Columns and stories of life from the Fredericksburg area.
Kenmore to look like Betty and Fielding just stepped out
HISTORY >> PUTTING IT ‘BACK THE WAY IT WAS’
BY CLINT SCHEMMER
THE FREE LANCE-STAR
They’re decorating like it’s 1780 again at Kenmore. The Colonial mansion in Fredericksburg, once home to George Washington’s sister Betty, is being refurnished after a scrupulous eight-year structural restoration.
The George Washington Foundation has embarked on a multiyear effort—piece by piece and room by room—to make Kenmore’s interior appointments as faithful to the past as the National Historic Landmark building itself.
“This project is what everyone has been waiting for,” said Meghan C. Budinger, Kenmore’s curator. “The most common question that we get from visitors is, ‘Why can’t you put everything back the way it was?’ ”
The answer is historical accuracy. Kenmore—rescued in 1922 by a coalition of local women, prominent national figures and the Daughters of the American Revolution—was furnished with an amalgam of antiques by its long-ago guardians.
The antiques’ periods and provenance varied. Now, with new data from the restoration and other sources, the foundation is intent on making the home’s interior look as it did when Fielding and Betty Lewis lived there. Fielding Lewis, a wealthy landowner, merchant and shipping agent, was prominent in the Fredericksburg region during the American Revolution.
George Washington was a regular visitor to the grand home. He and Betty grew up across the Rappahannock River in Stafford County, at what we today call Ferry Farm.
NEW TOUR, NEW FOCUS
The foundation has chosen 1780—the last full year of Fielding’s life—to interpret. Last month, it launched a new tour that pivots around that year, which was the bridge between two distinct periods in the family’s life.
“It’s a very interesting time for visitors to walk into the house and learn about the Lewises,” Budinger said.
Before fighting between Great Britain and its former colonies broke out, Fielding Lewis was a shipping magnate with at least three trans-Atlantic vessels and a store on Caroline Street that supplied much-sought imported goods to his fellow Virginians. The Revolutionary War cut off that trade.
Lewis, a militia leader and political ally of his brother-in-law, ran the Fredericksburg Gun Manufactory, which supplied the Continental Army with small arms. It was fatal to his finances and perhaps his health, Budinger said.
Lewis spent the equivalent of more than $1 million to keep the gunnery going. He wasn’t reimbursed for a penny of it, and he died at 56 in 1781, just a few weeks after the British surrendered at Yorktown.
His passing greatly altered the circumstances of his wife, Betty, and their children. She became manager not just of the household but of the plantation. Betty saw the bills mount and credit diminish—a gradual change that Budinger said is clear in the historical record. To bring in money, she sent her slaves out for hire and timbered the land, selling wagon loads of firewood.
Betty lived another 14 years, and eventually, her grandchildren—and nieces and nephews—also came to live at Kenmore.
“Just imagine all the activity in this house,” Budinger said.
‘GRAND CENTRAL STATION’
Before and after Fielding’s death, Betty handled the family’s finances, tending to the account books from their bedchamber—the center of household life. “She ran the world from there,” Budinger said.
This room will be the first focus of Kenmore’s refurnishing, she said. The chamber—one of three rooms at Kenmore that are famous for their ceilings’ ornate plaster moldings—was Betty’s command post.
From its locked cabinets and closet, a rarity in that era, she would dispense medicines and expensive foodstuffs such as sugar, tea and coffee. She’d plan daily menus for the servants (Kenmore had some 90 slaves in its heyday), hand out assignments, and oversee the bathing, dressing and education of her five children, Budinger said.
The kids would have been running all over the place, she said. For one thing, children didn’t have their own bedrooms; that custom came later.
“It’s nice to have a fresh opportunity to explain this to visitors,” Budinger said. “In the 18th century this would have been a busy place, like Grand Central Station, with all kinds of life—kids and animals and sounds and smells.”
People’s idea that wealthy Colonial women just sipped tea and led lives of leisure is mostly untrue, she said. Friends might well come calling, but they would socialize while working, perhaps sewing and mending. There was all sorts of handiwork to be done, including making clothes for the plantation’s enslaved people, Budinger said.
“The ladies didn’t have an easy time of it in that century. And if they didn’t do it, it didn’t get done.”
Good needlework, though, was itself a mark of refinement, Budinger noted. Betty Washington, for instance, would have stood out from her peers for her knowledge of tambour, a style of French embroidery that was cutting-edge in her youth.
Archaeologists at Ferry Farm, her girlhood home, unearthed a tambour hook in the remains of the Washington house there—part of the growing proof that Betty’s mother, Mary, strove to improve her daughter’s chances of marrying into the upper gentry.
Kenmore’s drawing room will display examples of tambour work as well as a garniture set—unusual, imported ceramic figurines—that will represent another luxury good owned by the Washingtons at Ferry Farm, Budinger said.
Linking the two historic sites, which are both owned by the George Washington Foundation, is one aim of Kenmore’s new interpretive plan, she said. The task of properly refurnishing Kenmore is complex and will require more research and new acquisitions. Visitors will benefit now and in coming years.
“Every few months, they will get to see changes,” Budinger said. “There will always be something new happening.”
Budinger likened the effort to detective work, borrowing the metaphor used in recent years at Montpelier, President James Madison’s home in Orange County. That property was restored to his time period and is gradually being furnished with appropriate objects.
“This isn’t something that happens too terribly often,” she said.
Perhaps once in several generations, or longer.
Gunston Hall in Fairfax County, one of the first mid-Atlantic historic sites to undergo such a change, began the process a few years ago, Budinger said. Stratford Hall, the Lee estate in the Northern Neck, is working in the same vein. And Dumbarton Oaks in Washington is just getting started.
Budinger recently began writing a blog, “The Rooms at Kenmore,” on the foundation’s website to chronicle the curatorial research and problem-solving that go into the effort here.
Right now, for example, visitors see the Lewises’ four-post mahogany bed “undressed,” she said, without any of the fabric that provided decoration or kept out winter drafts and summer mosquitoes. By late summer or early fall, she hopes that new, custom-made bed hangings will be in place in the Lewises’ most private space, cloaking the fine woodwork.
“We’ve just started,” Budinger said. “But this is every curator’s dream of a lifetime, to have a blank canvas they’re telling me to put paint on. I consider myself extremely lucky.”
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Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029