The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
Four historic properties changing ownership
BY CLINT SCHEMMER
THE FREE LANCE-STAR
On the outside, four of Fredericksburg’s most venerable properties look like they have for decades.
But inside the Mary Washington House, Rising Sun Tavern, Hugh Mercer Apothecary and St. James’ House, big change is afoot.
Preservation Virginia, the nation’s oldest statewide preservation group, is going to hand off ownership of the four much-visited historic sites to a new, local nonprofit to be called the Washington Heritage Museums.
On Wednesday afternoon, the leaders of Preservation Virginia and its Mary Washington Branch signed a memorandum detailing each party’s responsibilities and roles during the transition.
At the stroke of 1 o’clock, Preservation Virginia Executive Director Elizabeth S. Kostelny and Mary Washington Branch Director Gail Braxton sat down at an antique table in the front parlor of the Mary Washington House to approve the agreement. Afterward, they shared a laugh and shook hands, then posed for a photo with 10 people who witnessed the occasion.
“In signing the [memorandum] with the Mary Washington Branch, we are charting a path that acknowledges the capabilities of the branch in caring for four significant historic properties,” Kostelny said.
“For more than 120 years, Preservation Virginia’s Mary Washington Branch saved, preserved, promoted and interpreted these local assets through their unquestionable stewardship. These efforts will be enhanced by clear local ownership.”
The new, tax-deductible group will maintain the sites—all of which are linked to George Washington and his family—with “strict historical accuracy,” according to the memorandum of understanding between the parent group and its Fredericksburg arm.
In time, perhaps by this winter, Washington Heritage Museums will receive all four properties and their fine-arts collections.
“Today, we are thrilled that, by signing the memorandum, we have a clear picture going forward and are able to accept this responsibility,” Braxton said in an interview. “The bottom line is that we will get the four sites and their endowments.”
The group is fine-tuning its application for 501–c–3 status with the Internal Revenue Service, creating a business plan and inviting people to join its board, she said.
“The Washington Heritage Museums needs the support of the entire Fredericksburg-area community, and will launch a founding membership campaign in September,” Braxton said.
Preservation Virginia has slimmed down in recent years, closing branches, charting a new mission as a preservation facilitator and consultant, and focusing on just five properties—Historic Jamestowne; the John Marshall House in Richmond; Scotchtown, Patrick Henry’s home in Hanover County; the Cape Henry Lighthouse; and Bacon’s Castle in Surry County.
Preservation Virginia will put conservation easements on the four Fredericksburg sites, Kostelny said.
“We are happy to say they will be held locally by Historic Fredericksburg Foundation Inc.,” Braxton said.
HFFI has long held such easements to protect other historic properties in the Rappahannock River watershed.
“Our board is pleased to work with and support the newly formed Washington Heritage Museums group in this manner,” HFFI President G. Scott Walker said in an interview, calling the sites “Fredericksburg’s Colonial crown jewels.”
HFFI Executive Director, Sean Maroney is talking with Preservation Virginia about how to word and transfer the easements, Walker said.
He expressed the foundation’s gratitude to the fledgling group as its leaders prepare to continue doing “the outstanding work they have done for decades.”
Preservation Virginia’s Mary Washington Branch is nearly as old as the statewide group, which was founded the prior year, in 1889. Local women created the branch to save Mary Washington’s home, which was nearly disassembled and trucked away to be put on display at the Chicago Columbian Exposition, held in 1893.
Scott H. Harris, director of the James Monroe Museum and Memorial Library in Fredericksburg, was among those who watched Braxton and Kostelny strike their bargain Wednesday.
“I applaud both organizations for their diligent approach to managing new operating realities,” Harris said. “And I’m glad that Fredericksburg and all of Virginia will still benefit from the work of these organizations.”
ON THE NET:
Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029
BACKGROUND ON THE MUSEUMS CHANGING HANDS
The four museums, in order of their acquisition by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities:
The Mary Washington House (1200 Charles St.) was the last home of George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, who lived there from 1772–1789. The building was rescued in 1890 after a proposal to dismantle it and send it to Chicago for the 1893 Columbian Exposition. A local resident overheard conversation on the proposed sale and the asking price of $4,000. The Chicago agent did not have authorization to meet that price and needed time to seek approval. In the meantime, a concerned Fredericksburg citizen contacted the newly formed APVA to ask for help in preventing the removal of a Virginia treasure. The APVA provided a loan and formed its Mary Washington Branch to save the property.
The Rising Sun Tavern (1304 Caroline St.), originally built as the private home for George Washington’s youngest brother, Charles, came to the Mary Washington Branch of APVA for the purchase price of $1,000 in 1907. At first, the branch furnished two rooms with borrowed furniture, mostly Victorian, and opened the tavern to the public for tours. The branch rented the other rooms as a residence. The branch made structural repairs in the 1930s and completed extensive interior work in 1956. The porch was re-created on the original foundation in 1978. The property is on the National Register of Historic Places.
St. James’ House (1300 Charles St.) was once the home of Mary Washington’s attorney James Mercer. Built in the 1760s, it stands as an example of an 18th-century gentleman’s residence and contains an outstanding collection of period fine arts. The house and contents, along with an endowment for upkeep, went to Preservation Virginia in 1974 by bequests from Dan Breslin and Bill Tolerton, who intended the Mary Washington Branch to manage the property for historical purposes.
Hugh Mercer Apothecary Shop (1020 Caroline St.) tells the story of 18th-century medicine and honors the life of Revolutionary War hero Hugh Mercer, an important local resident after the French and Indian War. Trained as a doctor in his native Scotland, Mercer treated Mary Washington. He died from wounds received at the Battle of Princeton. Among Gen. Mercer’s descendents are songwriter Johnny Mercer and Gen. George S. Patton.
In 1926, a group of local preservation-minded professionals and businessmen formed the Citizens’ Guild of George Washington’s Home Town Inc. to purchase and restore the apothecary site. In 1941, the guild passed ownership to the Friends of Historical Pharmacy with the stipulation that when they could no longer care for the property, they were to offer it as a gift to Fredericksburg, and if the city declined, to the APVA.
In 1978, Preservation Virginia accepted the Hugh Mercer Apothecary Shop to be managed by the Mary Washington Branch, which welcomed it as an important part of the area’s history.