The Not-So-Sad State of Carter's Grove

Posted on: July 26th, 2012 by Dennis Hockman 10 Comments

Since 1755 the Carter’s Grove plantation house and grounds has been variously a working plantation, a family home, a house museum and archaeological site owned by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (CWF), and then again, in 2007, a private residence. Sixteen archeological sites have been identified on the Carter’s Grove property. One dates back to around 55 B.C. and many others are from the early 17th century, when the area was Wolstenholme Town, one of the first British settlements.

The stately 1755 mansion is considered one of the finest examples of Georgian architecture in the United States.

More recently the stately historic mansion, which is considered one of the finest examples of Georgian architecture in the nation, has been the topic of numerous newspaper and magazine stories focusing on current owner Halsey Minor, his financial affairs, the neglect of the architecturally- and historically-important structure, the attempted foreclosure on the property by the CWF, and the Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing of the LLC Minor established as owner of the estate.

The most recent story published in the Washington Post Magazine sparked outrage among preservationists as the writer detailed a “historic treasure…falling apart,” and “a valuable and once-beautiful piece of American history…being lost.”

Prior to the Post story, the Virginia Gazette published reports on the condition of Carter’s Grove including an essay by Halsey who described “a 4-foot hole in the wall on the second floor” of the house.

The dozens of stories that have been written thus far have primarily focused on the legal brouhaha that has ensued between Minor and Carter’s Grove’s former owners, using the condition of the house as backdrop to a scandal.  The controversy makes for a juicy read, but frankly I couldn’t care less about that. It was those dismal descriptions of an important Colonial era mansion in decline that got my attention, and set me down a path that included reading scads of salacious news stories and ended on site at Carter’s Grove so I could see all of this damage for myself.

Repairable buckling, splitting, and cracking of original interior paneling was the result of wood shrinking and expanding because of wide interior temperature and humidity fluctuations during the period of time when the environmental control system was inoperable. Damage was, in some cases, exacerbated by water infiltration from the roof or exterior walls.

There, I joined Matt Webster, director of historic architectural resources for CWF, and Megan Melinat,  easement program architect for Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources (DHR) who have been assessing conditions and recommending a battery of repairs to resolve the causes of the problems and restore the damaged areas.

“We first assessed the property in October 2011, around the same time foreclosure process started,” says Melinat. “From October on we’ve been there every month to evaluate and document the existing condition.”

Also along for the tour was lawyer Stan Samorajczyk, the court-appointed Chapter 11 trustee of Carter’s Grove, who is overseeing the repair work being recommended and then managed by CWF and DHR.

Samorajczyk’s charge under the law, he says “is to protect the property and ultimately liquidate or sell it to the benefit of all creditors.” Along the way it’s his desire, and, he suggests, the judge’s as well, to preserve Carter’s Grove as an important piece of American Colonial history.

Organic growth, possibly mold, can be found around some of the window and door frames. This was the result of an inoperable interior environmental control system and relatively hotter or cooler outside air infiltrating the house where woodwork meets exterior walls.

What I found on my visit was not a house in ruin or falling apart as just about everything I read has described, but rather a beautiful Colonial era mansion perched on a hill with a view of the James River. Inside I saw signs of neglect, for sure:

  • water damage to the original plaster walls caused by roof leaks and infiltration from clogged gutters;
  • buckled and cracked paneling resulting from a combination of water damage and an inoperative heating and air conditioning systems;
  • and what is likely sporadic mold, also a consequence of that inoperative HVAC system.

But such damage was limited, and most of the house was in beautiful condition.

More good news is that the underlying problems Melinat and Webster identified were discovered before irreparable damage was done. The HVAC is fixed, now regulating the building’s interior temperature and humidity and eliminating the problem that had allowed “mold” growth and contributed to the paneling damage.

Also completed were emergency flashing repairs to eliminate roof leaks and unclogging gutters and downspouts to prevent rainwater runoff from backing up into the house.  Next, all of the aging galvanized flashing will be replaced with copper, and then such interior work as plaster and paneling repairs will begin.

The interior plaster of this 18th century structure attaches directly to the structural masonry exterior walls, and as roof leaks allowed water into the exterior walls Carter’s Grove suffered some repairable failure of the original plaster.

The goal of the work being financed by CWF is to return the house to the condition it was in before the sale to Minor.  Trustee Stan Samorajczyk talks about his task not just as a disinterested third party, but as someone who has fallen in love with Carter’s Grove and will strive to make good not just for the creditors but for the house as well.

Though much ink has been spilled addressing Minor’s responsibility and the sad state of the Colonial mansion he acquired some five years ago, the stories also shed light on the dilemma facing important historic houses nationwide.  As demographics change, the “red velvet rope” house museum model is not as popular as it once was and attendance is waning.  This is one of the reasons CWF decided to sell Carter’s Grove with a preservation and conservation easement attached designed to protect the house in perpetuity.

A view of Carter’s Grove from the James River reveals the building’s classic 5-part Georgian design, which consists of the central structure, two wings, and two connecting segments, called hyphens.

As preservationists everywhere are redefining how important historic structures stay relevant to people today, the house museum is often being reconsidered and places that were homes often for centuries before being frozen in time as museums are becoming houses again.  Private citizens nationwide are becoming stewards of the historic sites where they live.

Financial incentives for taking on the added cost of preserving and maintaining historic structures come in the form of state and federal easement and tax credit programs.  Tax credit programs help minimize the cost of renovation and easements protect historic places into the future. (More on the federal tax credit program here.)

As more and more Americans take advantage of these programs, it’s a sign that they will be making an earnest effort to provide the same care and maintenance the buildings would have received as a museum open to the public.  And if not, as with Carter’s Grove, safety nets are in place to catch problems before they become disasters.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Dennis Hockman

Dennis Hockman

Dennis Hockman is editor in chief of Preservation magazine. He’s lived all over the United States but currently resides in Baltimore where he is restoring a 1918 center hall Colonial.

General, Preservation Magazine

10 Responses

  1. David Wardell

    July 27, 2012

    Dennis,

    The Washington Post article referenced, stripped of the irrelevant scandal trivia, says essentially the same thing as your post. The most troubling part of the Post piece is routinely overlooked.

    Ivor Hume is quoted as follows:

    “While the damaged original features of the house can arguably be replaced with artful copies, Hume says the archaeological value of Carter’s Grove has been ruined.

    “‘The Colonial gardens, the fences put in to be historically correct, the Wolstenholme reconstruction — all destroyed,’ Hume said, grief in his voice. All that remains now of an installation depicting the lives of the slaves who toiled on Carter’s Grove Plantation for roughly half its history are a couple of caved-in shells.

    “Years ago, Hume and his team found the graves of some of the first Europeans to live — and die — in the New World. They identified each by gender and approximate age, and recorded this lost history on grave markers. “That was all destroyed,” Hume said.

    “Also destroyed, Hume says, were artifacts and native Powhatan remains that dated back 2,000 years.

    “‘It is one of the most unfortunate preservation tragedies in recent years,’ the 85-year-old Englishman said. ‘I care deeply about Carter’s Grove. Most of my productive working life was focused on that property, the films I made, the books I wrote, my getting the O.B.E. from the Queen — my life was tied up in that place. What happened to it is the great disaster of my life.'”

    The CWF has been quoted as saying that the artifacts have been removed but are intact, but that is only one of Hume’s statements. Hume has visited the property recently (again according to the Post) and one assumes that he knows what he is talking about respecting what is there.

    It would be truly informative to speak with Hume and confirm what he says–which is potentially a much greater loss than the repairable damage to the house.

  2. Michael A. Lord

    July 27, 2012

    I agree with Mr. Wardell and Dr. Hume. The significance of Carter’s Grove is in its archaeology rather than its architecture. In the 1990’s, I interpreted the site of the Slave Quarter’s at Carter’s Grove. Visitors often commented about their “immersive experience,” or the power of standing on the spot where the enslaved community lived and where early settlers died at Wolstenhome Town. That opportunity has been lost forever.

  3. Dennis Hockman

    July 27, 2012

    The archaeologist, Hume, is right that the modern reconstructions were destroyed, at the request of Minor, I am told–but demolishing modern reconstructions does not ruin archaeological value. The artifacts that were housed in a modern museum on site, were,indeed, removed and archived by CWF. My article was intended to frame the house in an accurate light, not to assess Hume’s statements. In my story, I also suggest that the model for historic places is changing, and that now is time to debate how we continue to provide those immersive experiences when at the same time fewer people are visiting the places where they can be had. Thanks for weighing in. –dh

  4. Dawn m

    July 27, 2012

    Reading the story of the house honestly is heart breaking despite the light that was intended. Reading the comments is so far beyond that.

    I am the proud owner of a nationally registered treasure and we take as much care and concern on the restoration of the gardeners cottage as we are of the main house. To think that the slave quarters were neglected… It’s horrifying honestly. Our history, rich and poor is so important. This owner is a frightening abomination.

    I am often confronted by locals about our plans for our home. They live in mortal fear that this type of abuse will happen to their local treasure. It’s annoying…. We love our home and will do right by it. But then I read this and understand their concerns.

    I’m touched by this house. Is it available for someone who cares?

    Dawn m
    The James house
    Port Townsend wa

  5. Elizabeth Simon

    July 29, 2012

    The trend to develop house museums in the 1960s and 1970s, like most trends, produced more of a good thing than was needed. It was inevitable that many of those sites would eventually fail. However, Carter’s Grove isn’t your typical historic house. It’s size alone would defeat the preservation efforts of most private owners. Despite the comfort that so far all the damage to the house is repairable, each modern change to a historic building takes away a little of its original fabric and detracts, however slightly, from its value as a whole. And, as Ivor Noel Hume’s comments suggest, the possible loss of such early archaeological sites as Wolstenholme Town is an important issue for anyone interested in U.S. history.

    I enjoyed many visits to Carter’s Grove when it was still owned by CWF, and I’m sorry that others won’t have that opportunity in the future. For a house and site of this quality, being used as a museum was justified. Is there any possibility that CWF, or some similarly muscular organization, might again take over its stewardship?

  6. David Wardell

    July 29, 2012

    I presume Dr. Hume is referring to the modern contextual work he and others did that is now unavailable and would need to be recreated at considerable effort. If that assessment is accurate, I’d suggest that it does “ruin” perhaps not the site but certainly the immediate value of the site absent any reconstruction.

    His concern appears to be significantly elevated from the simple loss of modern buildings.

    I use the words “presume” and “appears” because we have only brief quotes from the Post in an article written by a non-expert to assess. It would be useful for everyone if Dr. Hume’s views on its condition could be expanded and put in perspective. Perhaps a great question for him is “why” he believes so strongly that the archaeological value is “ruined.”

    That is a significant story.

    Many thanks, Dennis, for your response.

  7. Ivor Noel Hume

    July 31, 2012

    The value of an archaeological site like Wolstenholme Towne is dependent on two criteria: a)what it has to tell archaeologist and historians, and b) how it can be made to share that information with the public. The practice of archaeology is undeniably destructive. When the Wostenholme site was excavated and its artifacts retrieved,nothing remained but empty holes in the ground. To fulfill our obligation to the visiting public we built a museum (which earned an international reputation) and we reconstructed as much of the site as was necessary to make its structural story understandible. With those emptied and destroyed, there is nothing left to render the excavated ground of interpretable value. The wrter is wrong to place the onus on Halsey Minor for destroying Carter’s Grove’s 17th-century story. The easement obtained by Colonial Williamsburg specifically states that “The building that housed the Winthrop Rockefeller Archaeological Museum and the recreated Wolstenholme Town interpretive structures may be demolished or modified at the Grantor’s discretion.” As no maintenance had been given to the Wolstenholme structures since CW closed the property (and as a hunter shot himself in the watchtower) it made no sense for Mr. Minor to keep a potentially attractive nuisance in good repair that no one could visit. For that Easement-encouraged tragedy the responsibility rests elsewhere. INH

  8. David Wardell

    July 31, 2012

    Dr. Hume,

    Many thanks for your informative expansion–which I wish were more widely circulated. Your point is a good one concerning the Easement, however it would seem that bungling was pervasive on all sides of this transaction.

    I personally believe strongly that the decline of public interest in historic sites is not inevitable, nor is the solution to place them in incompetent hands under dubious conditions.

  9. Stephen Hammock

    August 2, 2012

    This is horrific. The archaeology at Carter’s Grove, the reconstructed Wolstenholme Town, and Ivor Noel-Hume’s writings on this subject are some of the primary reasons I became an archaeologist. I spent six weeks at Jamestown in the hot summer of 1998 at my first fieldschool, and visited Carter’s Grove several times then and later. I looked forward to taking my children there so they could experience what I did above ground and in the amazing underground museum. I had no idea any of this had occurred, and I am massively disappointed in Colonial Williamsburg for allowing such an amazing educational and historic site to be dismantled. Shame on CWF. I would like to see the site recreated at its expense so that future generations of children can once more learn about American and Virginia history there.

    Hurrah for Mr. Noel-Hume’s past and present efforts at this early American settlement. My only regret is that I was never able to meet him when I was in Virginia, to express my profound regard for the archaeological work he and his wife Audrey did so well for so many years in Virginia.

    Stephen Hammock, RPA
    Archaeologist
    Macon, GA

  10. Round the Blogosphere 8-6-2012 « Preservation in Mississippi

    August 6, 2012

    [...] Grove story in Virginia, you will find this update on the National Trust blog interesting: “The Not-So-Sad State of Carter’s Grove.” Be sure to read all the [...]