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Turning Back the Clock at Stratford Hall
Prized Furnishings Are Giving Way To Simpler Reality

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.

Stratford and its collection of 18th-century furniture used to be "all about decorating," Reber said. "But the house segment of our audience is not going to sustain us in the future. We've got other audience segments that we've got to think about and cultivate."

Stratford's new interpretation emphasizes the lives of four generations of Lees who lived there.

Two Stratford brothers, Richard Henry and Francis Lightfoot Lee, signed the Declaration of Independence.

Three other brothers -- William, Arthur and Thomas Ludwell -- also played important roles in the American Revolution.

"Understanding the lives of the Lees requires us to redecorate the rooms as they would have known them," Reber said. "This re-appraisal is based on new evidence that was not available 20 or 30 years ago. In this sense, it is still about decorating but with the intent to instill a higher degree of authenticity, rather than focus on our modern sense of aesthetics."

Some changes underway will correct mistakes of the past, he said.

The Robert E. Lee Memorial Foundation has owned the plantation since 1929. In the 1930s, the foundation hired architect Fiske Kimball (1888-1955) to redesign the property inside and out.

With little to go on besides his reputation, Kimball added Stratford's monumental exterior stairs. "They're not going anywhere," Reber said.

Kimball also directed makeovers of some rooms.

For example, he changed a parlor that Robert E. Lee's father had modernized around 1790. With the help of a $100,000 challenge grant from the Mary Morton Parson's Foundation in Richmond, the parlor will be restored to its 1790 colors and appearance.

In the room next door, Kimball removed original interior staircases that led below to the house's first floor and above to its attic.

Fortunately, one of the old staircases was photographed before its removal. Traces of another remain on the room's hand-hewn studs. Starting next year, both will be rebuilt as part of Stratford's $1.3 million Lee Heritage Plan.

Of that amount, $750,000 was spent this summer to install a geothermal heating and air-conditioning system. The system uses 13 wells and hundreds of feet of pipe and wire buried in Stratford's south lawn.

The Great House will always remain the heart of Stratford, Reber said, but he sees important future roles for the plantation's fields, forests and river shore. That diverse landscape offers many possibilities for interpretation and outdoor activities, he said.

Reber expects lodging and dining at Stratford to grow as more visitors discover the charm, beauty and quiet of the place.

And, although he probably won't be around to hear it, he expects criticism from Stratford's future caretakers.

"In 50 or 60 years, they'll probably be cursing us for what we did," he said. "But we're not doing anything now that they can't put back then."

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