WHEN William Griffith Thomas was a little boy he lived next door to Clarens, one of the oldest houses on the hill. He was a friend of the owner and once helped her lay an elaborate brick floor in the cellar. As a young married man, he and his wife bought Clarens, when it was up for sale after the previous owner's death. And not so long ago, he finished off the basement himself, as a wine cellar big enough to hold 4,000 bottles.
Clarens was built about 1783 by Philip Ludwell for his bridge, Cecilia Lee, according to the informative brochure put out by the Historic Garden Week in Virginia. The first section was a clapboard flounder house, as they were called, with a steep roof slanted in one direction.Shortly after, a brick flounder was added to the first half, completing the house. About 1830-1840, the Fairfax Academy was resident here, with three sons of Robert E. Lee among the 30 pupils. In 1850, another very large wing was added.Later, James Maury Mason, the Confederacy's ambassador to England, owned the house.
During the War Between the States, the house was used as a Union hospital. The garage was the "dead house."
About the turn of the century, the house became a girl's school and acquired its's name. William and Suzanne Thomas found old chalk boards under the layers of wallpaper after they bought the house in 1965 with four acres.
We drove up the long road to the house, past brick and balustrade walls. We came into the house across a big, columned front porch, which continues as a stone-floored piazza or loggia in front of the wing.
Inside, the central hall goes the length of the house, an old custom to ensure the breezes. A stair leads to four bedrooms upstairs. The original flounder, in back, has lower ceilings than the more pretentious and later front flounder. A handsome tall clock, which belonged to Thomas' father, has a ship painted on its face. On the right is Suzanne Thomas' office, (she is chairman of the St. Agnes board of governors). A painting of the three children: Will, 15; Sandy, 13, and Meg, 9, hangs over the fireplace. The empire sofa looks at home with the late 18th century desk.
Across the hall is the family dining-sitting room with its fireplace mantelpiece covered with duck decoys. Thomas keeps his guns in the room as well. The room has two tall columns. Whether that end of the room was once part of the loggia, or the columns were an inside embellishment, is hard to say. Down the hall, the dining room and the kitchen are across from each other. The Thomases completely redid the kitchen, turning it into a keeping room with a tall fireplace as the principal attraction. "When we bought the house," said Suzanne Thomas, "there was no stove in here, just an old sink."
The wing has its own front-to-back hall and staircase to three more bedrooms. A huge drawing room occupies most of the first floor. At the far end, double doors lead to a small room, now a library, with an immense fireplace. It's likely that originally this was the cookhouse, and the present drawing room a breezeway. Once the main house and the wing were each occupied by two older women who weren't fond of each other. They ran the two sections like two totally separate houses, with locked doors between.
The grounds of Clarens, with their ancient boxwood planting, are a glory. All sorts of small outhouses, including a servants cottage and some buildings hard to identify, are sprinkled around the grounds, much like fairy mushrooms. The round spring house has a peaked roof like a witch's hat and a romantic, arched brick bridge.
Across the way, is Thomas' boyhood home, Cranford. Brother Henry A. Thomas and his wife, Bobbie, still own the house. The original house belonged to Gen. Samuel Cooper. As did many other regular U.S. Army officers, he resigned his commission to join the Confederates. So his farm was confiscated, according to the Historic Garden Week brochure, and Fort Williams, called "Traitor's Fort" was built on the site.
Cooper's house was torn down and its bricks and heavy timbers used to build an underground powder magazine. The vaulted magazine still stands in the garden with the remains of the five-sided parapets and trenches.
The current house, according to Mrs. Lindsey was built as a frame house and later encased in a brick shell.
Shaw Cooper, the son of the family, said the house has a ghost. "She's called the pink lady, because she wears a pink nightgown. I've heard she is supposed to be a lady who wanted to own the house."