Brandon Plantation

We left the hotel armed with printed MapQuest directions and an iPhone GPS and we still got lost.  We’d start off on one road and end up on another, with no discernible turns or changes on our part.  As the 20 minute drive turned into an hour, I said, “If we don’t come to it in 5 minutes, we’re heading home.” Just then, we hit the end of the narrow, two lane road we’d been traveling and an iron gate appeared.   There was a sign: Brandon Plantation.  Visitors ->

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The last week in April was Virginia Historic Garden Week, during which about 250 public and private historic houses and gardens are opened for tours. It is a fund-raiser for the Garden Club of Virginia.  Gardening is Patricia’s thing and we were happy to find Garden Week participants on our path home from North Carolina.  Public houses (like Bacon’s Castle and Smith Fort Plantation) are on the Historic Garden Week tour list, but they seemed to have the regular tour, garden week or not.  I was particularly excited about Brandon Plantation, however, because the house is usually not open to the public.

The instructions in the Garden Week brochure said to write for a tour.  There was a snail mail address.  Trying to remember the last time I send a personal letter through the postal service, I wrote and got a polite (email) response.  She would be happy to show us Brandon.  She signed herself “Mrs. Daniel,” a bit of formality unexpected in the States in the 21st century.

I made an appointment for 9:30.  We showed up after 10.

In the entry hall of the house, we found an older woman with a blond bob, wearing jodhpurs-looking pants and a quilted vest.  I knew that she was Mrs. Daniel,  because she looked like someone who would sign herself “Mrs. Daniel.”

She was with a tour group but stopped to speak with us.  I apologized profusely.  “I have a bus tour coming any minute,” she said. “If you wouldn’t mind waiting, you can join them.”

No, we wouldn’t mind.  We expected to be told to go away and never darken their doors again.  We happily wandered the formal gardens, which had a bit more going on than had the ones at Bacon and Smith.

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Not long after, I came upon a man looking lost.  “Do you know where the tours start?” he asked.

“In front,” I said. “Are you the bus group?”

He looked relieved.  “Yes.”

“She’s expecting you.”

He made his way back through the boxwoods to the front and on the way picked up about 15 others.  We followed them.  Mrs. Daniel was waiting on the porch.

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The original 5000 acre property was acquired by John Martin in 1616 and was named Brandon after his wife’s family.  Martin sold it to a Richard Quiney (claim to fame: his brother married Shakespeare’s daughter, Judith) in 1635 and Quiney sold it to Nathaniel Harrison in 1720.  Nathaniel was brother to Benjamin Harrison III, who was ancestor to the Harrison presidents.  The property remained with the Harrisons until 1926, when it was sold to Pennsylvania banker, Robert W. Daniel, Sr.  Daniel had Virginia ties: he had been born in Richmond and was a Randolph.  The property is still almost 4500 acres and a thriving agricultural (corn, wheat, soybean and timber) business.

The house was built in 1765 and family lore has it that it was designed by Thomas Jefferson.  But what late 18th/early 19th century Palladian in Virginia doesn’t make that claim?  If he did, he was 22 at the time.  There’s no evidence that he did.

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That’s the back of the house, above.  It looks exactly like the front of the house (in the picture at the top of the post), except for the bullet holes.  How’s that for a teaser?

The house has 7773 square feet, with 7 bedrooms and 6.5 baths.  The tour consisted of three rooms on the first floor – the entry way, the parlor, and the dining room.  No photos in the house but there’ll be a link to a website with pics at the end of the post.

“The age of houses like these is past,” Mrs. Daniel sighed.  “In fact, this one will be for sale in a couple of weeks.”  Her husband, former U.S. Congressman (VA-R) Robert Daniel, Jr., had died last year and I guess their children were not interested in carrying on.

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She read the history off a sheet of paper, and supplemented it with stories about the family.

There was a dumbwaiter in the dining room.  “The kitchen is in the basement,” Mrs. Daniel said.  “I’d put the food in the dumbwaiter and yell to my husband to let him know that the food was on its way up.  When he was growing up here, they had lots of servants to do that sort of thing.  We didn’t.”  She may not have had lots of servants, but I can’t imagine that she kept up a 7773 square foot house without some kind of staff.  And she just didn’t strike me as someone who did her own cleaning.  She did at least have a housekeeper, who was helping with the tour.

At the conclusion of the house tour, we went out of the back of the house.  There were bullet holes surrounding the back door, made by the Union during the Civil War.  “Someone asked my husband why he didn’t fix it,” Mrs. Daniels said.  “He said it was because he still bore a grudge.”

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You may remember that our weekend road trip started with a visit to the Titanic exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.  By odd coincidence, it turned out that we wrapped up our trip on a Titanic note: Robert Daniel Sr. was a Titanic survivor.  His first wife, Eloise (Mrs. Lucian) Smith, also was a survivor.  They met aboard the rescue ship Carpathia (her husband died in the sinking) and married two years later.

Brandon Plantation — the house and farm — goes up for auction on June 26.  It has been appraised for $10.3 million, which seems underpriced.  You can see photos of the property, including interiors, on the auction website.

Update: An article in the Richmond Times Dispatch says that Brandon Plantation sold for $17.8 million to a Florida family, who plan to live there and farm the property.  That’s a relief!

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23 Responses to Brandon Plantation

  1. What am amazing place. Imagine growing up there!

  2. Mrs Daniel must have thought it wasn’t her day with all those tardy visitors.

    Isn’t it against the law in the USA to give dubious info about properties? I note the estate agent claims it was definitely Jefferson designed. Not that I would find that a selling point but there again I don’t have ten mill.

    The river is huge. I like the outside of the building, but I’m not sure about the inside, the decor looked almost artificial. Do the workers on the plantation get protected jobs after the sale? By the size of the estate, if she can’t keep the house clean on her own, I can’t imagine anyone running the farm single-handed.

    • When I saw the auction house website, I wondered that myself. How could they claim that Thomas Jefferson designed it when there’s not evidence he did?

      The interior looked like a museum. And I doubt very much that the plantation workers have any sort of protection. If the new owners decide to keep the house and the farm, they’ll need experienced workers so I’d think that the current staff would have a good chance of being kept on. But I doubt they have any legal recourse if they’re not. She might not have a huge household staff, but there had to be a huge farm staff to operate the kind of business that she talked about.

  3. I love the Titanic connection. Otherwise–what a curious excursion. I wonder who will own this property next.

  4. Kathie Shattuck says:

    Beautiful design from the outside, no matter who did it. Considering how good you are with maps, I can only assume that most folks find this home difficult to find, and the widow must be used to late visitors. Properties like this are so at-risk when they change hands. Hoping the new owners will treat it with taste and respect.

  5. Kathie Shattuck says:

    OK, just looked at the rest of the photos – LOVE the woodwork, but all the poor dead animals HAVE TO GO! Creepy in the extreme.

  6. Janet Havens Phillis says:

    I grew up there most of my childhood both my parent worked for them and so did my grandparents and other family members it was so beautiful place , it broke my heart about a month ago my Sister and I drove there for memories it was so sad, I can still remember Mrs C.Daniels , Mrs Sally Daniels , Mr Robert Daniels and their two children. there had been a lot of changes the house is not a fake I would go with my Mom when they were on vacation to open and close the house in the summer it was kind of creepy but so beautiful ..

    • Wow, it must have been amazing growing up there! I very much hope that someone who can afford to keep the estate intact — at least the house and a good amount of the surrounding acreage — will buy it and it can go on being a private estate. Thanks for visiting and commenting.

  7. Tom Corbin says:

    It’s a shame that there is not much interest anymore in this kind of history. The “myth” of Thomas Jefferson’s influence on Brandon’s design is part of Virginia’s wonderful heritage. When I was a student at William and Mary, Professor Thad Tate (Virginia Colonial history) got some of his students spaces on an APVA tour – the autumn pilgrimage – Association of Virginia Antiquities, now Preservation Virginia. Anyway, Brandon was one of the stops, and the tour was given by Mrs. Daniels. I imagine there have been few changes in those “public” rooms since that tour! The grounds are wonderful and the view of the James River is one of the best in Virginia. Many of the old trees in the river front garden were destroyed by a hurricane. Actually Brandon is one of the closest houses America has to the English country house tradition. Certainly there is enough money in VA for someone to buy it and keep it intact! By the way, Westover Church (on the other side of the James) has revived the idea of the autumn pilgrimage as a fund raiser for the church; it is usually held in September. Westover Church is associated with William Byrd whose home – Westover – is near by. The grounds are open daily, but the house is only open during Virginia Garden Week.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your reminiscences. I’m endlessly charmed by Virginia’s sites and their often quirky histories. And thanks for the heads-up on the Westover Church tour — I’ll look into that.

  8. Patrick D Smith says:

    I was fortunate enough to have visited Brandon years ago on one the annual Westover Church Fall Pilgrimage tours (now given bi-annually), the next will be 2015. I distinctly remember the parlor of which I was most fond and for some odd reason was drawn to the wonderful English Chippendale bench which graced the fireplace.
    This year, Mrs. Daniels sold most of the contents of Brandon at multiple auctions. I had not known of Mr. Daniels passing as I had removed from Virginia to the state Delaware four years prior. As an amateur antiques collector, I receive email notifications of upcoming auctions based on criteria relating to items of interest which I have set up. I received an email displaying a wonderful fireside bench coming up for auction which immediately caught my attention. I thought to myself, why that bench looks like the bench I saw and loved at Brandon Plantation! As I opened the email…I was quite surprised to find that it was in fact, the very one from Brandon, along with countless other pieces to be sold. When it came up for auction at Quinn and Farmer Auction House in Charlottesville…I was able to get not only the bench but also a painting of the parlor which shows the bench in place as proof of provenance to this wonderful piece of furniture which now resides in front of my fireplace in my parlor here in Delaware. With regard to the future of the Plantation…I have every confidence that Brandon will always have the respect that a grand and rich property of such importance should have. As for the unconfirmed connection with Mr. Jefferson…if you are from the south…you already know that we love our stories and can recite them on a dime! It’s just part of our culture! It really does not matter whether Mr. Jefferson had a hand in designing this wonderful structure or not…I believe we all agree that it’s rich history, architecture and standing speak for themselves. Thomas Jefferson is known to have consulted on a great many structures in Virginia, both public and private and I am sure there are many which have not been documented. My most sincere condolences to the Daniel’s family on their loss and to them I offer much gratitude for sharing your home as you have so gracefully done in years past.

    • How wonderful that you were able to obtain some pieces from Brandon! You’ve reminded me that I wanted to follow-up on the auction, to see who ended up with the property. I very much hope that the house has fallen into friendly hands, who will love and preserve it as it deserves.

  9. Patrick D Smith says:

    I did find this link which is more recent and may also be of interest to some followers; Looks like the place sold to a Florida family who has plans of restoration and making the plantation their home as well. It would be fun to follow them up in a few years to see what they have done with the place. You can the boy out of Virginia but you can’t take the Virginia out of the boy! Thanks for sharing..

    • Tom Corbin says:

      Thanks for the link. I had followed the sale for some time and then lost track! I hope that the estate is kept together and that it is put (if not already so) into some kind of land easement to prevent development (although I can’t imagine a Wal Mart in this part of town!) I imagine their “improvements” refer to the systems and not the architecture.

    • Thanks for the link. Definitely will try to remember to keep an eye on it.

  10. Patrick D Smith says:

    I know Tom…I had the exact same reaction when I read that sentence! Time will tell.

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