On November 9, 2014, staff at Gari Melchers Home & Studio first opened the doors of a small vernacular building to the public, an event marking many years of dedicated work.1 Located next to Belmont, in Falmouth Virginia, and known locally as “Fannie Roots’ House,” it is a rare example of a post-civil war worker’s cottage. While its core elements date to the 1880s, the house as it stands today with the garden and outbuildings retains many reminders of life-long resident Fannie Roots (1914-2004).
Though named for Roots, its earliest known occupants were George and Sallie Payne. George Payne was a plasterer, and examples of his work survive in the oldest sections of the house. The original building consisted of the two-room, gable roofed front section, while a shed addition on the back contained the kitchen, and an unfinished room in the attic served as sleeping space.
In 1912 the structure was purchased by Willie Roots, an African American laborer who did occasional work for the well-known painter Gari Melchers and his wife Corinne, owners of the neighboring Belmont estate.2 It was under Roots family ownership, in turn, that the dwelling was enlarged to its current appearance. Roots’ daughter Fannie, who became a well-known citizen of Stafford County and a civil rights activist, was born in the house and lived there her entire life. The building did not have running water, so Roots always relied on bucket-drawn well water and an outhouse. There was electricity for lights and a telephone, but she used a wood stove for cooking and oil stove for heating.
Structural restoration began in 2008 when Belmont became the steward of the property. The condition of the house had declined steadily during the final years of Fannie Roots’ life, and the interceding four years had witnessed even greater deterioration. Heading up the project from the outset has been Belmont cultural resource manager (co-author of this article and longtime SGHS member), Beate Jensen, and fellow staff member David Ludecker. David Berreth, director at Belmont, also saw the importance of saving the house and grounds, but funding, as is usual at historic sites, was lacking. It thus became their task to gain support from private citizens, businesses, and volunteers.3 That backing has come not only in the form of cash donations and on-site labor but also in such other valuable contributions as logs which were sawn at Belmont with a portable sawmill.
Ludecker has headed-up the extensive hands-on effort to include structural, siding, and roof restoration, as well as a complete exterior repainting.4 As was a common in the post-Civil War era, the house was built with materials borrowed from other structures. Wherever possible these materials have been saved. Where this could not be achieved, every effort has been made to replicate both materials and workmanship.5 The finishing exterior restoration touch has been to cover the roof with a true terne metal standing seam roof. This material was chosen upon finding remnants of an original terne roof. It will be painted red to match the samples found.
Fannie Roots’ garden and the grounds surrounding her home tell an equally important story, and their restoration and interpretation will continue to be central to the Belmont mission there. The wire hoop fence demonstrates that such work has already begun. In 2008 large elements remained of such fencing that once separated the house from busy Washington Street. (See 2008 image.) In two subsequent incidents, however, it was effectively ruined by vehicles veering into it from that street. This fence form is not readily available today, but Jensen was able to locate a Texas source to find the lengths required. Now installed (see illustration), it only awaits the arrival of spring to receive a coat of white paint matching the original. Likewise, stones that kept chickens from escaping the yard will be placed back under the fence. The Jensen-Ludecker team has also restored Fannie Roots’ white gate which features an arbor fashioned from rebar. Surviving atop that arbor is her Dorothy Perkins rose, which long provided a warm welcome to Roots’ visitors. (Note her tiny gate bell.) Also surviving about the house are privet bushes, a Rose of Sharon, a lilac, and orange daylilies.
Along with the rebar arbor, re-purposing can be seen elsewhere in the Roots landscape. For example, placed squarely between the house and the street is a substantial vertical segment of leftover terra-cotta piping (used to line Roots’ well) which has long served as a planter. Here Fannie Roots grew tulips and summer annuals. A perennial feature was a fanciful row of artificial tulips crafted in plastic. These have faded and succumbed to years of weathering, but replacements are being sought. Bricks that were replaced during a ca 1950’s chimney repair were used to create a mouse tooth-type edging for the beds fronting the house. Her garden was also well known for her traffic-stopping phlox, another element soon to be returned in memory of the long-time presence of Fanny Roots on this busy corner.
The front area of the Roots landscape is level, but as the photos and the site plan make clear this was otherwise a decidedly inferior spot for home building. Access to well and outhouse was not difficult, but trips back and forth to garden spaces behind and below the dwelling surely required stamina and steadiness. Fortunately, an aged white oak just southwest of the house offered welcome summer shade. An interview with a niece of Fanny Roots revealed that the shed to the north housed chickens and firewood.
Oral history relating to the house and its occupants, chiefly Fannie Roots, are ongoing, and will figure largely in determining further landscape projects. Much interior work remains to be done as well, but some sections may be left open to aid in understanding how the house developed over time. In addition, History and Historic Preservation students from the University of Mary Washington will continue to take advantage of the house and its setting for learning purposes, along with individual and group projects.6
By Beate Ankjaer-Jensen and Kenneth McFarland, this article first appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Magnolia, the Southern Garden History Society Bulletin
Note: On March 15, 2015 Beate Jensen, along with David Berreth and David Ludecker, received the Historic Fredericksburg Foundation’s E. Boyd Graves Preservation Award for “Exemplary efforts to restore and preserve the historic Fannie Roots House.”
1.The Gari Melchers Home and Studio at Belmont has been referenced in several previous Magnolia articles.
2. Gari and Corinne Melchers purchased the estate in 1916.
3. Work has been made possible largely with private donations and grants from the Fredericksburg Savings Charitable Foundation, the Duff McDuff Green Jr. Fund of the Community Foundation of the Rappahannock River Region, and the Marietta M. and Samuel T. Morgan, Jr. Foundation.
4. The distinct blue paint on the trim around the doors and windows could be an example of the African American tradition of using haint blue on the trim around doors and windows. A haint is a spirit or a ghost, and the blue paint was thought to ward off evil spirits and to keep them from entering the doors and windows.
5. Co-author Kenneth McFarland has been extensively involved and hand-hewed cedar logs to replace badly deteriorated ceiling joists.
6. The Gari Melchers Home and Studio at Belmont is owned and operated by the University of Mary Washington.
On Thursday, August 20th, PB Mares, a regional accounting and business consulting firm, held a retreat for its administrative staff. In the morning they had a conference and after lunch, they decided to do a Wine & Design event. This is the first one we have held here at Gari Melchers Home & Studio, but hopefully not the last! If you’ve never heard of Wine & Design, it’s a popular new party idea. “Our wine and paint parties are designed to offer you a chance to peek into your creative side during a fun night out on the town. We provide almost everything you’ll need: paint, canvases, brushes, corkscrews and cups. All you have to bring is an open mind and your favorite beverage.”
Wine and Design On Wheels can bring the party to any private venues such as houses, corporate offices, event centers, and more. They can also host the party at restaurants, bars, and wineries! They offer private parties and public parties where anyone can sign up! In a few weeks we will actually be neighbors with their new studio! Michelle Flynn, the owner of Wine & Design Fredericksburg is opening a studio on Washington Street (down the street from us) where you can hold your party or sign up for one of theirs!
I have been seeing my friends posting pictures of themselves at different restaurants with wine glasses and their surprisingly, very good, painted canvases of sunsets, crabs, umbrellas, and flowers. Now, I’m not saying that my friends aren’t capable of painting these subjects, but attending an all-women’s college, we all dabbled in arts and crafts quite a bit, and I know some of those ladies can’t paint THAT well. This is why I was so excited when the women of PB Mares told us they wanted to host a Wine & Design party here! I wanted to see how this was all done and how my not so artsy friends, were somehow now painting like Gari Melchers :)
Michelle, the instructor Jayme, and her helper, Timmy all arrived at Belmont with 21 canvases, brushes, and paint. The canvases already had sunflowers sketched on them with a pencil, so that the party goers had an outline to follow. Timmy came around and squirted paint on everyone’s plates. The paint bottles looked like water bottles which make it really simple and mess free! Whenever someone needed more paint or a different color, she would just raise her paint brush and Timmy would go over and squirt some more paint on her plate!
Jayme had a finished sunflower painting on an easel for the women to look at, as well as painting one with them! She would talk them through the painting, explaining what strokes to make with the paint brush and what color to use, step by step. If anyone had any questions or needed any help, Jayme and Timmy were right there! I noticed that they didn’t squirt all the colors onto the plates at the start of the lesson; they waited until they are actually needed. I’m guessing this helps ensure that the paint doesn’t dry on the plate and it helps eager artists to not get too far ahead without instructions from the teacher.
The whole party took about 2 hours, which Timmy said is about the average time depending on the size of the group and the difficulty of the painting. When the PB Mares women were all finished, they went outside and took a group photo. Look how beautiful their sunflowers are. Everyone kept remarking on how much fun they had and how easy Wine & Design makes it. If you’re looking to have a team building retreat or a fun girl’s night, Wine & Design is a great option. And we can hold it for you right here at Gari Melchers Home & Studio, call (540) 654-1848 for more details about renting our pavilion!
The restoration of the exterior of the Melchers’s cow barn was completed this summer. Habalis Construction was the general contractor on the project which included straightening of the roof ridge, repairs to the old metal roof, replacement siding where needed, new gutters and a cement apron. Two windows had to be rebuilt, and a thorough scraping, sanding and painting of the entire building completed the job. Several interesting features were discovered during the restoration, one was the way the windows operate: Instead of regular double hung window or a hinged windows, the barn windows open by sliding behind a wooden support bar onto a ledge. Easy to make and operate!
The eastern side of the barn has wide doors on the second story that open into the hay loft. Before the restoration, the western side had an odd little area of siding that seemed to have been added after the original construction. Our investigation showed that the area was just at the floor level, and had originally served as a sweep-out hatch. The new hatch has two hinges that can easily be kicked open to sweep out dirt and hay, but then closes on itself automatically. These neat little features explain how the barn was used and helps visitors imagine the many tasks that went into running a small dairy farm.
The cow barn restoration was made possible by grants from the Duff McDuff Green, Jr. Fund, the Dr. H. Stewart Jones Trust and the Fredericksburg Savings Charitable Foundation.
We are seeking further help to complete the restoration of the barn yard area; the original gates and fences need repair and we would like to rebuild a ‘run-in-shed’ that used to be adjacent to the barn. Completion of the barn yard is another step in trying to interpret the lives of the people and animals that called Belmont home when Gari and Corinne Melchers were in residence.
Our 1790s historic house museum is fairly typical in not having an elevator to access its upper levels. For years, guests who opted out of climbing sixteen stairs to reach the second floor were given a printed tour with pictures and descriptions to peruse. Not a bad solution, but not great either.
While researching possible alternatives, I looked for an easy, elegant, and enhanced touring alternative/interpretive tool. I also hoped to provide a “beyond the stanchions” look at our collection, spaces, and views. An iPad video kiosk seemed to be the answer. The museum community regularly uses iPads to complement programming and engage people through the use of apps, music, digital labels, videos and zoom-able images, surveys, touch-screen kiosks, and even robotic tours. Why not use a tablet to show a second floor video?
I found a stand that works well in our tight space. It has a weighted bottom, a telescoping, adjustable pole and a bendable neck. The iPad can be locked in place so theft is not a worry.
The process of making the video was challenging and fun. Basically, I strove to highlight things our guests love best or wish they had access to. I secured project funding through Stafford County Tourism, wrote a script, worked with a local production crew on lighting and filming, and selected background music (not as easy as it sounds!). After editing and more editing, the video was ready to share with the public. Apple’s Education Customer Service representatives provided friendly step-by-step instructions on how to upload the video file to the iPad so WiFi wouldn’t be an required. Training staff was a breeze due to the iPad’s user-friendly interface design.
Initial feedback from guests has been overwhelmingly positive. One weary visitor who chose to watch the video instead of climbing the stairs ended up re-joining her group upstairs minutes later because it looked so interesting! An unintended consequence, but hopefully now you can more fully experience Belmont, even from the first floor.
Very often visitors to Belmont will see the many Gari Melchers self-portraits and paintings of him by other artists, as well as historical photographs, and ask us whether he painted with his left or right hand.
For many artists of earlier generations, before the advent of photography or whose self-portraits were limited to head and shoulders views, their handedness has been determined (as much as possible) through analysis of handwriting or the direction of brush strokes, or even by the shape and location of the thumb holes or paint remnants on surviving palettes.
For Gari Melchers, who came of age during the expansion of popular photography in the late 19th century, the question is easy to answer. Looking at a photo of Gari in his New York studio he is holding his brush in his right hand.
The same is true of two paintings of Gari by other artists. Fritz Strobentz painted a young Gari in a Dutch church and his wife Corinne painted him working at Belmont.
The one image that seems to confuse visitors is the painting currently on loan to Belmont from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, In the Studio, Hugo Reisinger and Gari Melchers. In this painting, Gari seems to be painting with his left hand. However, we must realize that he painted himself while looking in a mirror! Thus the orientation is reversed, as it is in all self-portraits painted from life (as opposed to using a photograph, which would show the correct orientation).
Gari Melchers was right handed.
In the August 2015 issue of Virginia Living Magazine, our site was touted as one of Virginia’s leading niche museums whose “dedication to their mission makes them well worth the visit.” We share this honor with the William King Museum of Art in Abington, The Marine Raider Museum in Quantico, the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection in Charlottesville, and the Essex County Museum & Historical Society in Tappahannock.
Pick up your copy today!