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Rosewell: Gloucester County's Colonial Ruins
By Zachary J. Loesch

     The Tidewater region of Virginia features many ancient estates dating from the Virginia Colony's earliest times. Sadly, many mansions of historical significance are only archeological sites today. Ivor Noel Hume, perhaps the most famous archeologist in Virginia, indicates that these historic homes have lent something of themselves to the region's character.

     Handsome plantation houses and beautiful fan-fluttering women have become part and parcel of the popular Virginia image, and every year thousands of tourists pay their dollars to enter Virginia's stately homes. The finest series of colonial examples is to be found along the north bank of the James River; Shirley, Westover, Berkeley, and Carter's Grove, all of them restored to a lesser or greater degree, but all retaining much of their eighteenth century grandeur. Unhappily, some of the most magnificent of Virginia's Colonial mansions are now nothing more than archeological sites, and consequently bear names that mean nothing to the visitor: Green Spring on the James, Rosewell on the York River, and Corotoman on the Rappahannock are three that have received archeological attention...Rosewell was one of the finest brick structures ever erected in English America, and its checkered history provided an excellent example of the trials and even hardships of an eighteenth-century Virginia planter.

     The Rosewell ruins, located on the north shore of the York River in Gloucester County, are the source of controversy and contention concerning several points pertaining to the mansion's original design. These points of contention resist resolution because the ravages of salvage, renovation, neglect, fire, vandals and relic hunters have left only sections of the building's exterior walls to view. The features that no longer can be seen are the subject of much speculation.

     The ruined walls, massive and skeletal, are quite striking when first encountered. Above ground level stand half the basement wall and three stories of what is often deemed the finest brickwork in America. In viewing this shell of a once magnificent structure, some time for observation and reflection is required before the outlines of the original building can take shape in the mind's eye of imagination. Some study of the site discloses the location of the pair of utility buildings, the kitchen and servants' quarters, symmetrically balanced in a diagonal aspect off the northern corners of the mansion. Volunteer archeological work by members of the Rosewell Preservation Foundation has uncovered a small section of each utility building's foundation wall. These smaller buildings are often termed dependencies because of their close physical proximity to the estate mansion building. Other archeological surveys at the site have revealed forgotten features that must be considered. A dig undertaken in early summer of 1991 at Rosewell has uncovered the brick foundation of an earlier dwelling, a family home that may predate the 1725 mansion by thirty years. This archeological work, done by Foundation volunteers, was supervised by Nick Lucketti of the Jamestown Institute of Archeology. Another survey of a more general nature requiring the excavation of numerous test squares plotted on a grid pattern was undertaken by Mr. Kelso of the University of Virginia and some of his students in early autumn of 1991. The test squares are marked by small orange plastic flags on a wire stuck into the ground beside each square. One test square revealed a brick sidewalk in an area to the south of the mansion's ruins known to have been the site of an extensive garden during the Colonial Period. Another curious feature of Rosewell discovered by volunteers is a vaulted brick drainage device with a flat or squared-off bottom that encircles the ruins, originally intended to drain away rain water. A brief walk down a path off the southwest corner of the mansion's ruins brings the visitor to Rosewell to the site of the estate's ice house. It survives as a circular brick wall below ground level. Above ground level only a small brick sidewalk encircling the nonexistent structure may still be seen. Down another path, what once was an avenue through the gardens leading from the mansion's front door to the waters of Carter's Cove and the York River, a foundation wall of brick built at the water's edge may be found. This building may have been a tobacco warehouse when first built, but seems to have served as a dairy in later years, if one is to believe the attestation of Lucy Burwell Page Saunders in a ghost story she wrote about Rosewell in the last century. Of all the appointments and appurtenances of plantation life, only the brickwork remains to be seen today, and this only incompletely. This brickwork was and remains Rosewell's most salient characteristic. 

© 2001 Zachary Loesch All Rights Reserved.

This is the second in a series of articles.


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