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Supporters hope to make Menokin a national historic attraction


The ante is being upped at the Northern Neck home of Francis Lightfoot Lee, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Restoration, interpretation, business operations and major fundraising are still in the planning stages for Menokin, in Richmond County.

But organizers are moving forward with the selection of an internationally known architectural firm and a visionary commitment to making Menokin a nationally relevant restoration.

From discussions with Menokin officials to an architect’s talk about a unique re-creation of the 1769 Lee house to a vision statement from the Menokin Foundation Board, it’s clear big changes may be in the offing, including:

One of the more unique historic restorations in the country, using original materials as much as possible. Staff and consultants are able to salvage and document some 80 percent of the original materials for the neo-Palladian estate. They would fill in missing pieces with structural glass and an underlining of other material.

The vision statement compares the approach—reconstructing some sections while letting the bones show—with “Living Man” anatomical models from grade school.

It notes that that “living building” reconstruction would help visitors and students to “understand the ingenuity and structure of a working 18th-century house and plantation.”

Right down to the “tool marks on timbers and the backs of the joinery” from the craftsmen, many of them enslaved, who helped create the home some 250 years ago.

Stepping back to take a look at the entire 500-acre property the board sees as a critical “classroom for heritage and natural resource conservation.”

In the long term, that might mean reorienting on how visitors enter the grounds not far from Warsaw. Or focusing on various other aspects of the property, including the long, rolling terrace down to Cat Point Creek, where hogsheads of tobacco were once rolled aboard ships bound for England.

Included in the focus beyond the house is Menokin’s ancient forest and pristine shoreline, where students can learn about ecological change and land use over hundreds of years.

An elevation of the Northern Neck estate’s national profile.

It’s an ambitious restoration. The architectural firm of Machado and Silvetti of Boston promises unique approaches using lighting, audio, apps and augmented reality. Menokin leaders know it will carry a healthy price tag.

One preliminary estimate, which officials emphasize will be firmed up as plans move forward, sets a projected budget for the entire project at $14 million. That includes $7.5 million for restoration of the house—now stabilized and under a large metal roof—and more than $4 million for project fees and other costs for contingencies, exhibitions and reconfiguring the current visitor center.

It’s a fascinating project, turning a house that neared total collapse in the 1940s into a unique lab of a historic home where missing segments will allow you to see how all the components go together.

Sarah Pope, executive director at Menokin, noted that work is proceeding on several fronts.

“This week, we had consultants in and traveled to other historic attractions in the region, from Stratford Hall to Kenmore and Ferry Farm,” she said. “The idea was to see what the visitor experience is like there, with an eye for how we might be able to work more closely with them and have experiences at Menokin that complement those sites.”

Pope noted that while the work at Menokin will probably be spread over the next four to five years—with long-range goals possibly adding educational space and more—it’s obvious that the need for anything close to the projected $14 million budget means the transformation of Menokin needs to be a national effort to become a reality.

The board’s vision statement says that will be justified by the fact that the project could provide a new sort of national model for interpretation, preservation and education.

I like the approach of using original materials and filling in the missing spots with glass and more. It means you’ll know with certainty which parts are the real thing in this house given as a wedding gift to “Frank” Lee and bride Rebecca Tayloe.

Rob Hedelt: 540/374-5415