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TideWriters Tales
Rosewell: Gloucester County's Colonial Ruins ~ IV
By Zachary Loesch

     Historical scholarship provides additional insight into the design and history of this property. Something of the family history of Governor Page and his ancestors may be learned, linking the reader with the people who built and resided at Rosewell. An insurance policy dated 1815 indicates that the Rosewell mansion was built with a flat top. The building is described as follows:

     “Dwelling house flat top covered with lead & built of brick three stories high 60 feet square with four chimneys in bad repair.”

     This report was followed by three early eyewitness descriptions of the Rosewell estate. The first of these was written by Charles Campbell of Petersburg for The Southern Literary Messenger, a magazine published at Richmond. Mr. Campbell's notes on Rosewell, dated October 1843, appeared in the January 1844 issue. Campbell notes the black walnut waxed wooden paneling and antique tapestry in the great hall of the mansion's first floor. He also states that the roof is flat and sheeted with lead. He likens Rosewell to an old castle.

     The second early eyewitness report of Rosewell is that of Bishop William Meade whose book entitled Old Churches, Ministers, and Families of Virginia was published in 1857. Bishop Meade's book includes an illustration of Rosewell, the earliest known, that depicts a building with a flat roof and two rooftop cupolas. These cupolas are characterized by the extensive use of glass in their design. A square frame consisting of little more than the material needed to hold the glass windows and a roof above is shown in Meade's illustration of Rosewell. While Bishop Meade's observations may be first hand accounts, the man who engraved the plates for the book's illustrations may have worked from scanty or generalized instructions based on the uncertain recollections of the Bishop years after viewing the estate. Yet there can be no doubt as to the authenticity of the major characteristics of the buildings described and depicted in this remarkable book. Of his work the Bishop writes, “The author has also wandered, and not a little, nor in vain, amidst old churches or their ruins and the graveyards around them, and the old family seats.”

     The third of three early eyewitness accounts of Rosewell is the fictional rendering of Lucy Burwell Page Saunders' childhood memories in a Roman a clef entitled Leonora and the Ghost. The character Leonora is Lucy herself and the setting, Rosewell, is symbolic because of its antiquity and decay. This mise en scene creates a mood of gloom that the story's happy ending cannot dispel. Yet Mrs. Saunders love for Rosewell is also evident. She writes,

     “Leonora was born at Rosewell, in the old chamber said to be her grandsire's favorite apartment, where all his children were born. This little girl was carried away in her second year to reside on the other side of the river with her mother, who had become a widow about a year after little Leonora's birth. Once or twice a year the child accompanied her mamma to Rosewell, and became much attached to the old homestead.”
These early sources provide a wealth of information concerning Rosewell. These three sources corroborate each other's description of the Rosewell mansion's flat lead-covered roof. Lucy Saunders' lengthy description of Rosewell's roof and cupolas will be examined later.

     We will examine several aspects of the mansion's design controversy, particularly with regard to the roof and the conflicting opinions regarding its degree of pitch (the slant we associate with drainage) and the variations of the single cupola theory. Both of these ideas originated with Thomas Waterman. One of his early articles appeared in the January edition of Architectural Design magazine in the year 1930.7 Entitled Rosewell, Gloucester County, Virginia, the article features an odd drawing made by Waterman himself allegedly depicting the mansion house with a modified mansard below a deck (sometimes termed a deck-on-hip design) similar to the Governor's Palace at Williamsburg. 

     In addition, Waterman's drawing shows Rosewell with a single cupola set at the center of the roof. Waterman terms Meade's illustration,"an execrable engraving" depicting "an eccentric arrangement" of two cupolas. Yet Waterman himself would later feature a drawing of Rosewell with two cupolas in his most famous work, the book entitled Mansions of Virginia. 

     Waterman's two cupola drawing of Rosewell still features the deck-on-hip roof. The flat roof description on Rosewell's 1815 insurance policy, an unquestionably legitimate document, disproves Waterman's assertion that the roof was a deck-on-hip design. Lucy Burwell Page Saunders' account of Rosewell indicates both a flat roof and two cupolas. Sadly, many people cling to these mistakes made by Waterman.

     Most representations of Rosewell's original cupolas display them as domed structures. Lucy Saunders indicates that they were four-sided. Mr. George Whiting, a director of Rosewell Foundation, believes that after a new roof of a different design, a more conventionally pitched or sloped roof, was built for the mansion house in the 1850's, one of the cupolas, the one in best repair, was kept and moved to the center of the new roof. It is the square cupola seen in photographs of the mansion early in this century, just a few years prior to the fire which destroyed the building. 

© 2001 Zachary Loesch All Rights Reserved.

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