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

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Falmouth Bridge circa 1910

Falmouth Bridge

This article originally appeared in the March 2016 Stafford County Historical Society newsletter and is shared here on our blog with the author’s permission. The Falmouth Bridge is of particular interest to us because Joseph B. Ficklen owned Belmont.

Author:  Jerrilynn Eby MacGregor

Falmouth Bridge circa 1910

Falmouth Bridge circa 1910

Thousands of people drive over the Falmouth Bridge every day without giving it any thought beyond perhaps noticing the deteriorating concrete railings or the somewhat disconcerting bouncing felt when traffic stops mid-span.  In reality, neither is a problem so far as the safety of the bridge is concerned.  Few realize that the present structure is at least the twelfth to have spanned the Rappahannock River at this location.

From the establishment of the town of Falmouth in 1728 until the first bridge was opened around 1798, people crossed the Rappahannock by ferry.  Several of these were established at various points between the Stafford shore and Fredericksburg and some operated concurrently over the years.  In fact, ferries continued in operation from Falmouth until the 1890s.

The first bridge at Falmouth was built and owned by Robert Dunbar.  It crossed the river at the bottom of Cambridge Street just south of modern Amy’s Café and was a wooden structure on stone piers.  It stood next to Falmouth’s first wharf.  The land on which the bridge abutted on both sides of the river belonged to the Thornton family of The Falls, later Fall Hill.  As part of the deal between Dunbar and Francis Thornton, in return for permission to build the bridge, Dunbar agreed to pay to Thornton and his heirs an annuity of £500 forever after.  This was an enormous sum and the annuity remained in force for nearly a century.

For Dunbar, building the bridge wasn’t a selfless act for the betterment of his community; it was a business venture that he hoped would turn a profit despite the very considerable expense involved.  Those wishing to use the bridge paid a toll.  Tolls were charged for people, cattle, horses, sheep, and wheeled vehicles.  Dunbar’s bridge washed out twice during his ownership, in 1808 and again in 1826.  He rebuilt it at his own expense.

In 1847 Joseph B. Ficklen purchased the bridge from Dunbar’s heirs, still subject to the Thornton annuity.  Like Robert Dunbar, Ficklen collected tolls from those who used the bridge.  Part of the bridge gave way in July 1856 “and precipitated into the river and on the rocks below, a fine team of oxen, and a wagon loaded with Wheat…Two of the oxen had to be butchered—the rest were slightly injured and the driver escaped with a few bruises.”  Ficklen repaired the bridge at his own expense.

Flyer posted to collect tolls for owner Joseph. B. Ficklen

Flyer posted to collect tolls for owner Joseph. B. Ficklen

The Rappahannock River has always been prone to violent flooding, which often destroyed or seriously damaged the bridges built at Falmouth and Chatham.  In April 1861 the local newspaper reported, “The heavy and continuous rain of the past few days resulted in a tremendous freshet in the Rappahannock River, the like of which has not been known since 1814.  On Wednesday morning, the swollen, turbid mass of water, increasing rapidly in height and volume, raged onward with such force as to sweep away panel after panel of the Falmouth Bridge, which with similar velocity, borne down by the impetuous current, struck the Chatham Bridge…and carried off about one-third of that structure…In a few hours the whole of Falmouth Bridge had disappeared, and from bank to bank surged the restless tide of waters.”  In 1929 Sarah Anderson recalled standing on the hill at her home, Pine Grove, in April 1861 and watching the flood (Woodmont Nursing Home now stands on or very near the Pine Grove house site).  Sarah wrote, I watched from that hill Falmouth’s bridge come floating down the river and hit the Chatham bridge and knock more than half of it off the pillars.  Then both bridges came on down the river & hit the car [railroad] bridge which was too high out of the water for them to pull it down.  The bridge was quickly rebuilt, only to be burned in April 1862 when Confederate forces withdrew from Fredericksburg.  A year later I saw all those bridges and all the vessels at the wharfs all burning at once to keep the Yankees out of Fredericksburg.”  Union soldiers used pontoon bridges to cross the river during their occupation.

There was no bridge at Falmouth from 1862 until the summer of 1866 when Joseph B. Ficklen arranged “for the building of his stone piers on the Falmouth bridge, the woodwork of which will also soon be contracted for.”  The work was quickly completed and, in direct competition to the owner of the Chatham Bridge, Ficklen reduced the toll on his bridge to nearly the same rate as before the war “or just one half that has been charged by the Chatham bridge.”

Ficklen died in 1874 and the bridge, then valued at the considerable sum of $12,000, passed to his wife and children.  The Thornton annuity passed with it.  For a number of years people had been discussing the advisability of having a free bridge connecting Falmouth and Fredericksburg.  Of course, that required the use of public funds, i.e. taxes, to build a bridge and maintain it, which certainly didn’t suit those Stafford residents who anticipated using it infrequently, if at all.  In February 1882 the Virginia General Assembly passed the “Free Bridge Act” in which the Stafford Board of Supervisors was authorized to borrow money to build a bridge across the Rappahannock. The projected cost was $24,150 for a new structure to replace Ficklen’s bridge, which was still standing and functional.  A board of commissioners, one from each of Stafford’s four districts, was established and tasked with building, maintaining, and operating the bridge.  They contracted with the Wrought Iron Bridge Company of Canton, Ohio to build the structure, but the project stalled.  In March 1886 the commissioners agreed with the Ficklen family to purchase the existing bridge with its toll house and lot as well as the 64-acre Amaret farm on the Spotsylvania side and upon which the bridge abutted.  The bridge was still subject to a $1,666.66 annual annuity due Francis Thornton’s heirs.  The commissioners agreed to pay the Ficklens $1,000 twice each year “forever” with Stafford residents being taxed to raise this sum.  Stafford residents whose names were included on the tax rolls were entitled to cross the bridge free of charge.  All others paid tolls.

In the fall of 1889 Fredericksburg decided to take over the Chatham Bridge, previously a toll bridge, and make it free.  Thus, Stafford assumed financial responsibility for the Falmouth Bridge and Fredericksburg for the one at Chatham.

Shortly after purchasing Ficklen’s bridge, the commissioners decided to build a new one anyway.  The newspaper reported, “The bridge promises to be a magnificent structure when completed.  It will stand for ages as a monument of the wisdom of its friends, and a rebuke to its enemies, past and present…’Rah for the free bridge, for Stafford, her people, her old hares, herrings, persimmons, and her Republicans.  We will also include her Democrats, with one or two exceptions.”

Just 29 months after this was written, a flood swept away the entire structure.  It was rebuilt in 1893, but lasted only until 1918 when ice floes carried off panels from both ends.  A middle section was all that remained standing.  Stafford County sold bonds to raise money to rebuild.

Falmouth Bridge, 1916, damaged by ice floes

Falmouth Bridge, 1916, damaged by ice floes

Temporary Falmouth Bridge, circa 1918. This image was taken from the Fredericksburg side of the river but a similar swinging bridge was built on the Falmouth side, as well, because an ice dam had carried off both ends and left only the middle section.

Temporary Falmouth Bridge, circa 1918. This image was taken from the Fredericksburg side of the river but a similar swinging bridge was built on the Falmouth side, as well, because an ice dam had carried off both ends and left only the middle section.

In April 1922 the Virginia State Highway Commissioner brought suit to have the Falmouth Bridge condemned so it could be added to the new state road system.  The Richmond to Washington Highway was then under construction and the Falmouth Bridge was to be included.  The purpose of the suit was to determine the damages due those who still retained a financial interest in the bridge.  It was at this point that the Thornton annuity ceased and the Ficklen family was paid off.

The bridge was severely damaged by flooding in 1937.  For several years a narrow swinging footbridge connected the Falmouth side of the river with what remained of the bridge.  Many Falmouth residents worked in Fredericksburg and having a means of crossing the river was a necessity.  The only other option was to walk down River Road and use the Chatham Bridge.

Construction of a new bridge finally commenced in 1942.  In November of that year one of the worst floods of the river’s recorded history sent water over the top of the deck of what remained of the previous bridge and effortlessly twisted the steel superstructure.  At that point, all that had been completed of the new bridge was the pouring of the concrete piers.  The flood waters actually submerged these and, after the water subsided and work resumed on the new bridge, engineers added another five feet of concrete to the tops of the piers to provide extra height.  These may be viewed from beneath the current bridge.  Raising the height of the bridge deck required realigning and raising Route 1 as it approached the bridge, thus accounting for the present configuration.

Visit Belmont for holiday decor with an artist’s touch – Fredericksburg Virginia

The Christmas season is a special time to visit Gari Melchers’ Home and Studio at Belmont.

Source: Visit Belmont for holiday decor with an artist’s touch – Fredericksburg Virginia

MWC president Prince Woodard giving remarks at Belmont opening day Oct. 19 1975 Director Dick Reid sitting

Forty Years on the Hill

MWC president Prince Woodard giving remarks at Belmont on opening day Oct. 19 1975. Director Dick Reid is sitting.

MWC president Prince Woodard giving remarks at Belmont’s opening day on Oct. 19, 1975. Director Dick Reid is sitting.

On October 19, 1975, Mary Washington College President Prince Woodard presided over the public opening of the Gari Melchers Memorial Gallery, making the artist’s Belmont home and painting studio available to the public on a regular schedule for the first time.

The opening of the museum took over twenty years to accomplish, in the face of numerous governance decisions by the Virginia General Assembly, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the University of Virginia and finally Mary Washington College, all of which had involvement in the winding road of acceptance and implementation of Corinne Melchers’ wishes as outlined in her 1942 gift to the Commonwealth, which was effective at her death in 1955.

Gari and Corinne Melchers purchased Belmont in 1916, finding a pleasant country retreat similar to what they had enjoyed for many years in Egmond, Holland, where Gari was able to concentrate on his work away from the distractions of Paris, where his professional life was centered. After leaving Europe during the turmoil of the war years, Gari established a studio in New York City, but again longed for a rural retreat that he found at Belmont.

During his sixteen years in Virginia, Gari Melchers involved himself in the cultural life of his adopted state, eventually being named chair of the Virginia Arts Commission in 1932. From that post he oversaw the refurbishment of the state capitol building decorations and statuary, and began the development of what was to become the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. After his death later that year, Corinne was appointed to his position on the commission and became one of the founding trustees of the VMFA when it opened in 1935. She had developed a close relationship with Thomas Colt, the museum’s first curator and director, and spurred by a VMFA memorial exhibition of Gari’s work in 1938, by 1942 had worked out a plan to deed Belmont and its collections to the museum at her death.

By the time of Corinne’s passing in 1955, and the subsequent transfer of the property and art collections to the Commonwealth, the administration of the VMFA and the reputation of Gari Melchers in art circles had changed considerably. No longer was Melchers considered an important American artist, and his Falmouth home had become run down and in need of major repairs. The VMFA board almost immediately sought to be relieved of the burden of supporting what they saw as a white elephant fifty miles from Richmond. Fredericksburg’s Mary Washington College, then part of the University of Virginia, was approached and accepted the responsibility for overseeing the site, but could not provide funding for either staff or major improvements that would allow public use. It was not until 1975, under a new college administration that was committed to opening the site as a public museum, that Corinne’s wishes were finally carried out.

Since that autumn day forty years ago, the museum now known as Gari Melchers Home and Studio has kept alive Mrs. Melchers’ goal of preserving and celebrating the now revived artistic legacy of her accomplished husband, and providing a public setting in which to enjoy his art and the historic locale that they so lovingly maintained.

In the early years under Belmont’s first director, Richard Reid, only the first floor of the house and the studio were open a few days a week, staffed by volunteers. In 1984, under the guidance of Reid, an important illustrated reference book, Gari Melchers: His Works in the Belmont Collection, was published by MWC professor Joseph Dreiss. By the mid-1980s hours had expanded to seven days a week, and Reid’s successor Peter Grover leveraged state and private funds to restore the original house and modernize the utilities to both preserve the collections and increase the comfort of visitors. It was at this time that a major retrospective exhibition of Gari Melchers’ best work traveled the country, reviving public and critical interest in his place in American painting.

In the early 90s, under current director David Berreth, the formal gardens were restored with the help of the Garden Club of Virginia, which has continued to support the restoration of the estate’s landscape based on the voluminous photographs and records saved by Mrs. Melchers. In 1995 a former garage was converted into a visitor center and museum shop to welcome guests and increase revenues. The building now also serves as the official Stafford County Visitor Center, promoting regional tourism and the study of local history.

By 2001 the original studio building was fully restored to provide a safe, climate controlled facility in which to house a rotating display over 500 works by Gari Melchers. This thoroughly professional venue allows the museum to borrow major works and exhibitions from other museums around the country. And in 2006 a new public event pavilion and collection storage facility was completed, allowing the museum to host a wide variety of public educational programs, concerts, and workshops, along with private events like wedding receptions and business retreats. All of this work was accomplished through combinations of private and state funding, which demonstrated the depth of support from the now University of Mary Washington, and a cadre of local donors and private foundations focused on historic preservation.

Today, Gari Melchers Home and Studio hosts visitors from every corner of the world, and is a regular stop for local residents and regional guests. Corinne Melchers’ dream has been realized, and we celebrate her vision and dedication to art and its ability to endure and inspire, as it has for over forty years on the hill overlooking Falmouth.

 

Puzzler of a Painting No More!

Dutch Bachelor at His Breakfast

Dutch Bachelor at His Breakfast

I’m delighted to provide an update to my earlier post Another Conundrum of Connoisseurship! regarding a painting, Dutch Bachelor at His Breakfast, sent to me for inspection this past June.  An art collector sent me a watercolor to examine, at that time untitled.  I‘d never laid eyes on the painting before, but it has all the hallmarks of an early Melchers.  What perplexed me was the signature it bears: “ J. G. Melches.”  Not only is it missing the “r”, but it bears no resemblance to Melchers’ bona fide autograph.

Why would a genuine Melchers have a “bad” signature?  Occasionally Melchers failed to sign his works. If this was the case with Dutch Bachelor, did someone later forge the signature to eliminate doubt?  Well that backfired!  The inconsistency of an artist’s known signature always casts doubt on a piece.

There was still another possibility to consider.   Despite the attempt at a Melchers signature, the picture could easily pass as the work of Melchers’ American colleague in Holland, George Hitchcock, of which Belmont has several examples.

Admittedly, I was stymied. Certainly it had to be by one or the other artist, for the setting of the painting was the studio the two shared in Holland, but their subjects and styles were so interchangeable at this stage of their careers that I wasn’t sure I could ever reach a proof positive attribution.

The watercolor is such a charming evocation of “old Holland” that its owner thought it would be best appreciated in a museum in the Netherlands.  When the various parties showed no interest in the piece, perhaps put off by the spurious signature, the owner offered it to Belmont, if for no other reason than to serve as a study piece! We accepted with gratitude.  Now I was really motivated to nail down the attribution!

Happily, that day came this week when I followed a lead to an article published in an obscure journal dating to 1885, The Art Amateur.  It was too much to hope for, but buried in an extensive review of an American Watercolor Society exhibition was a description of the very same painting I had sitting on my desk!

It reads:

We point, in illustration, to “A Dutch Bachelor’s Breakfast” (686), by J. G. Melchers, an exceedingly clever Hollander. . . .  Pure wash is the rule. Wherever the white of the paper will serve a useful purpose it is retained. Notice the masterly way in which it is made to do service in giving the light to the tea-cup the bachelor holds in his hand. What substance there is in the figure of the picturesquely attired servant girl who is doing the offices of the breakfast-table; how well balanced in color and composition is the entire picture!

With that came the solution to the mystery and a valuable addition to our collection!  As for the signature, it’s certainly a deliberate forgery.

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.