Museums in Glass Houses

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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16 Responses to Museums in Glass Houses

  1. That first sentence tore at my heart. So I struggled to read the rest thinking how nice it was that Ralph’s blog got you the invitations and what a shame it was he never got to visit. Boooo 😦 Right now, LIttle Dog is eating the chair and Big Furry Dog keeps putting his paws on top of him. Too funny. You’ve reminded me I must post on Pippa’s. Long overdue.

    • Yes, I met some awesome people via Ralph’s blog. I admit I just keep going to Pippa’s blog and if there’s nothing new, I just reread what’s there. I never tire of the photos of the two of them.

      • Well, there are always past posts to look at, I did start it in 2007. Or if you look at the blogger version, the pics come up bigger on the actual post (although they do blow up on WP), I blogged on there a lot more back then.

        My favourite pic of Pippa is probably this one:
        although I also like the tiny avatar one of him on that last blog post.

        He’s always been so very photogenic with those kohl rimmed eyes! Little Snowy is differently photogenic, I love his alert stance and his wiry body built for running and hunting. We took them up to one of the batteries near us last night so that Snows could get a run around, as it is enclosed. Must remember to take some pix of that at some point. The previous night a couple of women, just grabbed hold of Pippa to stroke him, saying how lovely he was 🙂

      • The Westminster Dog Show (the US version of Crufts) allowed three new breeds into their ranks this year, and one of them was a Portuguese Podenco. Wouldn’t have known what that was if not for Snowy. Don’t approve of dog shows, but that’s another topic….

        Am making my way through all the old Pippa posts.

      • I have heard of Westminster. I think the Portuguese Podenco seems to get more status than the Spanish ones, and all the different variants, eg Andaluz, Canarias, Iberican. I think I wrote on Pippa’s about Iberian ones being showed at Crufts years ago.

        Don’t agree with them either …

        Got distracted today with block management. No blog posts anywhere. Not Pippa’s, not mine, not Clouds not nada. Pippa and Snowy are happily playing. Prob with photos for now as iPhone at shop for repair and camera batteries playing up. Still plenty of posts to write, but not plenty of time. Later ……

  2. nerdtrips says:

    Thanks. I will have to check out this tour. I have a friend who has a history dog blog. That dog goes more places than I do. I will let them know about Menokin.

  3. The Menokin Foundation is so pleased at all this wonderful press that our little (and no so little) dog tails are wagging up a storm. We’re so sorry we never got to meet Ralph, but hope all his friends and relatives will come visit and stretch their legs. Meet some of the Menokin Canine Corps members and join to the club.

    PS – The daffodils are coming up now, so it won’t be long until nature’s flower show is in session.

    • I really did enjoy the tour very, very much and can’t wait to go back in better weather to see the rest of the property. You’ve made a true fan and I’ll do my best to spread the word. Thanks for dropping by.

  4. Susan Barsy says:

    Interesting post. Thanks.

  5. Kathie Shattuck says:

    I am so jealous of the folks who have daffodils starting to bloom now, our view is still completely covered with snow that has compacted to about a foot deep ice. But they have finally been able to tap the maple trees for sugar, so spring cannot be that far away.

    Fond memories of the times I got to tag along with a younger Ralph on his walks on trails thru the trees and and older Ralph on the Outer Banks. So glad I got to go.

  6. What a wonderful story. I am intrigued about the glass, how inventive of them! I have never heard of the glass, nor one under a roof. However, if it works, that is what matters! Exciting news…

    • I’ve seen parts of a house or museum done in glass, to show some of the original structure. What comes immediately to mind are the floors in the museum at Jamestown in Virginia, which are glass to show the graves underneath it. But I’ve never heard of an entire structure — or a significant part of a structure, at least — done in glass. I think it’s exciting too.

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