Turning Back the Clock at Stratford Hall

By Frank Delano
(Fredericksburg) Free Lance-Star
Thursday, January 17, 2008

STRATFORD, Va. -- Massive and majestic, Stratford Hall has crowned the cliffs above the Potomac River in Westmoreland County for almost three centuries.

For about 100 of those years, various Lees of Stratford played starring roles in U.S. history. Some of them helped forge the nation. One of them nearly tore it apart.

The 1738 mansion has undergone many changes. Many more are in the works as a new generation of caretakers of the 1,600-acre plantation plots new courses for Stratford on the ever-changing tides of U.S. history and culture.

The present changes begin at the front door and go deep underground, said Paul R. Reber, 48, who became Stratford's executive director in 2006. Some changes are in place, others years away.

In the past, visitors to the mansion arrived through what researchers say was a sort of ground-level servants' entrance. The doorway led to an immense English basement that the Lees probably used for housekeeping and storage.

Today, visitors ascend exterior stairs and enter the great central hall. It was in this 1,600-square-foot room that the Lees received guests and staged days-long dances and festivities. The family used the eight rooms flanking the hall as their living quarters.

Gone from the great hall are the harpsichord and other pieces of delicate, ornate furniture that once graced it. In their place are 12 chairs, two sofas and two tables -- the same number and kind of pieces inventoried after the 1750 death of Stratford's builder, Thomas Lee.

The new pieces are not priceless originals. They are sturdy, simple Queen Anne reproductions on which visitors can plop down to hear docents describe Stratford's history.

In coming years, Reber said, more of Stratford's exquisite Colonial furniture from New York and New England will be replaced with "the simple, locally made furniture" that the Lees probably would have used.

In 2003, Stratford sold six pieces of 18th-century furniture from Boston and Philadelphia for $2.7 million.

"I don't want to give the impression that we are going to have another big sale of objects. There will not be one," Reber said.

One recent acquisition is a linen cabinet found in a Tappahannock, Va., antique shop. The remarkably plain pine box sits in the room where Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was born in 1807.

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