 1769 building, but from experiments done in the new conservation lab, recently built on the property. Environmentalists will be free to study native flora and fauna on Menokin’s property that is managed as part of the Rappahannock River National Wildlife Refuge.

Why would the Menokin Foundation go to all of this trouble to preserve and interpret Menokin? First and foremost, Menokin is a nationally significant patriotic site. It was designated a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Secretary of Interior in 1971. Until it was acquired by the Foundation, Menokin was the only home of a Virginia signer of the Declaration of Independence that was not secured. Only Menokin, of the surviving homes of the signers, remained at risk. Secondly, the property provides an incomparable educational opportunity and brings together the study of our environment—built and natural—into one very beautiful and historic place. When completed, the Menokin glass house will be a joining of 18th century architecture with 21st century technology. But most of all, it will be an exciting, challenging preservation adventure for those who choose to help advance its vision.

The History of Menokin
Menokin is the result of a unique collaboration between John Tayloe II of Mount Airy in Richmond County and Francis Lightfoot Lee, the husband of Tayloe’s daughter Rebecca. Instead of the cash dowry he bestowed on the husbands of seven other daughters, Tayloe gave Lee a life interest in 1,000 acres of his vast Richmond County estate and agreed to build a house, domestic outbuildings, and plantation structures. Construction of the house began in 1769, and it was probably ready for occupancy in 1771. Soon after, Francis Lightfoot Lee joined the cause of American independence, serving in the Continental Congress from 1775 to 1779 and signing the Declaration of Independence (together with his brother Richard Henry Lee) and the Articles of Confederation. Except the years between 1775 and 1779 when Francis Lightfoot Lee’s term of service in the Continental Congress drew both him and Rebecca Tayloe Lee to Philadelphia, the couple lived at Menokin until they both died in 1797.

Menokin is built of local iron-infused sandstone, quarried only a few miles away. Its design appears to have been influenced by William Adam’s Vitrivius Scoticus, a well known architectural work of the time. Of the two flanking outbuildings, only parts of the exterior walls of the plantation office exist. The kitchen, which presumably lay across the courtyard, is not documented by photographs or sketches and may have burned in the 19th century. On the south side of Menokin, formal terraced gardens that fall toward Cat Point Creek are still evident.

Francis and Rebecca Lee did not have children and Menokin reverted to the ownership of the Tayloes of Mount Airy, and was the home of John Tayloe Lomax, the first professor of law at the University of Virginia. In 1823, Menokin was sold to Benjamin Boughton, who then sold the property to Richard Harwood in 1836. Harwood lived in the house with his family and farmed the land until his death in 1872, after which the property passed to the Belfield family and then to the Omohundro family.

A Rescue
During the 1960s through the early 1990s, Menokin lay vacant and went into serious decline. The house never burned, but slowly collapsed over three decades. Today the northeast quadrant of the house still stands and approximately 80 percent of Menokin’s original materials have survived, including the interior woodwork. In 1940, while the house and one outbuilding were still standing, the Historic American Buildings Survey produced detailed photography and comprehensive measured drawings of the property. In 1964, the original pen and ink presentation drawings for Menokin were discovered among some Tayloe family papers at Mount Airy. Four years later, as the house was in serious trouble of collapsing, the interior woodwork was removed by the Omohundro family and put into storage. The surprisingly intact woodwork is back at Menokin and can be viewed at the Foundation’s King Conservation and Visitors Center.

What could be done with a property like Menokin? With the foresight of several individuals led by Martin Kirwan King, the Menokin Foundation was created, and on July 4, 1995, T. Edgar Omohundro gave the entire 500-acre property to the Menokin Foundation. The property includes the collapsed house, over 300 acres of old growth forest, 50 acres of agricultural fields, a shoreline along one of Virginia’s most pristine tributaries, and the remnants of 18th century terraced gardens. The Foundation’s vision is to use the house and grounds as a focus for better understanding the fields of architecture, archaeology, conservation, history and ecology. The organization teaches professionals and inspires citizens to become responsible stewards of the world’s historic places through continuing education classes for preservation professionals and local educators.

In 2005, the Menokin Foundation conveyed a conservation easement to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on 325 acres of its 500-acre property. The property is managed as part of the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge to protect the outstanding fish and wildlife habitat that exists in and along the river.

Editor Erin Parkhurst contributed to this article.

Visiting Menokin
Menokin is located at 4037 Menokin Road (Rt. 690), four miles north of the intersection of Menokin Road and Main Street in Warsaw, Virginia. Hours of operation October through March: Mon-Fri, 9:00 am to 4:00 pm; weekends open by appointment. Hours of operation April through September: Mon-Fri, 9:00 am to 4:00 pm; Saturdays, 10 am to 2:00 pm; and Sunday open by appointment.
For more information, visit www.menokin.org, e-mail: menokin@menokin.org; or call 804-333-1776. Follow Menokin on Facebook and Twitter (twitter.com/visitmenokin).