By M.J. McAteer
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Anyone who has traveled the Fredericksburg section of Interstate 95 is unlikely to feel the love for the old city. Its location -- about halfway between Washington and Richmond -- creates a perfectly ugly storm of commuter traffic. But just moments off the exit ramp is a place where visitors can park the car -- at an unmetered spot, no less -- and take a walk on the calm side.
My friend Frank and I did just that on a couple of tempestuous spring days recently. We perambulated past 18th- and 19th-century buildings, hoofed it through sites significant to two wars, poked through blocks of shops and toured an artist's lovely retreat.
We started at Kenmore, home of Betty Washington Lewis, George's sister. The Georgian house, which dates to the 1770s, is rather austere and, being unfurnished, has more gravitas than personality. Its most outstanding feature is the work of the "stucco man," an unknown artisan who created stunning plaster ceilings in three rooms plus a delightful overmantel in the dining room that depicts fables from Aesop.
But the carvings and moldings were on the main family living levels. Beneath the well-appointed upstairs, Kenmore house slaves lived in the dirt-floored cellar, on call 24-7, 365. During our time in Fredericksburg we'd get several such reminders that the American Revolution was fought in the name of liberty and justice -- but only for some.
Another war is a huge presence in Fredericksburg, too. Just down the street from Kenmore is a melancholy spot, the Confederate Cemetery, where more than 3,300 Rebel soldiers are interred.
At the Battle of Fredericksburg, in December 1862, Union Gen. Ambrose Burnside ordered his soldiers to cross an open field to attack the Rebels, who were dug in on protected high ground. The resulting carnage for the Union was mind-boggling -- more than 12,000 killed, wounded, captured or missing in a single day -- but still easier to imagine than the courage it must have taken not to turn and run.
"Our boys fired into the close mass without fear of missing," remembered a soldier on the Confederate side. Burnside was relieved of his command a month later.
We found a bit of more cheerful and more recent history just across the Rappahannock River at Belmont, the former home of artist Gari Melchers.
Yes, I know. We said, "Gari who?" too.
This now-forgotten artist was, in the early 20th century, one of the country's most celebrated painters. His work still hangs in major museums such as the Musee d'Orsay in Paris and the National Gallery of Art. His murals decorate the Library of Congress.
In 1916, the artist, in search of a second home away from New York, bought a 1790s house on the heights overlooking the river's rapids. That estate, Belmont, now belongs to the Commonwealth of Virginia.
If Kenmore seemed a tad stark, Belmont manages to be both impressive and inviting. It's filled with antiques the artist collected abroad, and the walls feature an eclectic mix of fine art, including a 12-foot-wide 17th-century Dutch painting that dominates the dining room. A cheerful docent told us that "Gari" had bought the work for $200 in 1906; having it cleaned recently cost $22,000.
Back downtown, we hit the Rising Sun Tavern, where a costumed guide's colorful factoids about Colonial life made for an entertaining hour. We learned the possible origin of expressions such as "rule of thumb" and "mind your p's and q's" (pints and quarts).
Then we opted to browse Caroline Street. This downtown main street is perfect for a tourist because most of its shops carry absolutely nothing necessary.
At the Walker Home store, we examined Asian antiques, including Tibetan Foo dogs and delicate scrolls, while jazz music played in the background.
At the Picket Post, which specializes in Civil War artifacts, I wondered if I could fit into a Union uniform, which looked to be about a ladies' size 8. Hard work and poor nutrition make for small soldiers, the shop owner said.
At River Run Antique Mall, proprietor Terry L. Smith gave us a tour of his reasonably priced armchairs, easy chairs, office and side chairs. Many surely had hosted famous bottoms, because they were deaccessioned by the U.S. Senate and the House and the Supreme Court.
We got an impromptu tutorial on precious stones and fakery at gemologist Kenneth Bonanno's jewelry store. Apparently, it's been "gem buyer beware" since the time of the ancient Romans. Pliny the Elder, Bonanno said, knew all about oiling emeralds to make them look more brilliant.
After a raging thunderstorm, the fickle sun finally made a cameo appearance as we prepared to leave town. The sweaters came off, and the line formed at Carl's. This ice cream stand, in business since 1947, is a Virginia historic landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places. It sells nothing but soft-serve: no sodas, no chips. Bring cash. No flavors of the month, either, just chocolate, strawberry and vanilla.
I got my chocolate shake to consume on the way home. It was fair-size, but we hadn't gone half a mile before I was sucking air through my straw -- courtesy of all that traffic trying to get onto I-95.