DOWER PLAY / POWER PLAY
MENOKIN AND THE ORDEAL OF ELITÉ HOUSE BUILDING IN COLONIAL VIRGINIA
Note: This article was published in Constructing Image, Identity, and Place, no. IX in the Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture series, edited by Alison K. Hoagland and Kenneth A. Breisch (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2003), pp. 3–21. Used by permission.
In many places today, thick swaths of woodland obscure the contours of its terrain, just as dense layers of silt blur the shorelines of its watercourses, but remnants of the colonial past linger still in the landscape of Tidewater Virginia. Back then, Richmond County's shallow, marshy, meandering Cat Point Creek was known by a different name. Deep, wide, and comfortably navigable for several miles inland from the Rappahannock River, “Rappahannock Creek” was also shapely with protected coves where the flowing water became calm and gentle beaches welcomed the construction of docks or landings (map 1.1). Such a remarkable avenue of travel and trade made the surrounding land susceptible to early patents and partitions. At first the tracts around Rappahannock Creek were settled mostly as quarters or leaseholds. Overseers, tenants, indentured servants, and slaves shouldered aside the resident Algonquian Indians to raise tobacco, corn, beef, and pork for the profit of landowners who lived farther downriver or on one of the lower Tidewater peninsulas.1 In time, however, the sons and grandsons of the original landowners began to seat the shores of Rappahannock Creek. By the third quarter of the eighteenth century, the broad flood plain on either side of the creek, as well as the brow of an escarpment that rears above it, were studded with the genteel seats of elite families whose names everyone knew: Fauntleroy, Belfield, Carter, Brockenbrough, Beale, Tayloe, and Lee (map 1.2).
Map 1.1. Detail of the 1751 Fry-Jefferson map of Virginia highlighting Rappahannock Creek. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Map 1.2. Virginia's Rappahannock Creek neighborhood in about 1770 delineating fifty-foot and one-hundred-foot contour intervals and noting house sites of the most prominent eighteenth-century planters. Drawing by the author, with Whitney Morrill.
Like most of Virginia's colonial gentry, the wealthy families whose lands surrounded Rappahannock Creek were concerned with their “vistas” and “prospects,” were concerned with their capacity to see and be seen.2 So they kept the land between the water and their dwelling sites cleared not only to facilitate agriculture and other productive activities but also to open lines of sight to their houses—to make their presence known.3 For the same reasons, these elite planters thought carefully about the sorts of impressions their houses and related service buildings conveyed to passersby. Some, like the Beale family, communicated their early arrival and sustained regional prominence through a clearly venerable though architecturally modest house located on an elevated site.4 Others, like Moore Faunderoy, chose a shoreline location where the varied and useful-looking outbuildings clustered around his house could indicate the diversity and success of his affairs, and where the entire assemblage, noted on contemporary maps as “Fauntleroys,” became a landmark for every sailor who wanted to gauge his progress along the Rappahannock River.5 Still other planters, like Landon Carter and John Tayloe 11, decided to cut more dramatic figures in the landscape through the building of houses which showcased their exceptional sophistication and taste. Carter sharpened the points he wished to make about his two-story brick mansion, with its bright checkered brick walls and its carved stone dressings, when he gave it the classically inspired name Sabine Hall.6 With similar flourish, Tayloe built his house on the highest eminence overlooking Rappahannock Creek. He also enhanced the visual power of his Mount Airy by closely basing its design on an image in an English pattern book and by choosing to build and embellish his house entirely, of brown and white stone (fig. 1.1).
Fig. 1.1. North elevation of Mount Airy, Richmond County, Virginia.
By 1775, a new house with its complement of outbuildings had been raised near the edge of the bluff overlooking Rappahannock Creek. Built for Francis Lightfoot Lee, this gentleman's seat was called Menokin from an Algonquian place name with currency in the locality since time out of mind. Though located nearly two and a half miles from Tayloe's house and separated from it by the dwelling Sites of several other prominent planters, Menokin was situated on an eminence only a few feet below Mount Airy's, so each house almost certainly served as a distant focal point in the sweep of the other's prospect.7 This mattered, for the most arresting characteristic of the house at Menokin was the way it set up a call-and-response relationship with Mount Airy through remarkable similarities as well as equally intriguing (inferences in materials, scale, and composition (fig. 1.2). Both similarities and differences manifestly were calculated to convey a nuanced relationship between the two houses that extended beyond matters architectural. Even if colonial observers did not know enough about the individuals and relationships involved to grasp the substance behind the signs, few could have overlooked the architectural cues Menokin thrust into the landscape. Few modern scholars of early Virginia can resist the invitation to unravel Menokin's tale. Indeed, the story of how Menokin was designed and built offers an opportunity to observe the elite Virginia house-making enterprise as a series of strategic maneuvers behind which lurk quite compelling human experiences: promises half kept, legacies provisionally bestowed, patriarchal authority aggressively enforced, and filial resistance materially encoded. Above all, the planning, design, and construction of Menokin stand at the center of a sustained and obliquely articulated debate in colonial Virginia concerning the prerogatives inherent in individual ownership and the obligations associated with intergenerational fortunes.
Fig. 1.2. North and west elevations of Menokin, Richmond County, Virginia, in about 1930. Courtesy of the Library of Virginia.
In the beginning “Menokin” was the name of a thousand-acre tract, first delineated and designated in 1658. John Tayloe II (1721–1779) added Menokin to his substantial Richmond County landholdings through purchase nearly a century later.8 The profits from Menokin and Tayloe's other outlying plantations constituted a significant portion of his wealth, but he also prospered from shipbuilding, grist-milling, and iron-foundrying enterprises as well as from shrewd involvement with the transatlantic trade in staples and luxuries.9 All of his property and its carefully managed capacity to generate income made Tayloe one of the very richest Virginians of his day. This, along with the social connections which his family had been cultivating over the course of four generations in Virginia, won for John Tayloe II appointment to key political offices, the most prestigious of which was a seat on Virginia's Council of State. He also made, in 1747, an exceedingly advantageous marriage to Rebecca Plater, daughter of George Plater II, Maryland's secretary of state and deputy governor.10
John Tayloe II worked hard to increase his wealth, but he also worked hard to enjoy it. By 1765 he had completed on the highest plateau of his Richmond County land a “daring scheme of a mansion” surrounded with every structure and planting agreeable to genteel living and lavish entertaining.11 Tayloe also indulged himself in the construction at Mount Airy of a mile-long race track. He imported a blooded stallion and several mares, bred a stable full of fleet colts and fillies, and joined with alacrity in the games of public showmanship and chance which preoccupied many of the Virginia elite by the middle of the eighteenth century.12 Fecundity enlivened matters within the Mount Airy mansion as well as among the stables, pastures, gardens, and crop lands surrounding it. Starting in 1750, Rebecca Plater Tayloe bore healthy infants at intervals that suggest her happy capacity to bring live births to term.
In 1765, at the mature but still vigorous age of forty-four, John Tayloe II had everything a Virginia gentleman could want; everything except a son. Frolicking about him and his wife in their fine new mansion house were seven daughters at various stages of growth and development.13 Tayloe loved his girls, gave them pet names, and sent affectionate messages to them when he was away from Mount Airy.14 Still, no Virginia gentleman could take lightly the lack of a male heir to whom he could proudly pass on the bulk of his estate—a lifetime of successful work indelibly imprinted with the family's noted and enviable name. Tayloe's concern was poorly concealed by the light tone he adopted in writing his friend William Byrd III: “I have neither prospect nor hopes of a son therefore will indeavor to make [of my daughters] good wives for your boys.”15
Whether he thought so or not, there was still reason for optimism in his wife's continuing pregnancies. Nevertheless, in 1767, the many-daughtered John Tayloe II found himself forced to think about the disposition of his wealth, the survival of his family name, and the impact on his prestigious position of legacies to the next generation. The issue emerged when Tayloe's oldest girl Elizabeth received an offer of marriage from Edward Lloyd IV of Talbot County, Maryland. Young Lloyd was heartwarmingly rich and well connected with a bright political future, so Tayloe agreed to the marriage and promised to enhance the union with a handsome dowry of two thousand pounds sterling.16
In bestowing cash on the Lloyds, Tayloe was embracing a time-honored strategy among the Virginia elite: generous dower gifts of money to daughters confirmed the well-lined pockets of the bride's father, solidified ties between families, and helped ensure the prosperity of next generation; settlements of land and slaves on sons preserved the association of a particular family name with the indispensable building blocks of colonial Virginia wealth and status.17 Landed estates also helped sons attract brides from respected families with the capacity to bestow hefty cash dowries, the sustaining value of which often was acknowledged by calling a first or second son by his mother's original surname.18
In the end, these strategies for preserving colonial Virginia fortunes worked for John Tayloe II of Mount Airy, for in 1771 Rebecca Plater Tayloe at last presented her husband with a baby boy.19 Two year later, though he was still “in good health & perfect memory,” John Tayloe drew up a will in which he promised each of his daughters a settlement of two thousand pounds, while his little son—predictably christened John Tayloe III—received most of Tayloe's slaves and personal property along with all of his land and business interests.20
The exception to this tidy arrangement was Rebecca (1752–1797), second of the numerous Tayloe daughters. In his will of 1773 John Tayloe II stated that “the Menokin Estate [was] to be reckoned in full for her fortune of two thousand pounds.”21 Young Rebecca Tayloe was singled out in this way because she had decided to marry in 1769, during that uneasy period after John Tayloe II had begun to face the challenges of estate distribution and before the birth of his legacy-solving son. Furthermore, while Rebecca had chosen in Francis Lightfoot Lee (1734–1797) a husband from an eminent Virginia family, one with whom the Tayloes acknowledged distant ties of kinship and close ties of rank, their match posed several problems—or perhaps they were opportunities.
The prospective bridegroom was the son of Thomas Lee, the rich and powerful master of Stratford, an elegant seat located in contiguous Westmoreland County. In terms of birth order, however, Frank Lee stood at a relative disadvantage: he was one of eight children and the fourth of six sons.22 When Thomas Lee died in 1750, he left his dwelling plantation and the lion's share of his Tidewater landholdings to his eldest son. This allocation had to do with neither differentiated fatherly affections nor the English system of primogeniture. Thomas Lee simply was securing the continued viability of his ancestral Tidewater stronghold. Believing that Virginia's eastern elite were poised to establish primacy farther inland as well, he bestowed on his younger sons thousands of acres located in the Piedmont region and on toward the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Although Lee had begun patenting this land decades before, it was poorly developed and inaccessible, with a value calculable largely in its potential.23
Frank Lee's share of his father's estate included over thirty-eight hundred acres in Fairfax and Loudoun Counties and a labor force of thirty slaves. His brothers received bequests of similar quality. By the standards of wealth known to most colonial Virginians, these were fabulous legacies, but Thomas Lee's five younger sons were accustomed to life at the pinnacle of social and economic privilege, and they were not impressed. One referred to his inheritance as a “small pittance,” while another characterized himself mournfully as “not having been born to a fortune.”24 Two of Frank Lee's brothers found ways to continue living in Tidewater Virginia, and two others decided to try their luck in England.25 Notable by contrast—and apparently to the sustained amusement ?of all his brothers and sisters—Frank Lee struck out in 1756 at the age of twenty-two to live and work on his backcountry land (map 1.3).26
Map 1.3. Colonial Virginia. Drawing by Whitney Morrill.
The young man prospered. He arrived to discover that he was the tenth largest landholder in Loudoun County and the only one of this number who had any intention of residing on his land.27 This position won him, despite his youth and status as a newcomer, nearly instant primacy in local political affairs. In 1758 he served as a trustee for the founding of Loudon County's courthouse town—named, not incidentally, Leesburg. That same year he was elected to represent Loudoun County in the Virginia House of Burgesses. In due course he was commissioned at the rank of colonel of the county militia and appointed to serve as senior magistrate in the county court.28 Lee also proved his merit as a planter. He did not augment his inherited land with any new purchases, but he obviously was clearing enough on the sale of crops, timber, and livestock to do so. He chose instead to invest in labor. Between 1756 and 1768 he more than doubled his slave population from the original thirty to at least sixty-three.29 Drawn though he still may have felt to the Tidewater region and the haunts of his boyhood, Frank Lee had probably settled on a life in Piedmont Virginia by 1765, when, at the age of thirty-one, he purchased an undeveloped lot in Alexandria.30 This suggests his intention to establish a presence in the burgeoning port town which owed much of its vitality to the reception of harvests from Loudoun County and its backcountry neighbors.31 Lee's circumstances, however, were about to change.
A seat in the House of Burgesses required of Frank Lee several protracted stays in Williamsburg each year, and it may have been during the flurry of social activity which attended “public times” in the colonial capital that he became acquainted with the second daughter of the eminent councillor John Tayloe II. Certainly their betrothal, when it became known in Williamsburg, was considered a notable community event. William Nelson, then president of the council, wrote to William Lee in London, “No doubt you have heard of the happiness of your brother Frank and Miss Becky.”32
Lee's engagement to the seventeen-year-old Rebecca was resolved by the early weeks of 1769, when their connection became the subject of comment among the Virginia gentry. Matters could not have proceeded so far, of course, without formal conversations between the hopeful suitor and the man he was asking to become his father-in-law. These negotiations presented John Tayloe II of Mount Airy with a notable dilemma: here was an offer of marriage from a mature and accomplished member of the Virginia gentry who was acceptable in every respect—except that his estate in life paled beside those of Tayloe himself, Thomas Lee, and Edward Lloyd.33 Furthermore, his plantation seat lay beyond the limits of Tidewater navigation and beyond the advance of genteel society. It was all very well for Tayloe to send his daughter Elizabeth off to married life on the extensive and well-appointed Lloyd estates in Tidewater Maryland, but a newly wedded Rebecca would confront in Loudoun County something close to a social and material desert. Even if Frank Lee could promise to make commodious accommodations for his intended bride, all of her neighbors would be tenants, overseers, and small planters living in small, roughly made houses with few of the accouterments basic to domestic comfort.34 Tayloe knew this well, for he himself owned nearly nine thousand acres of Loudoun County land.35
Other considerations also may had affected Tayloe's deliberations. Contemporaries often remarked on Frank Lee's gentle disposition, thoughtful behavior, and probative statements.36 Perhaps this younger man might prove a tractable son-in-waiting and, if Madam Tayloe's pregnancies continued to result in girls, ultimately a responsible new master for Mount Airy. In any case, the documentary record is clear. John Tayloe intended to keep Frank Lee close at hand, and the two men struck a singular bargain. Lee could marry his young Becky if he agreed to turn his Loudoun County plantations over to tenants and abandon his social and political primacy there.37 In return, Tayloe would use his wealth and influence to compensate his son-in-law with similar assets in Richmond County.
During elections for the House of Burgesses in November 1768, Frank Lee did not stand for reelection in Loudoun County. The following spring, Landon Carter of Sabine Hall observed that through “Colo[nel] Tayloe's asserted interest . . . his son in law, F. Lee was elected” to represent Richmond County in the House of Burgesses. Lee's status as a colonial legislator barely suffered a pause. Appointments to Richmond County's militia and magistracy followed within a year.38
Tayloe also made good on his promise to supply his daughter and son-in-law with resources suitable for elite Tidewater status. At about the time of their marriage in May 1769, he composed a deed of gift for Menokin's thousand acres and its population of twenty slaves. Beginning in the following year, Tayloe's plantation daybook began noting payments and provisions for workmen “at Menokin.” Later, in his will of 1773, Tayloe not only mentioned Rebecca Tayloe Lee's legacy in terms of “the deed I have made” for Menokin but also specified: “the buildings to be finished at the expence of my estate.” Thus he confirmed that the genteel house and attendant buildings under construction at Menokin were significant components of Rebecca Tayloe's dowry.39
All of this seems agreeable and straightforward. Lurking beneath the surface, however, were indications of conflict. Dissatisfaction and distrust probably remained unexpressed, except in indirect or encoded exchanges, but eventually they attained eloquent representation in the design and construction of the house at Menokin.
The first clue that all was not harmony and contentment is in the construction of Tayloe's deed of gift for Menokin. The document emphasizes that the terms of the deed were to be effective from May 24, 1769—the eve of Frank Lee and Rebecca Tayloe's wedding day—and that the conveyance was to Rebecca and her heirs alone. The document also contains several passages restricting Frank Lee's interest in the property to a life estate.40 At first, this appears to be a fatherly maneuver to protect his daughter's legacy from any financial misfortune or miscalculation that might befall Frank Lee, but both Tayloe and Lee were sufficiently well versed in colonial Virginia law to know that from the moment of her marriage, Rebecca Tayloe Lee's property became her husband's to own and to treat however he liked.41 So Tayloe took a second precaution. He enacted the agreement—that is, he gave the newlyweds possession of their plantation and involvement with its new buildings—but he kept the documentary proof of its conveyance among his own papers.
Not until October 1778, six months before his death, did Tayloe have his deed of gift entered into the records of the county court. Even then, Tayloe permitted the presentation of the deed only on condition that the Lees relinquish their right ever to sell Menokin by instantly conveying their property in trust to a third party.42 Tayloe correctly surmised that after nine years of marriage, Frank and Rebecca Lee were not going to have any children to whom Menokin might descend. Apparently, then, he was gambling that the terms of his deed of gift would hold—during the revolutionary era, after all, Virginia property laws were changing—and Menokin would pass at Rebecca Lee's death to her Tayloe siblings, nieces, and nephews.
A bland assessment of the documents concerning Menokin and its disposition would emphasize John Tayloe's deft use of prevailing techniques for shrewd estate preservation and descent. Also discernible, however, are the high-handed, competitive, and prideful impulses which dominated the darker side of colonial Virginia's patriarchal elite.43 John Tayloe II, acknowledged master of Mount Airy and much else besides, could not, where young Frank Lee was concerned, resist his moments of manipulation. That this is a significant, even a primary, part of Menokin's origins and its meaning as a gentry mansion is best articulated not in the documentary but in the architectural record.
When Tayloe devoted the extraordinary quantities of time, money, and craftsmanship necessary to build his own Mount Airy, one of the messages he conveyed was that he, like most members of the Virginia elite, believed in the efficacy of appearances. Exceptional and possibly unique in its faithfulness to an English pattern book source, Mount Airy stood for John Tayloe's English education, his coastwise and transatlantic business concerns, his understanding of Anglo-American trends in fashion and learning.44 Figuring in a Tidewater countryside dominated by jury-built wooden houses, most of which were small or, if they achieved any spaciousness at all, did so through many episodes of accretion, Mount Airy's symmetrical composition of masonry elements announced that it was built all in one carefully planned and seamlessly executed camaign.45 In this respect, it stood for Tayloe's access to skilled workmen and expensive materials as well as his sustained control over a labor force and his capacity to glide financially above seasonal fluctuations in potential profits. Because Mount Airy was built to say so much about its owner, John Tayloe had solicited for his house the finest of builders, but he himself had remained involved in the making and finishing of the grand new dwelling.46 For the same reasons, Tayloe's involvement with the making of Menokin extended beyond paying for its construction to encompass attention to its appearance as well.
Fig. 1.3. Presentation drawing marked “Monokin House & Offices” found among eighteenth-century Tayloe Family Papers. Courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society.
The substance of Menokin, the iron-infused Choptank sandstone from which Mount Airy itself largely was built, came from a vein of this native stone on Tayloe's Richmond County land. Furthermore, the design of the house appears to have been Tayloe's own selection: the unique presentation drawing labeled “Monokin House & Offices” survives among Tayloe's personal papers (fig. 1.3). The architectural messages that Tayloe's design decisions conveyed were several. First, there was the insisted-upon association of Menokin with Mount Airy through the use of identical stonework in a region where most important buildings, including Thomas Lee's Stratford, were made of brick. Then there was the juxtaposition at both houses of brown-and-white color schemes. At Mount Airy, creamy pale Aquia freestone quoins and architraves set off the richness of the dark sandstone walls that, in turn, frame the Aquia stone entrance pavilions centered on both the land and river facades.47 For Menokin, Tayloe approved a design involving a house and corresponding pair of offices that were white with dark accents. From a distance, the chocolate-brown architraves and quoins accenting Menokin's creamy light walls would appear precisely and wittily to reverse Mount Airy's palette. Upon closer acquaintance, however, the economy of the scheme would become obvious: Menokin's pale presentation was to be achieved not with Aquia stone, which had been laboriously quarried in and transported downriver from Stafford County, but from coats of comparatively inexpensive stucco and whitewash neatly applied to walls built from the locally available, and thus thrifty, brown sandstone.
The subtle expression of Menokin's architectural fealty to Mount Airy was to extend still further—beyond the matters of color schemes and facade arrangements to include matters of dimension and scale. Menokin too distant and too imposingly sited for any visitor to have mistaken it for an actual outbuilding in the Mount Airy complex. Yet the nearly identical ground dimensions of Mount Airy's formal offices and Menokin's principal dwelling speak forcefully in an architectural language almost any colonial Virginian could grasp of patriarchal primacy and filial deference (figs. 1.4 and 1.5).
Fig. 1.4. Mount Airy's northwest dependency.
Fig. 1.5. Comparative plans of Mount Airy and Menokin. Adapted by Whitney Morrill from drawings by Thomas Tileston Waterman.
Eighteenth-century lines of sight only served to reinforce the point. Mount Airy is less than ten feet higher in elevation than Menokin, but in changing light, the dark brown edifice with its soft ivory accents would have continuously emerged from and vanished into the surrounding vegetation. In Menokin's vista, then, John Tayloe's house was a distant presence, but one not fully attained or delineated. From Mount Airy, by contrast, Menokin's white elevations would have stood out, crisp in form and clear in view amid the greens and browns of its plantation setting. Perhaps even at such a remove, it would have appeared in the gaze of viewers at Mount Airy as a kind of architectural outpost of the larger mansion's domain.48
In these ways, the designs for Mount Airy and Menokin articulated familial bonds and intergenerational obligations as firmly and obviously as stone and mortar ever could. Menokin gave John Tayloe II the satisfaction of knowing that the agreeable situation in which he had placed the Lees was manifest and comprehensible to his friends and competitors, for whom Menokin must have looked like the ultimate in conspicuous dowering. While Elizabeth Tayloe's marriage to Edward Lloyd IV told Tayloe's many genteel associates that he was quite wealthy enough to attract the most privileged of mates for his many daughters, Menokin was meant to say—loud and clear—that Tayloe was in no way obliged to fret over the matter. Indeed, he was so financially secure that he could receive a worthy young man of substantial but lesser means and, literally, make his Tidewater fortune. Furthermore, Tayloe could reap all the benefits of his apparently unconditional generosity to Rebecca and Frank Lee, but by withholding the deed of gift from the official record, he indefinitely kept these members of the next generation in a form of social and economic thrall.
This was the same ostensibly favored but emotionally demeaning dependence in which Landon Carter kept his oldest son. As the presumed heir to nearby Sabine Hall, Robert Wormeley Carter, who was exactly Frank Lee's age, watched as his two younger brothers received outlying tracts of their father's land on which they became masters of their own households and heads of their own families.49 By contrast, Robert was “compelled to live,” despite his marriage and five children, in a land of perpetual adolescence under his father's elegant roof in Richmond County.50 He rebelled, of course. Landon Carter's diary is filled with outraged denouncements of his son's bad judgment, irresponsible behavior, and defiant attitude.51
The arrangement that John Tayloe II and Frank Lee made was far more respectful and significantly less restrictive. Moreover, Lee was too circumspect and deft a participant in his own culture ever to speak, or at least to write, about such things. Clearly, however, he chafed under Tayloe's presumptions and found relatively harmless though architecturally resonant ways to subvert the full realization of his father-in-law's half-gracious offerings with their entangling strings attached. He did this in his role as general supervisor of Menokin's construction.
On April 11, 1770, Landon Carter made a visit to Mount Airy, where Frank Lee was then staying with his bride. In the course of their conversation, Lee told Carter that he had “intirely laid aside all thoughts of a crop of tobacco” at Menokin that year, for he was “building and intend[ing] to make use of his hands to assist his building.”52 Lee and his workmen—hired, indentured, and enslaved—were about the work of transforming Menokin from the quarter plantation it had been into the gentleman's dwelling plantation Tayloe had promised.
Construction at Menokin involved much more than the erecting of the great house, more than the construction of the flanking office which the eighteenth-century drawing of Menokin proposed. Making a quarter plantation over into a gentleman's “seat” required a dairy, smokehouse, and stable as well as one or more domestic slave dwellings that were in some measure superior in quality to those the field hands had been occupying. There also might be the addition of such conveniences as a plantation store, coach house, lumber house, or spinning house. Lee probably also rebuilt or improved Menokin's agricultural buildings. Better or more numerous tobacco houses and corn houses may have been part of his scheme; relocated or expanded quarters for the field slaves probably also found a place in his agenda. Lee's expertise with grain production in Loudoun County motivated him to erect a capacious barn. There was, moreover, the ditching and fencing of more numerous and orderly fields, the enclosing of gardens and the planting of orchards.53 Frank Lee's decade of experience transforming his unimproved Loudoun County land into profitable plantations had taught him the wisdom of preparing his land and agricultural buildings for production before turning his attention and resources to an expensive dwelling. Yet there is at least a hint, in Lee's decision to postpone the construction of a genteel house which so clearly manifested his father-in-law's preference, of defiance—of insisting on the significance of his own priorities.
Sixteen months after Landon Carter confirmed that Lee and his laborers were busy with their formidable tasks, Frank Lee wrote to his brother William, “In three or four weeks I shall be under my own vine & shall remember to drink health & every blessing to my dear connections [William Lee and his wife] in London.”54 Indications are that Frank and Rebecca Lee did move to Menokin that summer, but their abode was a modest secondary dwelling, for the main house at Menokin was may not yet have been undertaken. It certainly was not complete, for the trees from which the roof was framed were not cut until 1772.55 In deed, there remained substantial work to be done at the site in May 1773, when John Tayloe's will provided for the funds to finish Menokin's buildings, and Tayloe's daybook notations concerning workmen and provisions for Menokin continued for at least two years more.
Confronting a design he did not necessarily approve, accepting building materials he did not necessarily prefer, supervising craftsmen he did not necessarily choose, Lee proved a desultory construction manager of the Menokin house. Once it was complete, moreover, it displayed many signs of inconstancy in design intention and workmanship. Idiosyncratic juxtapositions of elaborate and plain, polished and rough elements indicate that the initial shaping of stones as they came from the quarry drew on a much more elaborate, academic vision for the house than that ultimately executed. The sophisticated double architraves and quoins enframing two of the second-story windows almost certainly were meant to enhance all of the openings—at least all of those on the north facade. The carved keystone and bracketed cornice over the north doorway represent some of the most intricately carved stonework known to have been produced in colonial Virginia, yet this crowning component of the entrance also manifests the presence of two, and possibly three, stonecarvers of differing skills or sensibilities. Instead of the assertive classical profiles that distinguish the carved window architraves and the cornice above the centered entrance, the keystone is embellished with delicate, fancifully trailing, flowered vines. This shallow relief carving is juxtaposed with a deeply carved, three-dimensional rosette centered on the keystone's reveal. Adding to the idiosyncrasy is the flanking of this remarkable entrance with windows outlined with heavy, starkly unmolded architraves (fig. 1.6).
Fig. 1.6. Door and window details of Menokin's facade showing their varied embellishments. Adapted byWhitney Morrill from drawings by the Historic American Buildings Survey.
Clearly, at some moment in Menokin's construction, an authoritative voice and hand—those of Francis Lightfoot Lee—halted the remarkably elaborate carving of stonework for the house and ordered instead a rapid completion. To be sure, Lee and his builders thriftily and ingeniously incorporated the sophisticated carved components where they would fit, and this explains the classical architrave-and-quoin schemes which distinguish the facade's second-story windows. Lee and his builders undoubtedly knew that such a composition would communicate to Virginia's architecturally literate elite that Menokin enclosed—although it never did—an important public room on its second story but they also knew that the prevailing taste for regularity lent some efficacy to their decision. Furthermore, the expertly finished quoins and finely molded double architraves deserved visible placement. So did the massive arched doorway with its embracing components of a classical entablature.
Nevertheless, the final result was notable more for its inconsistencies than for its refinements. The walls of the house are composed of ashlar only on the north side—the rest is coursed nibble construction steadied at the corners by beveled quoins. Excepting the north entrance and the three second-story windows, all of the doors and windows are framed with unembellished rectangular slabs of sandstone. Finally, the rare and complicated double-hipped roof structure bears down aggressively on the lintels of the second-story windows, leaving room for nothing but the most slender and plainest of cornices.
The interior detailing of Menokin suggests perhaps an even more significant rift between the original conception of the house and its eventual execution. The surviving paneled jambs of the windows involve bold three-dimensional moldings characteristic of the third quarter of the eighteenth century, the period of Menokin's construction, while the rest of the interior detailing, including that of the staircase and chimney breasts, incorporates more delicate, shallow shapes (fig. 1.7). These light molding profiles and their combinations are nearly identical to those at Grove Mount, another house of the Rappahannock Creek neighborhood built between 1782 and 1787.56 No fire or post-revolutionary remodeling can account for the disparity at Menokin between a 1770–75 period of construction and a 1780–90 period of interior finish, for the surfaces to which the late-century craftsmen affixed their plaster and wainscotting had received no previous treatment.
Fig. 1.7. Molding profile of the panels for Menokin's window reveals, set into the openings at the time of construction, compared with a profile consistently employed for the later interior woodwork.
There is little doubt that after Frank and Rebecca Tayloe Lee moved to Menokin in 1771; they lived amid a sequence of cacophonous building activities—both at the main house site and about the plantation which surrounded them. Moreover, from 1771 until sometime during the 1780s, they identified themselves with a gentry seat dominated by a house that manifestly was not finished. This is perhaps the most significant aspect of the Lees' material circumstances, for it challenged, almost stone for stone, John Tayloe's intention that his architectural dowry boldly express his own patriarchal primacy. There was no more resonant facet of this challenge than Lee's studied neglect of what was to have been Menokin's most remarkable characteristic. Lee never had his house stuccoed or whitewashed.57 There it stood, stolid in form and earthen in color. Whether or not such an edifice was perceptible in the distance from Mount Airy was a matter of little concern to Francis Lightfoot Lee.
Just as Menokin embodied the clear signs of Tayloe's prideful intentions in its codes of siting, proportions, materials, and composition, so in its erratic execution, its inconsistent levels of workmanship, and its ultimate departure from several conventions of elite colonial house design, Menokin embodied Frank Lee's silent but eloquent defiance of those intentions. With his bargain, his marriage, and his fortune made, Lee had scant opportunity to protest or reject. He could, however, turn to his own purposes the architectural gestures employed by the man to whom he had obliged himself. At Menokin, he could use the medium of architecture to suggest diffidence—even, to the keen observer, defiance—toward the relationship John Tayloe II meant so deftly to articulate. He did this by managing the process of genteel house building with coolness and dispatch rather than with the obsessive concern for classically correct elegance and consistent polish manifest in so many other elite construction campaigns. The result was a dwelling that clearly belonged among the genteel “great houses” of the Virginia countryside, but one with slightly askew, disheveled qualities, a vigorous toughness around the edges: the suggestion, perhaps, of a rebellious son.
Francis Lightfoot Lee's most famous historical act was to sign the Declaration of Independence. He also represented Virginia, serving with characteristically calm efficiency, in the Continental Congress from 1775 to 1779.58 Certainly the tale of Menokin's origins offers a new vantage from which to observe and interpret revolutionary-era denouncements of tyrannical and unjust subjugation as well as the growing insistence on inherent rights of self-determination. Indeed, the Revolution began as protests over high-handed acts of England's Parliament and ended with a full-scale revolt of American “sons” against their English “father” King George.
The correspondences, however, are hardly so simple. After Frank Lee departed Virginia to take his seat in the Continental Congress, he exchanged cordial letters with his father-in-law, who was as determined for the American cause of independence as any Virginian.59 till, what Menokin may be saying is that the Revolution obscured or overran a crisis in patriarchy about to emerge in Virginia. Its volatile components included the increased longevity of fathers, the survival of numerous children, the resulting difficulty of shepherding a cohesive family fortune through time, and the gentry's uncertainty about replicating its material moorings beyond the Fall Line. In any case, the architectural messages embedded in Menokin, its substantial connections to and contrasts with Mount Airy, and its associated documentary record which sometimes clarifies, sometimes merely hints at the intentions of the house makers themselves, all demonstrate the power of old buildings to bring the past and its dilemmas compellingly back to life. In so doing, houses like Menokin draw those who closely observe them toward the insight that the configuration of architecture and the management of families are, in various and sometimes unsuspected ways, all of a piece with momentous—even radical—shifts in the course of human events.