The House Of Many Layers


What would you do if you owned a Rembrandt that had been painted over by Picasso? A similar problem confronted the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in 1969, when it came into possession of Carter’s Grove, a mansion on Virginia’s James River that had been built between 1750 and 1755 and extensively remodeled in the 1930s. Should the house be restored to its original condition to portray the life and society of Virginia’s colonial aristocracy, or should it be preserved as it was received, to illustrate a more contemporary social milieu? In the mid-1980s the directors of Colonial Williamsburg decided to preserve Carter’s Grove as it had stood in the 1930s—as one of America’s finest examples of the Colonial Revival style.

That their home, as they had lived in it, had become a museum probably would have pleased Archibald and Mary McCrae, the owners responsible for the sweeping 1930s renovation. To some critics the couple were no more than nouveau riche vandals whose efforts had destroyed the original modest lines of the house by raising the roof to accommodate a third floor, placing dormers on the roof and shutters around the windows, and adding grandiose connecting wings to the simple kitchen and office to house the politicians, statesmen, and industrialists who were their guests. The skeptics might have seen the McCraes as examplars of the worst of the emerging New South: Northern money, represented by Archibald McCrae, a wealthy Pennsylvania railroader, meeting Southern avarice, in the person of Mary McCrae, a Virginia beauty who had married first into one fortune and then into an even greater one.


The McCraes’ far more numerous admirers, however, recognized something better. In the 1930s, during the critical years of America’s Depression, the couple personified a new breed of civic-minded, amateur social engineers who believed they shared the political philosophies of Washington and Jefferson and who furnished their houses as virtual museums honoring the symbols of the nation’s founding. At Carter’s Grove seven portraits of George Washington hang on the walls, underscoring the point.


Archeological accuracy was never of prime importance to the Colonial Revivalists. More significant was the establishment of a feeling for the past, an emotional reality. Classical details were used as mere ornamentation, and they were often placed in relationships to one another that might have left a colonist scratching his head in bewilderment. Carter’s Grove has been described as a hall of mirrors where elements of the past are layered and reflected to create an image at once new and nostalgic.


The image is embellished not just by physical details but by the myths that have adhered to them. In the Carter’s Grove “refusal room,” both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, it is said, proposed marriage and were rejected (Washington to Mary Gary and Jefferson to Rebecca Burwell). It is also said that during the American Revolution the British colonel Banastre Tarleton rode his horse up the great stairway (an authentic example of the magnificence that colonial craftsmanship could attain), hacking at the banister rail with his sword while calling his men to arms. A piece of metal embedded in the rail reminds visitors of the “event.” Both stories in reality can be traced back no farther than the early twentieth century. In the case of the sword clash, Ivor Noel Hume, then director of Colonial Williamsburg’s Department of Archaeology, detected an anomaly while being guided through the house by Mrs. McCrae in 1956. “I refrained from asking how a slashing weapon could have been held so that its point could have been thrust straight down,” he later wrote, “and I ignored what appeared to be the mark of a hammer blow just where the metal had been driven home.”

The Colonial Revival style, with its mingling of truth and fancy, had its first showcase at Philadelphia’s 1876 Centennial Exposition. Of the examples of Colonial houses erected in Fairmount Park, one of the most popular exhibits was a “New England Kitchen of 1776,” crowded with Colonial furniture and presided over by women in period dress. From the final years of the nineteenth century forward, as economic upheaval, labor strife, and political unrest coincided with the immigration of Eastern Europeans, these symbols of an earlier, seemingly more settled period struck an increasingly reassuring note for many long-established citizens.