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TideWriters Tales

Celebrating the Past, Present & Future

The Incredible Story Behind Menokin’s Interior Woodwork

By Sarah Dillard Pope

This month’s column continues with the story of historic Menokin—a National Historic Landmark, built for Declaration of Independence signer Francis Lightfoot Lee and his wife Rebecca Tayloe, in 1769. The house, now a partial ruin, is surrounded by 500 acres of countryside in Richmond County, four miles north of Warsaw. The property is owned and managed by the Menokin Foundation, a nonprofit organization that formed in 1994.

The more than 1,000 pieces of Menokin’s interior woodwork, now in storage at the Menokin Foundation’s King Conservation and Visitors Center, have had an eventful and remarkable life. From about 1940 to the mid-1960s, when Menokin started to collapse, this home of a signer of the Declaration of Independence lay vacant. The owners of Menokin, the Omohundro family, realized the value of the interior woodwork and removed it from the house in 1965 to protect it from vandals and the elements.

The Omohundro family stored the woodwork in a vacant house at Lyles Corner, located five miles from Menokin, where it remained for 20 years. In 1985, the family gave the woodwork to the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA), which transported the pieces to a secure barn at Bacon’s Castle in Surry County, approximately 100 miles from Menokin. In 1998, most of the woodwork from Menokin’s largest room—the dining room—was loaned to the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond, where it was reassembled as part of the “Story of Virginia” exhibit. Eventually the dining room woodwork will rejoin the pieces at the Menokin Foundation’s King Conservation and Visitors Center.

In 2004, upon completion of the King Conservation and Visitors Center, the APVA returned the woodwork to Menokin. The Foundation’s intent is to use Menokin—the house, site, and architectural fragments—as a lively teaching resource. The pieces visitors see today are themselves unrestored, with various layers of paint and scars that illustrate their long life and adventurous career.

Completed Conservation Projects
In 2005, the Menokin Foundation undertook the conservation and reassemblage of “the best chimney piece.” The richest woodwork in the house was applied to the chimney masonry in the dining room and chamber—the two first-floor river-side rooms. The larger dining room, which can be viewed at the Virginia Historical Society, had a somewhat eccentric mantel and over-mantel that was enriched early in the 19th century.

The mantel and over-mantel, or “best chimneypiece,” occupied the adjoining room, called a chamber in the 18th-century design drawing. Perhaps, then, this could have been Francis Lightfoot and Rebecca Tayloe Lee’s bedchamber rather than a parlor. It is a more familiar Georgian essay in woodwork, with a curved frieze meticulously carved with fish scales below a cornice supporting the shelf, and a large panel of carefully-fitted boards overhead. We assume the carving and joinery were done in Richmond County, and the design in general resembles contemporary original woodwork across the Rappahannock at Blandfield (known from fragments) and Elmwood.

The next conservation project undertaken was the reassemblage of the front entryway in 2006. This doorway was located on the north, or land side, of Menokin, and functioned as its primary and finest entrance. The conservators began their work with an entrance assemblage in 27 pieces of varying sizes, consisting of the main doorframe, frame-and-paneled jamb, and associated jamb molding. The two original wrought hinges remain on the proper right side of the doorway frame. Now on display at the King Conservation and Visitors Center, the entrance once again welcomes guests to Francis Lightfoot Lee’s plantation.

To learn more about Menokin’s interior woodwork, visit the Foundation’s web site at: Better yet, come see the woodwork in person! Guided tours are available, starting at the King Conservation and Visitors Center, Monday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

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