A short story by Etta Belle Walker
Author: Etta Belle Walker [More Titles by Walker]
Kenmore, the home of Fielding Lewis and Betty Washington Lewis (George Washington's only sister), is an outstanding example of the architecture of Colonial Virginia. It is also intimately connected with the stirring history of Colonial times and with the life of George Washington.
Augustine Washington, about 1739, moved from Hunting Creek to Ferry Farm, across the river from Fredericksburg, with his second wife, Mary Ball, and their five children--George, Betty, Samuel, John Augustine, and Charles--for the sake of community life and the religious and educational advantages it offered. Here the children grew up and received their education--Betty at a "Dame School," George under the tutelage of Parson Marye. Betty and George were especially intimate companions because of their nearness of age and their similarity in personality and character.
When Betty was sixteen, and a "mannerly young maid," her cousin Fielding Lewis came seeking her hand in marriage. Lewis had come up from Gloucester three years previously with his wife and son. Mrs. Lewis died in 1749. Shortly thereafter, Fielding started courting young Betty. They were married in 1750, the bride being given away by her brother George, and for a time they lived on a plantation adjoining Ferry Farm. In 1752 Lewis bought 861 acres of land, adjacent to Fredericksburg, the survey being made by George Washington, who had been appointed government surveyor in 1748. On this land, with its fine view of the countryside, Lewis built Kenmore (called Millbrook at the time) in accordance with a promise he had made to his bride.
As time went on, Fielding Lewis became closely associated with the political life of Virginia. He was a member of the House of Burgesses for many years. He also served in the French and Indian War and was Colonel of the Spotsylvania County Militia. It is said that the resolution endorsing Patrick Henry in his resistance to the tyranny of Governor Dunmore, passed by the Committee of 600 in the Rising Sun Tavern in Fredericksburg, was written by him in the Great Room of his home, Kenmore, a paper which for all intents and purposes was a declaration of independence.
Colonel Lewis was best known for the part he played in the War of Independence. In 1776 he became Chairman of the Virginia Committee of Safety. Previously, in 1775, the Virginia Assembly had passed an ordinance providing for a "Manufactory of Small Arms in Fredericksburg, Virginia." Five commissioners were appointed to undertake this project, but Colonel Lewis and Charles Dick were the only two who took an active part in the work. They were allotted L2,500 with which to secure land, buildings and equipment. Soon thereafter they were at work manufacturing arms. The first L2,500 were quickly spent, and Lewis and Dick were obliged to draw from their own funds to carry on. Lewis advanced an additional L7,000 and borrowed L30,000 to L40,000 more. Lewis also built a ship for the Virginia Navy, The Dragon, and equipped three regiments. Kenmore was heavily mortgaged to meet the costs of all these patriotic enterprises. When Lewis died in 1781, little of the estate was left.
Thereafter, Betty Lewis tried conducting a small boarding school at Kenmore, but again money had to be raised and piece after piece of the land was sold to obtain it. Finally, in 1796, the mansion and its contents were sold and Betty Lewis went to live with her daughter. She died the next year.
After many vicissitudes in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Kenmore was saved for posterity, in 1922, through the great enthusiasm and hard work of a group of women who later formed the Kenmore Association. Through the efforts of this association, the exterior and the interiors of Kenmore were expertly restored to their original charming appearance and it has been furnished with original pieces of the period, many of which have an actual connection with the family.
Who the architect of Kenmore was, is unknown. It is very probable that Fielding Lewis himself had much to do with the planning of it, making use of books on English architecture. The mansion is typical of the formal architecture of Tidewater Virginia in the mid-eighteenth century. Flanked on each side by smaller service buildings, both of which are identical in size and appearance, the group is symmetrical around the central entrance. The exteriors present a picture of fine restraint and dignity. Four uniformly placed chimneys in the end walls serve eight fireplaces. The windows are well proportioned in relation to the main walls. The walls, of brick laid in Flemish bond, or brickwork pattern, are two feet thick--unusually heavy construction for a house of even this size.
The principal rooms, of stately proportions, are remarkable for their design and ornament. The richly modelled ceilings, cornices, and overmantels are outstanding examples of ornamental plater-work--quite unsurpassed by anything of its kind in America. It has always been said and never contradicted that these ornamental features were planned by George Washington himself.
To the right, as one enters the Reception Hall, tinted in pastel blue-gray, is the well designed main stairway, a noteworthy feature of which is the delicately carved lotus leaf ornament. In back is the prized grandfather clock which originally belonged to Mary Washington.
Passing through the arched doorway at the rear of the Hall, one enters the Great Room. For the magnificent ceiling of this room, Colonel Lewis employed the same French decorator whom Washington had employed for the ornamental ceilings at Mount Vernon. The design motif includes four horns of plenty. Tradition has it that the overmantel in the Great Room was done at a later time than the other decorations by two Hessian soldiers captured at the Battle of Trenton. The design, an adaptation of AEsop's fable of the fox, the crow, and the piece of cheese, is supposed to have been suggested by George Washington at the request of his sister; this particular fable being chosen to teach his nephews to beware of flattery. The rich red of the brocade draperies contrasts with the light green of the walls and the white of the ceiling and mantel. A crystal chandelier of old Waterford glass forms a sparkling accent in the middle of the room. The floor is covered almost entirely with an early eighteenth century Oushak rug. The furniture in this room as well as elsewhere generally is American of Chippendale design. Of particular note are two portraits of Fielding, and two of Betty Lewis--all four by Wollaston.
The ceiling of the Library has the four seasons for its decorative motif and the overmantel is a design of fruits and flowers. The walls, like those of the Great Room, are tinted a soft green.
"The Swan and Crown" of the Washington crest is carved in the woodwork under the mantel in the Dining Room. The walls are a deep blue-green, the woodwork a lighter matching shade. Draperies are a soft green brocade. The service building on the Dining Room side of the House contains the kitchen.
On the second floor are the master bedrooms and guest room where General Lafayette and many another distinguished visitor stayed. These eighteenth century rooms, so well treated and furnished, serve as timeless models of good taste in bedrooms.
Next to Mount Vernon, George Washington was most interested in Kenmore. He had taken a keen interest from the beginning in the building of the House and the landscaping of the grounds. After the War he set out thirteen chestnut trees near the House, one for each of the original thirteen States. One of these still lives. Mary Washington, mother of George and Betty, lived in the cottage on the estate, not far from the Main House; a home her son had provided for her at the beginning of the War.
The restoration of the grounds was undertaken by the Garden Club of Virginia in 1929 with funds obtained from the public participation in the first "Virginia Garden Week." One feature of this work is the brick wall around the premises, built in 1930. The sunken turf driveway is the original driveway that used to surround a grassy circle. Handsome box bushes, ancient and familiar features of Virginia estates, flank the approaches to the House now as of old. The gardens, too, contain flowers that Betty Washington must have enjoyed--bushes of lilac, mock orange, and bridal wreath and beds of pansies, sweet william, phlox, verbena and lilies of the valley.
Kenmore, a background of those lives who helped so importantly to mould the destinies of our nation, vividly portrays the art and the culture of its time.
GO TO TOP OF SCREEN