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Antebellum Allure

"I like the integrity of it, the feeling that lives have passed here, that happy times were had here before me," he said.

Springland has been on the market and off for several months. Moss Neck has been on the market since the beginning of this year.


Moss Neck manor in Caroline County, VA, a plantation from 1853 that Stonewall Jackson used as a headquarters during the Civil War. (Hyosub Shin - For The Washington Post)

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Historic homes can be a tough sell, real estate agents say, largely because their layouts often do not appeal to modern buyers. Any modifications are difficult because they must be approved by historical review boards. Maintaining a sprawling 150-year-old-plus house can also be time-consuming and costly.

But for you history buffs out there, if you want an antebellum mansion, there are not many to choose from around here, even though in the era of slavery this area was dotted with cotton and tobacco plantations.

"Fine plantation houses are pretty scarce in Virginia," said Calder Loth, an architectural historian at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. "There are 50 or less in all of Virginia, if that," he said. There are no official records chronicling the number of such houses, Loth said.

In this region, most of the building that took place during that time was in the cities. Virginia was going through a period of severe economic decline during the antebellum years. The soil was exhausted by two centuries of farming without enough crop rotation or use of fertilizers.

From 1817 to 1829, the value of land in Virginia plummeted to $90 million from $207 million, according to the Virginia Historical Society. At a time when most Virginians' incomes were tied to agriculture, the result was a mass exodus from the state.

"They used to say that Virginia's chief export was brains during that time," said Frances Pollard, director of the library for the Virginia Historical Society. "So many people moved west in search of better land."

The agricultural wealth of that time was concentrated in the deep South, and so antebellum mansions are far more common in Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, Loth said.

In Maryland, the great tobacco fortunes were made mostly in the late 18th century or early 19th century, said Rodney Little, director of the Maryland Historical Trust.

"Most Maryland families that were going to spend huge wads of money building a house had already done so [by the antebellum period] and they didn't need a second one," Little said. "Families who could afford those kinds of things had already built them."

Little estimated there are fewer than 50 antebellum plantation homes surviving throughout Maryland.

The Washington area is rich with outstanding historic houses, of course, and many are still in use. Entire neighborhoods -- Georgetown, Old Town Alexandria and Capitol Hill, to name a few -- have been declared historic districts.

Federal, Georgian and Victorian architecture are more prevalent here than is the characteristic antebellum style.

But that is not the image many out-of-towners have, particularly when they mentally lump together all the states of the Confederacy.

"People often associate Virginia with that Mississippi plantation look -- the big oak trees, the long driveway and the dripping Spanish moss," Pollard said.

Pollard said that is what Hollywood producers expect when they scout locations in Virginia.

"They often ask for that look here," Pollard said. "But if they want the plantation, the Tara look, they have to either fudge it, or go elsewhere."


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