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Stratford Hall upgrading its visitor experience

An artist’s rendering depicts the 21,700-square-foot visitor center planned at Stratford Hall as part of the Virginia historic site’s just-announced $17 million fundraising campaign. (ROBERT E. LEE MEMORIAL ASSOCIATION INC.)

BY CLINT SCHEMMER

THE FREE LANCE-STAR

The Robert E. Lee Memorial Association  is embarking on the public phase of a $17 million campaign to replace Stratford Hall’s visitor center, create digital tours and better restore the estate’s Great House and gardens.

The “Securing a Place for the Past” campaign is already two-thirds of the way toward its goal, having raised $10.1 million in donations and pledges from the association’s board of directors, Stratford Hall officials said at a press conference Wednesday in the dining room of the 2,000-acre Potomac River estate in the Northern Neck.

“We are excited about the impact this campaign will have for the future of Stratford Hall and its visitors,” said Custis Glover, president of the association’s board and a Lee family descendant. “This campaign is not about just a single new building, exhibit or room restoration, but will ensure a new visitor experience to everyone who visits Stratford Hall.”

The fundraising effort, which began in 2008—the first year of the Great Recession—is the largest undertaking in recent decades at Stratford Hall, birthplace of Civil War general Robert E. Lee.

At its core is a $5 million, two-story visitor center and user-driven smartphone and iPod Touch tours that offer a variety of choices and materials for adults and children.

Robert E. Lee’s memories of Stratford Hall were limited since his family moved north when he was only 4, but one of his letters recalled a horse chestnut tree that his mother planted in the garden. (DAVE ELLIS/THE FREE LANCE-STAR)

The 21,700-square-foot visitor center, built on the site of a smaller, early-1970s center, will have areas for hands-on, permanent and changing exhibitions, plus a café, meeting and office spaces, and climate-controlled storage for museum collections.

The campaign will also improve roads and trails, build a new gatehouse at the entrance, and bolster the association’s endowment, to help guard against leaner times.

To entice more families and younger visitors, Stratford is developing “Mii” tours to enable visitors to focus on  particular interests. They will be able to investigate the scenic landscape, which includes 2 miles of Potomac River frontage, and see the Great House’s interiors through the eyes of a Lee family member, slave or museum professional. The new digital tours will complement the plantation’s traditional guided tours.

The clay cliffs at Stratford Hall Plantation (lower left) hold the fossils of whales, porpoises, saltwater crocodiles, manatees, mammoth sharks and other long-extinct sea creatures from the Miocene era of 5 million to 25 million years ago, when the area was was under the ocean. (SUZANNE CARR ROSSI/THE FREE LANCES-STAR)

“Visitors are already beginning to see the impact this campaign will have on the future of preserving Stratford for future generations,” said  Executive Director Paul C. Reber.

Recent improvements in the Great House include restoration of its Great Hall,  North–West Stair Passage and  Parlor. The latter was featured this month during a three-day cultural landscape symposium on “Discovering the Virginia Parlor 1730–1800,” which drew scholars, historians and others from throughout the Mid-Atlantic.

Other work has restored the estate’s South–West outbuilding and Slave Quarters, improved on-site lodging and installed a geothermal heating and cooling system.

Built circa 1738, Stratford Hall is one of the great houses of American history, set on a high bluff above the Potomac. It was home to the only two brothers to sign the Declaration of Independence, Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee.

The association, a nonprofit, purchased the Westmoreland County property in 1929 to preserve its expansive grounds and architecturally distinctive structures.

First lady Eleanor Roosevelt, with U.S. senators’ wives and superintendent Benjamin Cheatham, visits Stratford Hall in the 1930s. (ROBERT E. LEE MEMORIAL ASSOCIATION INC.)

Carol and Theodore Price of Richmond are co-chairing the comprehensive campaign. She is the association’s Virginia director and a past president of Stratford’s board. He is an investment banker.

Both love history, and are passionate about communicating the significance of the Lee family story to the nation and world.

“You’re kind of overwhelmed in this region by Monticello and Mount Vernon, which are important and wonderful places,” Ted Price said by phone Tuesday. “But Stratford is equal to each of those sites. So we feel there is opportunity here.”

Price lauded the association board’s generosity in the capital effort’s “quiet” phase, saying its initial success has encouraged Stratford Hall’s supporters.

“With the campaign, we’re now going to be able to bring this history, in a much better way, to a great many more people to whom it would be important,” he said. “The new visitor center will open a whole new educational smorgasbord for visitors. It’s going to be very exciting.”

The plantation’s Great House, octagonal garden house (right) and East Garden, with its rows of boxwoods, are seen from the air in the 1930s.  (ROBERT E. LEE MEMORIAL ASSOCIATION INC.)

By spurring tourism and greater employment, the campaign’s multiple projects should benefit the entire region, Reber said.

“This campaign will not only ensure Stratford’s future, but provide a positive economic impact for the Northern Neck, as well,” he said.

ON THE NET:

http://www.stratfordhall.org

Clint Schemmer:   540/368-5029

cschemmer@freelancestar.com

Permalink: http://news.fredericksburg.com/newsdesk/2012/10/24/stratford-upgrading-its-visitor-experience/

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