I once had a dog, and the dog had a blog. A dog history blog, as it happens. Did you know that if not for his dog, Sweet Lips, George Washington may never have become commander of the Continental Army? GW was walking Sweet Lips in Philadelphia (he was a member of the first Continental Congress at the time) when Elizabeth Powell, the wife of the mayor of Philadelphia, stopped to admire the dog. GW mentioned to Mrs. Powell that he missed hunting, which led to Mr. Powell inviting GW to join his hunt club, which led to GW meeting the right people, which led to his appointment as commander of the Continental Army.
But I digress.
A staff member of the Menokin Foundation, a nonprofit that administered a Virginia historic site, commented on the blog and invited us to visit the site (which is dog-friendly). Menokin includes 500 acres next to the Rappahannock River outside of Warsaw, Virginia, and the ruins of a two-story stone Georgian house. We never made it while Ralph the dog was alive but I was there last month and hereby declare it my new all-time favorite historic site tour.
Menokin the house started life as the centerpiece of a 1000 acre plantation – a wedding gift from John Tayloe II to his daughter Rebecca and her husband, Francis Lightfoot Lee, in 1769. Lee was the unassuming intellectual in a family of flashier, more well-known public figures, including brother Richard Henry, second cousin Henry “Lighthorse Harry,” and Henry’s son Robert E. Still, Francis Lightfoot managed to serve in the Virginia House of Burgesses, the Virginia Senate and the Second Continental Congress, and sign the Declaration of Independence, before retiring to a quieter life at Menokin.
By the late 1960s, the house at Menokin was in serious decline. Sharing the fate of many other old houses, it had gone through a series of negligent owners and eventually was left empty and crumbling. Happily for Menokin, though, the last of the private owners recognized the historical and architectural significance of an 18th century house with Lee provenance. Before it could go to complete ruin – which it did in a storm not long after – they had the foresight to remove what original paneling and woodwork they could and store it for posterity. In 1995, the same owner gave what was left of the house and 500 acres to the newly formed Menokin Foundation, which set about finding a way to preserve the house, the land and the Francis Lightfoot Lee legacy.
My husband and I were the only ones on the tour on a cold, January day. For $10 each (it’s free if you want to just wander through on your own) we were taken by a staff member through the museum (which houses the wood pieces removed from the house in the 1960s) and then up to the ruins, where we were given a tour of the interior via temporary steps and scaffolding. I’m crazy about ruins, so being allowed to wander inside made me giddy with excitement. I know – I’m such a nerd.
The only reconstruction that will happen at Menokin will be restoring and returning to the house what original materials they have (which is 80% of the original pieces). Where the walls and other pieces of the original building are missing, new construction will be done in glass, so that visitors will be able to see where the original materials end and reproduction begins. I think it’s a brilliant idea and can’t wait to see the results. It’ll be awhile before it’s complete though – they just hired a development officer so serious fundraising hasn’t even begun. The photo below shows a sample of what they plan to do, though for the sample they used plexiglass instead of glass.
The trails on the Menokin property are open and free all year around except the week between Christmas and New Years. The guide said that their wild flowers are spectacular in spring, so I’ll be back. You can also take a look at the house ruins from the outside. But if you want to see the museum inside the visitor center, or tour the “inside” of the house (which you actually can see from the outside, since there aren’t many outer walls left standing), I’d call ahead to make sure that they’re open and available.