Restoration progress

Two new gates were installed at Belmont in late November, 2016.  Different in style and age, both are replicas of gates that were part of the landscape that Gari and Corinne Melchers created.

pasture-gates

The gate that separated the barn yard from the pasture was not just a simple farm gate, but a gate of a distinctive and elegant design. We know from our records that both Gari and Corinne were actively engaged in the planning of the gardens and grounds, and a sketch he made for a gate and fence on the back of an envelope in 1919 is one of many examples of their involvement with creating their country home and farm. The gate may have been designed by an artist, but the building technique was decidedly vernacular. It was likely built on site by one of the farm hands, put together with simple joints, wire nails and bolts. Both the design and building techniques were copied for this reproduction, allowing our visitors to distinguish the various levels of workmanship displayed on the estate. The green paint, based on paint analyzes, showcases the beautiful design. This project was executed by Habalis Construction Inc. of Fredericksburg, with support from the Duff McDuff Green, Jr. Fund of The Community Foundation and the Fredericksburg Savings Charitable Foundation.

The second gate installed is quite different from the pasture gate. Gari and Corinne Melchers mounted two beautiful old gates in the stone walls that enclose the gardens. They are of unknown provenance, but almost identical in design. The pegged mortise and tenon joinery combined with the delicately carved acorn topped spindles indicates outstanding workmanship of an earlier era.acorn-gate

Oaks were important in the Ficklen landscape and several large white oaks (Quecrus Alba) survive from the pre-Civil War period at Belmont. Andrew Jackson Downing in his book A treatise on the theory and practice of Landscape Gardening, adapted to North America, (1859) called the white oak America’s National Tree, and believed that as it more nearly approached the English Oak in appearance, it was highly sought after for refined landscapes. The acorn has been perceived from Druid times as a sacred seed that symbolizes potential, longevity, humble beginnings, patience, faith, power, and endurance. The oak is even today seen as a symbol of longevity, strength and durability. It is possible then, that the gates are remnants of the gardens Joseph B. Ficklen created in the 1850’s when he added to his house, built the porches, stairs and laid out his lawn and Long Walk. He would have had some kind of gates to mark the entrances to his gardens, and our acorn gates would have fit the bill. Gari and Corinne Melchers could have re-purposed them, finding a new home for the gates in the stone walls they built.

The carvings and the mortise and tenon construction have been carefully replicated by Gaston and Wyatt of Charlottesville. The Garden Club of Virginia funded this reproduction project.

The newly restored gates were an important element of the farm complex built in the early 1920s. The cow barn, smoke house, stable, and three gates with fences have all been restored. The remaining elements of the compound that still need restoration are the run-in shed, and the gate and fence that run between the visitor center and the stable office.

envelope-gate-drawing-bel-652The 1919 envelope sketch mentioned above is of a gate, posts and fence. The design was changed slightly during the execution; the arched top was dropped, and tulip shaped finials were added to the stiles.

 

img_3839In addition to finding funds to restore this gate and the run-in shed, we also hope to repair the remaining acorn gate and our main gates with the lion-topped posts. The buildings and grounds are always in a state of restoration; our work to preserve Belmont for the pleasure of future visitors is never ending.

 

 

Dinosaur prints to be included in the Smithsonian collection.

Dr. Robert E. Weems, a retired research geologist with the United States Geological Survey, returned to Belmont in October to make four molds of some of the prints he discovered during a visit to Belmont during the summer of 2015. The prints he selected for mold-making were based on size, clarity and/or scientific interest. A large crocodile print was one of the molds made.  Another large-sized specimen included for the study is a partial Brontopodus forefoot print. A partial print from a large bipedal predator, the Acrocanthosaurus, was also chosen for casting.

Hypsiloichnus mold and print

Hypsiloichnus mold and print

The smallest print selected for molding was Hypsiloichnus, which is the track made by a small herbivorous dinosaur similar or identical to Zephyrosaurus. See this link for more information about this dinosaur. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zephyrosaurus

Unfortunately, the crocodile print mold did not sufficiently dry before it was pulled up and thus failed to create an non-distorted copy of the foot shape.  The other three print molds were successfully made.  Dr. Weems will return next spring when the weather warms back up to try again to make a copy of the crocodile print, which is the best and largest crocodile print so far found in these rocks.

Dr. Weems applies a layer of latex to a Brontopodus dinosaur print

Dr. Weems applies the first layer of latex to a partial Brontopodus print.

The process of making the molds is quite involved and interesting. Three layers of latex were applied to clean stone, followed by two layers of cheese cloth and latex which was overlaid with a plastic barrier.

Cheese cloth adds strenght to the latext mold.

Cheese cloth adds strength to the latex mold.

Plaster of Paris strips are laid down over plastic to create a "cradle" for transporting the molds to the lab.

Plaster of Paris strips are laid down over plastic to create a “cradle” for transporting the molds to the lab.

 

 

 

Plaster of Paris strips were laid down on the plastic to create a solid backing for the molds to prevent stretching and distortion. Each layer had to dry between applications making it a time consuming endeavor.

The molds were transported to Dr. Weems lab where they will be cast with plaster of Paris, creating exact copies of the prints. Eventually, the casts will be placed in the Smithsonian dinosaur print collection. Dr. Weems wants to make further studies of the Cretaceous period prints found in our garden paths and they may show up in future papers he hopes to write about Virginia dinosaur activity.

Transporting dinosaur mold to lab for casting.

Transporting mold to lab for casting.

Emily Garrett, University of Mary Washington geography student is creating a map of the prints found in the stonework at Belmont. Look for this at the end of the fall 2016 semester!

 

barn yard restoration

Barn yard restoration efforts continue

barn yard restorationThe barnyard restoration efforts moved forward recently with the installation of the restored gate and replicated fence running between the stable and cow barn.

The fence is a replica of a surviving section of Melchers period fencing.  It is tight to the ground to prevent chickens and other small animals from running under the fence into the main garden.

barn yard restorationWe retained as much original material as possible, which allowed us to leave in place a picket that has years of wear from the chain used to keep the gates to the yard closed.  A surprise awaited underneath one of the gate posts attached to the barn. When it was removed for repairs the original green corner board color was revealed. Our faithful volunteer, Ken McFarland, took on the task of restoring the original paint scheme.

The project was executed by Habalis Construction Inc. with support from the Duff McDuff Green, Jr. Fund and the Fredericksburg Savings Charitable Foundation. We hope to restore the large pasture gate and run-in shed next, completing the barn yard as it was when Gari and Corinne Melchers lived at Belmont.

barn yard restoration

Putto base

Mannsfield Stone

The stone used to build the studio, summer house, and stone garage, as well as those that make our paths and garden walls, have recently been identified as being rich with dinosaur footprints. Dr. Robert Weems, research geologist for the United States Geological Survey (retired) found the deposits while visiting Belmont with his wife and guests. I was thrilled to learn about this discovery as it adds another layer of significance to our already history-rich site.

The dinosaur footprints and how they came to Belmont is an interesting story in and of itself. Gari Melchers purchased stones from several sources. However, much of the sandstone came from a mansion called Mannsfield located about two miles south of Fredericksburg on Tidewater Trail.

A Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) documents archaeological and historic research undertaken in 1936. Mannsfield was built in 1776 by Mann Page as a gift to his wife Mary Tayloe of Mount Airy in Richmond County, Virginia. According to tradition, he promised her this as an inducement to accept his marriage proposal. It would be, he said, a home even better than the one where she reared.

1936 HABS drawing of Mannsfield

1936 HABS drawing of Mannsfield.

An army correspondent of the “New York Times” describes the house and its fate in an article written, May 9, 1863:

“The owner of this estate, H. I. Bernard, is a wealthy Secessionist, middle-aged, bachelor. Not long after General Franklin’s force had crossed, he was detected endeavoring to steal into our lines, and believing that he had been conveying information to the enemy, General Franklin ordered him into durance vile, where he has remained ever since. His lordly Mansion, built after the English style of architecture, was furnished with everything that wealth could furnish. Damask curtains, Brussels carpets, marble center tables, elegant mirrors and chandeliers adorned the various apartments. There were rare paintings from the Italian masters suspended on the walls; and numerous libraries ware found in various parts of the buildings. This home and all these adornments are now gone; and their owner is a prisoner in our hands.”

The house burned during the civil war, and the stone ruins were sold to various people in the early twentieth century.

National Park Service historian John Hennessy prepared an excellent blog post about the subject in 2010. You can read this at: https://npsfrsp.wordpress.com/2010/12/03/digging-mannsfield/

Research from 1963 concluded that some of the stone decorative elements at Belmont came from this site. The report, images, and drawings are all available at the Library of Congress web site. Click on this link to see information gathered by HABS.

https://www.loc.gov/search/?in=&q=mannsfield+rappahannock&new=true&st=

Putto base

1936 documentation of decorative stonework at Belmont.

The HABS article mentions that that it was ”reported by local amateur historians that this stone was quarried from a now deserted quarry close by on the Rappahannock,” but at the time this notion was dismissed. Robert Weems, our speaker for the Sunday March 13 program and John Bachman, amateur paleontologist, discovered an outcropping of sandstone rich in dinosaur footprints just downstream from the Mannsfield location in 2010. This area showed evidence of quarrying, lending credence to what the amateur historians mentioned in the 1936 report. I had a chance to visit the Mannsfield site recently and discovered quarried sandstone identical to that found in our buildings, leading me to believe that both the decorative elements and the building stone came from the mansion.

in situ stone

Example of sandstone found in situ at Mannsfield site.

Be sure to examine our beautiful stone work during your next visit to Belmont – who knows what you might discover?

Young Fannie Roots under grape arbor

Historic Workers’ Cottage and Landscape Saved in Falmouth, Virginia

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.

Young Fannie Roots under grape arbor

Young Fannie Roots under grape arbor

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.

 

Spring 2008 pre-restoration

Spring 2008 pre-restoration

Roots House from southwest 2015

Roots House from southwest 2015

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.

Roots gate bell

Roots gate bell

Sole surviving decorative tulip

Sole surviving decorative tulip

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.

Roots House well and outhouse

Roots House well and outhouse

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.”

Endnotes

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.

Hay loft sweep-out hatch

Cow Barn Restoration Completed

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!

Window detail

Window detail

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.

Hay loft sweep-out hatch

Hay loft sweep-out hatch

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.

East Porch

Restored Period Planters Return to Belmont Garden

Dillon in driveThe restoration of the gardens at Belmont is an ongoing adventure and the latest undertaking focused on restoration of five planters that belonged to Gari and Corinne Melchers. Dave Ludeker, Belmont’s Maintenance Manager, restored and painted the wooden plant boxes to match the historic paint scheme. The planters were originally custom built for Mrs. Melchers garden, and she used them for her much beloved geraniums, as seen in this 1920’s picture.

Porches were important living spaces before air-conditioning was installed in homes, and they served as outdoor “rooms” where one could catch a breeze to escape the stifling Virginia heat. These outdoor places were furnished with comfortable chairs, benches or swings and ornamented with flowers, blurring the line between indoor and outdoor living spaces. It was common to take indoor plants outside for the summer which further enhanced the feeling of being in a living room.


Several photographs show the planters on the main porch, and these have been planted with geraniums once again; the others are filled with annuals, herbs and interesting specimens such as the Crested Euphorbia. Be sure to come sit and enjoy the breeze and the flowers next time you visit Belmont.