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 ->
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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!