Rule Britannia, Y’All

The Virginia upper class of the early 20th century had a thing about England.  It had to do, according to Agecroft Hall’s application to the National Register of Historic Places, with industrialization and the perceived threat that the influx of central and southern European laborers had on the Anglo-American way of life.

Whatever the reason, Anglophila was running rampant when wealthy Richmonder Thomas C. Williams Jr decided that he wanted to live in an English house in an English village, but didn’t want to move to England to do so.  What’s a banker and tobacco heir to do?  Buy himself an English house and move it to Virginia, of course.  Which is exactly what Williams did.

Agecroft Hall was built by landed gentry in Lancastershire, England in the late 1400s.  By the turn of the 20th century, coal mining had come to the area, stripping it of whatever qualities made it attractive to a wealthy family and Agecroft was abandoned.  In 1925, the house went up for auction.  Williams bought it, dismantled it and had it shipped to Richmond, Virginia.

Winston Churchill was involved in debates in the House of Commons about whether such a piece of English heritage should be allowed to leave England.  But there weren’t any English takers and, given the choice between letting it rot and allowing it to go to the States, they let it go.

Much of Agecroft had already been rendered unusable, so rebuilding the house exactly as it was in England was not possible.  What Williams actually got were Tudor building materials – architectural fragments, official papers call it — including timbers, leaded glass windows, stone roof, gates and sandstone foundation.

The current house is about a third of the size of the original.  There’s a model of the original in the ticketing area.  William’s architect, Homer G. Morse, designed a first floor core as close as he could come to the original Agecroft, including a great hall, a dining hall, a parlor and some bedrooms.  To this, he added an office, a library, bathrooms, and a service wing.  Where the original Agecroft was four wings enclosing a courtyard, the new house is shaped like an F. The original timbers were reinforced with steel, and between the timbers, the walls are stucco covered brick, which simulates the look of wattle and daub.

The furnishings in the parts of the house that are on the tour (except the library – more on that later) are from the Tudor and Stuart periods, but not original to the house.  My favorite elements: carved wood reliefs of Tudor men and women in the great hall, and huge, original lead glass windows throughout.  My least-favorite element: the mummified remains of a cat in a wall opening.  Apparently cats were walled into houses – I’m not sure when it started or how long it went — to ward off evil spirits.  I didn’t ask where Agecroft got its cat but am confident that it was mummified when they got him.

Mr. Williams enjoyed his house for only a year before he died in 1929.  His much-younger widow remarried and she and her second husband lived at Agecroft until 1967.  Their portraits hang in the Agecroft library, the only room on the tour left as it was when it belonged to the Mortons (Marion Williams and her second husband).  Mr. Williams’ will stipulated that Agecroft would be open to the public once his widow no longer lived there.  A nonprofit organization, the Agecroft Association, was formed to maintain the house as a museum, and the house was turned over to them in 1968.  It opened to the public in 1969.

We had to tour the house with a guide, and we joined three other people as they left the introductory film.  We could have seen the film at the end of the tour, but didn’t. We opted instead to see the garage-turned-Tudor kitchen.  Hint to house museums: plastic food never works.

The Richmond Shakespeare Festival performs in the Agecroft courtyard during the summer.  Cymbeline was setting up when we were there.

My favorite part of Agecroft was its setting and its gardens, designed by landscape architect Charles Gillette and inspired by the gardens at Hampton Court Palace.  There’s an Elizabethan knot garden, a period herb garden, and a fragrance garden.  The back of the property slopes down to the James River.

William’s English village also came to fruition, in the form of Windsor Farms, a Richmond subdivision developed by Williams with Agecroft as its centerpiece.  Today, Windsor Farms is an exclusive residential area filled with (mostly) Georgian style homes.

Williams wasn’t the only wealthy Virginian who decided he wanted an English mansion.  Virginia House, next door to Agecroft, is headquarters for the Virginia Historical Society and is another moved-from-England mansion.  It started life as a late Tudor manor house in Warwick and, like Agecroft, fell on bad times in the early 20th century.  In 1925, it went up for sale and was bought by American career diplomat, Alexander Weddell, and his wealthy wife Virginia (for whom the house was named).

It had been stripped of its insides so all the Weddells got was the shell, which they shipped to Richmond and turned into the house pictured above.  The Weddells died together in a train crash in 1948 and left the house to the Virginia Historical Society, of which Alexander was president.  The VHS website says that the house is open for tours by appointment, but I was never successful in reaching anyone.  If any of you know how to get them to respond to emails or phone messages, let me know.

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6 Responses to Rule Britannia, Y’All

  1. What beautiful looking properties. Just amazing. I knew about the American who bought London Bridge (and thought he was getting Tower Bridge) but I didn’t realise y’all were shipping houses over!

    The first one – Agecroft – is interesting, because at the time it was built, there was a similar trend in the UK for mock Tudor properties, during the whatever it was called period. Can’t remember now, it will come to me eventually.

    I’m not sure about the gardens though. That first photo doesn’t look right. I don’t know if it’s because the path is going through the middle of the lawn or maybe the materials for the surfacing don’t look right. Perhaps it is because the lawn needs mowing!

  2. I remember the thing about bringing London Bridge to the States, mostly because it went to Arizona, where I was raised. Yes, it was very disappointing that it was just a sleek, modern bridge and now beautiful old Tower Bridge. I hope the buyer knew that….

  3. Claire Ady says:

    wow. I’m amazed its still standing, and looking so good. the rebuilding may have helped to keep to stabilize it …?

  4. Kathie Shattuck says:

    I have fantasized about being so rich you could create an entirely different world for yourself. Like Agecroft, or the Isabella Stuart Gardner in Boston (built to resemble an Italian Renaissance palace with courtyard garden). But of course, if I ever got that much money I would probably feel honor bound to do something socially beneficial with it anyway. The house was very interesting, though I find it annoying when tour guides ask you questions they don’t expect you to know the answers to. And fake food is gross. But I thought the gardens were fabulous! They just went on forever, though I don’t think you could mistake the surrounding views as England.

  5. I’d forgotten about the questions. Virginia House probably would be my style of choice, if I ever had the millions to live in whatever I wanted.

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