RICHMOND -- For 125 years, the two-story white farmhouse known as Lockwood sat in serene anonymity, doing quite a good imitation of an ordinary house in the middle of an unexceptional field.

Yet in a city and state that sometimes seem absorbed in past triumphs and tragedies, three words are enough to describe why this house 15 miles north of the state Capitol in suburban Hanover County will never be ordinary. Those words are: Lee stayed here.

That's Gen. Robert E. Lee, of course, a mythic figure of the Old South, who stayed at Lockwood for three nights while commanding Confederate forces just before their successful defense of Richmond in the Battle of Cold Harbor in 1864.

So imagine the uproar when historic preservationists learned that Lockwood's new owners planned to move the house to make way for a new development. And imagine the astonishment when it turns out the people the preservationists are battling are none other than the Bryans -- a family at the core of the Richmond establishment who for decades has been one of this city's most important patrons of historic preservation.

Lockwood is the site where Media General Inc., the publishing company owned by the Bryans, is planning a large new printing plant for its two Richmond newspapers, the Times-Dispatch and the News-Leader.

Until now, the Bryans' preservationist credentials were unassailed. J. Stewart Bryan III, the publisher of the Richmond newspapers, is the great-grandson of Isobel Lamont Stewart Bryan. She was a president of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, considered by many the granddaddy of Virginia preservation groups. And his father, D. Tennant Bryan, is president emeritus of the Virginia Historical Society.

In the current controversy, though, the publisher and Media General have stood firm. They say they are willing to preserve the house by moving it to a new location, but not to modify their development plan so the house can remain standing in its original location as an ornament or possibly a visitor center for Media General's new complex -- the option that preservationists are pushing.

"It's been surprising to us, as you might guess, given the family's history," said Robert B. Giles, vice president of the local chapter of the antiquities association. "I'm at a loss to explain why they've been so inflexible."

Bryan has maintained that Media General wants to be flexible -- by helping arrange the transfer of the house to a more rural location away from the firm's plant. "Richmond Newspapers and Media General are not, and cannot be, in the business of maintaining historic buildings," Bryan wrote Giles and other preservationists last year.

Bryan declined to be interviewed for this article, saying "nothing would be served" by a "rehash" of the controversy, which has drawn coverage not only in his own papers but also in a front-page feature in the Wall Street Journal.

He did say that a "resolution" of the dispute is at hand, probably within the next several days, and that the solution would be consistent with "what we've said all along" -- a move for the Lockwood house. Bulldozer grading of the surrounding acreage is already far along.

Preservationists maintain that taking Lockwood off its foundation seriously diminishes its historic value. Hugh C. Miller, director of the state government's Department of Historic Resources, told Bryan in a letter this spring that "relocating the house might preserve some of the fabric of the main structure," but would "remove the house from its historic physical context and surroundings. This alteration might not be a critical issue had Lockwood not figured so prominently in Civil War history."

But how prominent is prominent? When it comes to Lee, people have trouble agreeing, as Northern Virginians well know. Two years ago, much of the debate over whether to expand the Manassas National Battlefield Park to prevent the construction of a shopping mall centered on whether land where Lee had erected his tent was worth preserving.

Congress eventually decided it was, although the final price for condemning the land has yet to be determined and probably will exceed $100 million.

Government or court intervention isn't expected in the Lockwood case. But the mystical attraction that draws people to things associated with the Civil War is just as evident as it was in the Manassas dispute.

Preservationists maintain that Lockwood has special significance because it was one of the few houses where Lee actually moved in during the war. Ordinarily, they say, the general slept in a tent so as not to seem less sacrificing than his soldiers. At Lockwood, though, he was so afflicted with dysentery that he made an exception.

Especially in Richmond, devotees of Civil War history are a diverse cross section. Giles, a Richmond native, has photographs of Civil War generals on the wall of his office at the investment house of Davenport & Co.

He's been joined in the controversy by Bob Lynch, another Richmond native who lately has been laid up by an injury from his construction job. Lynch has read widely on the Civil War, and recalls vividly the day he learned as a small boy that the South actually had lost the war.

Though slavery was wrong, "there were honorable men fighting on both sides" of the war, said Lynch, who has led a petition drive to try to persuade the Bryans to change their plans at Lockwood.

Giles, at least, said he realizes that all the tactics to preserve Lockwood in its original state are probably about to fail. But he said he has no regrets. "We want to be able to say that we did everything we could possibly do to save it," he said. "We want to be able to tell our grandchildren that. I don't know what Mr. Bryan will tell his grandchildren."