Editors' pick

Sully Historic Site

Historic Site
Sully Historic Site photo
Andrea Bruce - The Washington Post

Editorial Review

By Lucy Harvey
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, December 28, 2001

At the Sully Historic Site in Chantilly, children can learn what it really means to "sleep tight" and not "let the bedbugs bite."

Tour guides at the historic mansion explain that long before box springs were invented, mattresses were suspended on ropes threaded underneath a bed frame. The ropes were tightened to prevent the mattress from sagging. So a tight bed meant a comfortable bed. As for bedbugs, residents tried to prevent mites or other critters on the mattress stuffing -- feathers, straw, or cornhusks -- from feasting on the bed occupants.

Loads of these historic tidbits can be found at Sully, the former country estate of Richard Bland Lee and his wife Elizabeth Collins Lee. Lee was the first congressman elected to represent Northern Virginia and was an uncle of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Richard Lee inherited the land -- about 1,500 acres in what was then considered Loudoun County -- and 29 slaves in 1787. Construction began on Sully in 1794, and the family lived there until 1811.

Today the elegant house, constructed in a blend of the Philadelphia row house and Georgian colonial styles, sits astride Route 28, also known as Sully Road, and is sandwiched between the Dulles Toll Road and Route 50. It is open to the public for tours and special events throughout the year.

"It's the last frontier of green space and historic life in the Dulles technology corridor," says Barbara Ziman, public relations director for the site. This "frontier" was almost lost to history. During the construction of Dulles Airport in the 1950s, the house was slated for demolition. Area residents, led by local historian Eddie Wagstaff, rallied around Sully, and in 1959 President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed an act of Congress designating it a historic site. According to Ziman, "the history of Sully reflects the history of Fairfax County." Originally a tobacco plantation, Sully became a gentry farm, then had a long stint as a dairy farm. Finally it served as a gentleman's county seat for two ambassadors' families.

After a careful restoration in the mid-1970s, the house and several outbuildings -- including a joint kitchen and laundry, a quarried stone dairy, a smokehouse and a 40-foot water well -- were returned to their 1795 appearance. Now, it offers a window into plantation life during this country's federal period, from 1790 to 1820. Since much of the Lee's correspondence survived, historians can share rich details about the people who lived and worked there. In the parlor, you'll see a stuffed white squirrel reminiscent of the one that the Lee children kept as a pet. "One of the greatest cares and amusements is the white squirrel," wrote Elizabeth Collins Lee in a letter. Next door in the dining room, the tour guide might mention that children under age 12 traditionally were not considered civilized enough to eat meals there.

On a recent evening tour of the house by lantern light, 4-year-old Katie Lo Re of Chevy Chase pointed mischievously at a costumed "servant girl" who slipped the pieces of a broken plate into her pocket. Later the tour guide explains that they found the remains of several broken blue-and-white Chinese export porcelain dishes hidden under a floorboard upstairs.

Katie's sister, 6-year-old Molly Lo Re, was impressed with the nearly 200-year-old graffiti left by Cornelia Lee, an orphaned cousin who, along with her sister, came to live with the Lees at Sully. On an upstairs window etched into the glass is "C. Lee, 1803." Cornelia also left a needlework sampler depicting the alphabet. It's missing the letter "j" because prior to the Civil War, it was considered interchangeable with the letter "i".

"Kids will get history in school. But what we can do as an historic site is show how real people lived and make it real on a day-to-day basis," explains Dottie O'Rourke, a retired air traffic controller who volunteers at Sully. "One of the things I like to do is compare our lives with their lives," she says. She points out that in the attic storage chamber is a spinning wheel that belonged to Richard Bland Lee's mother, whereas his wife purchased manufactured cloth at a store. "That's just as revolutionary as the newest Xbox," she marveled.

At Sully, you can see what life was like for everyone on the plantation, including the slaves. According to staff historian Sophie Friedrickson, "There is something to say about the slaves in every single room."

At least two slaves tried to escape, including Ludwell, who was captured and returned. "Mr. Lee has been much perplexed since our return home to find the ingratitude of one of his principal hands and favourites -- Ludwell -- who absconded . . . with Mr. Lee's valuable tools," stated another letter. Although none of the original slave dwellings survived, the Fairfax County Park Authority built a replica on the foundations of a previous cabin and it is incorporated into all Sully activities.

In addition to the house and grounds tours, Sully's staff of eight historians and more than 100 volunteers offer a variety of educational programs and special events featuring costumed interpreters. You can take 18th-century dance lessons in the entrance hall, which also doubled as a dance floor. Or you can try your own hand, with reproduction 18th-century tools, at making beaten biscuits in the open hearth, fashioning cleaning products with herbs, making soap from lye or candles from animal fat.