Papers from Fiske Kimball: Creator of an American Architecture
A Symposium held at the School of Architecture,
University of Virginia, 19 November 1995
This paper originally for class: The Colonial Revival in Architecture, University of Virginia School of Architecture, December 13, 1994
When the Robert E. Lee Memorial Foundation was founded in 1929 to obtain and care for Stratford Hall, their goals were explicitly stated in the Foundation's by-laws: " To acquire the estate known as 'Stratford Hall' in Westmoreland Co., Virginia, the birthplace of Robert E. Lee, and to restore, furnish, preserve, and maintain it as a national shrine in perpetual memory of Robert E. Lee" as well as to open it to the public.1 Even as early as the writing of the bylaws, however, the ladies of the Foundation were aware that the presentation of Stratford must be more complex than a simple shrine to the Gen. Robert E. Lee. The house is itself architecturally significant and several generations of historically important personages inhabited it. The broad attitude of the Foundation regarding commemorations is reflected in the assignment of the annual celebrations to be held at the house: of course, October 12--death of R. E. Lee and January 19--birthday of R.E. Lee, but also included were April 29 in honor of Lighthorse Harry Lee and wife Ann Hill as well as July 4 in honor of the two Lee signers the Declaration of Independence (Richard Henry and Francis Lightfoot).2 The complexities of the long history of Stratford as well as the increased quality of research done for contemporary projects like Colonial Williamsburg produced new challenges of restoration and interpretation to which the Foundation responded. A great deal of credit must be given to the foundation initially as they interpret the resources inherent in the house rather than the world R.E. Lee knew, thus avoiding entrapment by an iconic memorial affiliations. Though based in many ways on the model of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association founded many years earlier, the administration of Stratford Hall went well beyond what that organization accomplished. The Stratford Hall as produced by the Robert E. Lee Memorial foundation and Stratford's main restoration architect, Fiske Kimball, forms a bridge between the older house museums and more modern museums in its organization, restoration, and interpretation.
Thomas Lee, one of the wealthiest planters in Virginia and former provisional governor of the state, built Stratford Hall in the late 1730's. The house was unique in early eighteenth century Virginia with regards to its size and H-shaped plan. Needless to say, Stratford was one of the great social centers of the region, and was kept up as a fashionable residence through the early nineteenth century. The house was a subject for a genre painter in the 1850's. It then acquired fame as the birthplace of General Robert E. Lee, and as such appears in some later nineteenth century histories of Virginia. It is difficult to say when the house first entered the late nineteenth century architectural conscious. Stratford Hall, particularly with regards to the clustered chimneys, H-plan, and Federal features removed during restoration, may have been an inspiration for McKim, Meade, and White's Commodore William Edgar House (built 1885-86). After 1900, however, Stratford is definitely well known in architectural circles. It appears in William Ware's The Georgian Period in 19083 and is featured in the genealogy-oriented Stratford Hall and the Lees Connected with its History of 19124 by Frederick Alexander. Fiske Kimball is well aware of the great house by his 1922 publishing of Domestic Architecture of the American Colonies.5 The coup d'etat with regards to Stratford's publicity turned out to be Ethel Armes's Stratford on the Potomac of 1928,6 a promotional booklet which to some degree sparked the organization of the Robert E. Lee Memorial Foundation.
The structural organization of the Foundation was largely based on the Mount Vernon Ladies Association. There were to be a maximum of fifty-five ladies on the board of directors of the Foundation, including one from each of the states, one from Britain, and a few at-large members. After the first three years of the Foundation's existence, members included many interesting personalities and prominent socialites. Jessie Ball DuPont, wife of Alfred I. Dupont, and who herself was native to the Northern Neck, was active with the museum for many years and gave the money for the current library there. Mrs. Robert Worth Bingham, of the family which owned the Louisville Courier Journal newspaper, chaired the Furnishings Committee. The wife of Charles Dana Gibson, the turn-of-the-century artist and illustrator, and the wife of Isaac Newton Lewis, inventor and manufacturer of the Lewis machine gun, were other notables on Foundation board. Lady Astor, perhaps the most prominent socialite of all in the Foundation, was recruited as the representative of Britain, though she was American by birth.
The real leader of the movement and founder of the Foundation, May (or Mrs. Charles D.) Lanier, was the daughter inlaw of Southern poet Sidney Lanier and a civic leader of Greenwich, Connecticut.7 Mrs. Lanier provided the same sort of organizational skills as Ms. Ann Pamela Cunningham had for Mt. Vernon 70 years earlier, but was no stranger to "Society" and so possessed tremendous fund raising ability.8 Two other important ladies in the foundation provide something new to preservation organizations. Ethel Armes was a professional woman who was employed as a full time researcher and administrator.9 Mrs. Mary Van Deventer, the lady in charge of the Restoration committee, worked hand in hand with Fiske Kimball to bring a greater emphasis on authenticity than had previously been championed in connection with most other house museums.10
Mrs. Van Deventer in fact was responsible for finding Fiske Kimball and hiring him as the restoration architect. It was he who would have in fact the greatest impact on the restored and public face of Stratford Hall. In a significant early letter to Mrs. Van Deventer on July 15, 1930, Kimball states his rather contemporary sounding preservation philosophy:
"Such questions bring up the fundamental problems and principles of 'restoration' generally. In such a precious building the dominant thought, no doubt, should be preservation--and the greatest conservatism should be exercised as to changing anything, even if this is believed to be changing it back the way it is supposed formerly to have been. More harm has perhaps been done to historic buildings by ill-judged 'restoration'than by neglect, and such damage is really irreparable. In a building with a long history, where certain minor changes have been made from time to time, there is an interest in these traces of the centuries which would be lost in attempts to 'purify' the style by making it all once more of the first period of the building. [Kimball goes on to let slip a hint of his taste, however.] I think that there would be general agreement that at least any work which preserves the classical tradition, even down to the time of the Confederate war, should be undisturbed.11"
Later in the letter, apparently by the request of Mrs. Van Deventer, Fiske Kimball lists the people he would suggest to undertake Stratford's restoration. Norman Isham, Joseph Evert Chandler, Perry Shaw & Hepburn, and Glen Brown all made the list with their respective notable projects. Arthur Shurcliff was recommended, and later employed by the Garden Club of Virginia, to carry out the landscape design. Fiske Kimball also, however, recommended himself for the job of restoration architect. His resume, the longest, included Monticello, Moor's End on Nantucket, Mount Pleasant, Lemon Hill, and other houses in Fairmount Park, as well as advisor to Colonial Williamsburg and Homewood in Annapolis. Mrs. Van Deventer was suitably impressed with his apparent caution and expertise that when work was ready to begin, she (and the Foundation) gave him the contract with ten percent of the cost of the work as his salary.12
The progressive, preservation-oriented philosophy that Kimball espoused in the above letter did in fact find manifestation in the restoration of the parlor (figs. la & lb). Since this room contained nearly all of its Federal woodwork intact, it was decided that it should be restored to that period, the period of Lighthorse Harry Lee. In a letter from one of the ladies of the Foundation from Mrs. Lanier, the project is discussed: "I have always thought that this room should be restored in the period of the last quarter of the 18th century and Mr. Lockwood and Mr. Mr. Kimball agreed, as this would be a lovely room with Hepplewhite and Sheraton furniture, with a few earlier pieces to give evidence of 'ancestors'".13 Other places in the house, however, were not left so intact by Kimball.
Though theoretically Kimball espoused many progressive ideas (like using inventories to assign names to rooms and giving the period of restoration of the house a breadth of 1730-1820), much of his work on the house resulted from his own architectural taste and suppositions. The dining room (figs. 2a & 2b), like the parlor, possessed relatively intact Federal detailing that was initially going to be retained: "Mr. Kimball agreed to the charge that the woodwork is an inferior example of the period, but quoted Mrs. Fain's pithy remark: 'Better Lighthorse Harry real than Thomas Lee faked'."14 By the room's actual restoration in 1938, however, the federal woodwork was ripped out in favor of Kimball's oddly designed neo-Georgian early 18th century panelling. Admittedly, Kimball could have been under external pressures, perhaps from other ladies in the foundation, to present the dining room as Thomas Lee might have known it.
More drastic, however, is the "Kimballization" of the facades of the house, in particular the staircases. Federal east and west facades (figs. 3a & 3b) were restored by removing fan lights and the original wood stairs in favor of massive brick stairs with parapets. The stairs as designed by Kimball may have had their source in English Neo-Palladianism, perhaps relating to Lord Burlington's Chiswick House15 or Colin Campbell's Wanstead House. The North and South facades (figs. 4-6) were elaborated with identical massive brick stairs with stone balusters obviously looking to Baroque English precedents for what Kimball thought of as appropriate classical monumentality. The stair projects appear to be carried out against the protests of Arthur Shurcliff, who conducted most of the early excavations around the house, and even of the contractors, Claiborne and Taylor16. There seems to be little evidence that the original stairs were anything but wooden. Additionally, Kimball rid the exterior of the house of Federal detailing, most notably the fan lights over the east and west doors (fig. 3a).
Kimball's exterior restorations certainly did not obtain the approval of the ladies of the Foundation without challenges, both on the side of caution and on the side of superficiality. Kimball tried his best, for instance, to convince Mrs. Van Deventer that the north stairs should be restored as mirror images of the already constructed south steps: "You cannot prove there were such steps, but you cannot disprove it."17 Two years before, Kimball had to be careful in his assertions when the south steps were being built, as he believed he was replacing steps from the Lighthorse Harry Lee period.18 Lest it be thought that Kimball was always over aggressive with his restorations, his correspondence with one, Mrs. William Cabell Bruce, suggests things could have been far worse. Mrs. Bruce constantly argues with Kimball over the east and west stairs, but not on the side of authenticity. With little punctuation and poor typing skills, she confronts Kimball:
"After all the plan you have is just and imaginary one and while you are away just put that fertile brain of yours to work on something different! I honestly do not think that the majority of directors like those steps. Where, in Virginia, is there an example of a brick parapet like the one you propose and if there is not be willing to stretch a point and get something beautiful and in line with the period if not of the actual date but of the period?"19
Mrs. Bruce then goes on to champion wrought iron railings as acceptable, apparently wielding eighteenth century structures with later stair railing modifications as her examples. Kimball had to go to great lengths to politely prove to her that no wrought iron was used architecturally in eighteenth century Virginia.20
Fiske Kimball had a much freer hand in the restoration and design of the outbuildings. In some cases the transformation of the outbuildings was relatively simple. An existing smokehouse of the type known to Virginia throughout most of its history was simply re-weatherboarded and painted white, made to look more tidy and prettier than the day it had originally been built. In other cases, the transformation of the dependency grounds was more complex. In the case of several different foundations found during Shurcliff's excavations, Kimball drew upon English sources to "restore" a building. The stables, of which only foundations remained, were reconstructed on a scale surely unknown in America at the time. Over some small octagonal foundations found in Shurcliff's excavations, Kimball opted to construct a "garden house" based specifically on "one suggested by a plate in James Gibbs' Book of Architecture of 1728, but simplified and adapted to the style of Stratford."21 Both with regards to the main house and the dependencies, the restoration of Stratford Hall to the Georgian period is very much a work of the Colonial Revival mentality in its heavy reliance on British precedents.
Kimball's designing did not stop at the great house and its dependencies, however. In the late thirties, the need for facilities to house the meetings of the Foundation Council became apparent (especially as there is even today not much in the way of lodgings out on the Northern Neck). The workmen of Claiborne and Taylor erected lodges in the form of log cabins (fig. 7) for the use of the ladies of the Foundation, while Kimball himself spent considerable time coming up with a design for the Council Hall, which he jokingly dubbed "the Temple of Holy Wisdom."22 His first design (fig. 8) was inspired by the ladies preference for circular seating at their meetings as well as the rotunda forms common to Virginia's architectural favorite son, Thomas Jefferson. When the project was closer to becoming a reality, however, Kimball wrote to Ms. Lanier that the design wasn't very practical and did not look like Virginia.23 He turns to a new set of contextual principals and historical allusions. The exterior of the building was to be designed after the "crossroads churches of Virginia, particularly the Northern Neck."24 The interior (fig. 10) was to be designed like the House of Burgesses in the Capitol in Williameburg (where of course Thomas Lee, Stratford's original builder, sat during his political career).25 The second design incorporated these principles but the ladies objected to it since Kimball had arranged the seating like choir benches rather than in a circle. The third and final design (figs. 9a & 9b) made the council chamber, itself, square and open so that circular seating could be arranged.26 Even in this original design for the Council Hall, Kimball's Colonial Revivalism is transitional: he makes sure the structure is monumental and modern, yet has very strong concerns for contextualism and authenticity.
Museum interpretation at Stratford is also apparently transitional, in that though still a bit antiquarian, the museum attempts in the 1930's to move beyond just trivia filled tours. Perhaps after the example of Colonial Williamsburg, General B. F. Cheatham, who had been appointed superintendent of the museum property, developed a program of demonstration of 18th century crafts.27 The skills displayed included candle dipping, herb gardening, wooden articles, and brooms made by the General himself. The objects produced by the craftspeople were sold in the museum shop. The hands continued to farm Stratford's property as well. Among the foods that visitors could see being produced were turkeys and hams (to be cured on the property and then sold), as well as eggs that were shipped as far away as New York City.
One of the most active craftsmen and interpreters was very much connected with the property. "Uncle" Wesley Payne, an African-American, was born on the plantation and lived there all his life.28 His father was, in fact, a slave at Stratford. When the property was made into a museum, he chose to stay on and be employed in demonstrating various crafts. Before his death, the ladies of the Foundation expressed a desire to build a memorial to him on museum grounds. His request consisted of a reconstructed slave cabin replicating and on the site of the building in which he was born. This wish was subsequently carried out. Though there is definitely something of a sentimental and perhaps paternalistic tone to the way the Foundation viewed Mr. Payne, he deserves a remarkable place as one of the first African Americans to take a very purposeful and active part in interpreting the past of his ancestors in an institutional museum environment.
The organization, restoration, design, and interpretation of Stratford Hall during the 1930's show many progressive characteristics, which yet also belong to their time. Kimball's restorations are in some instances rather influenced by BeauxArts classical concerns and aesthetic considerations stemming from the Colonial Revival in Architecture. Yet in other instances they show research skills and caution worthy of a modern preservationist. Many of the ladies of the Foundation, though coming from an elite and stratified background, take a very active, bordering on professional in many instances, part in the administration and restoration of the museum. Wesley Payne,an African-American, establishes a position for himself at the museum virtually unique in these years. There can be no doubt that the museumification of Stratford is a story significant to transitions in both preservation and the Colonial Revival.
1Constitution of the Robert E. Lee Memorial Foundation. Article I, Section 2. (Stratford, VA: Jessie Ball DuPont Memorial Library Archives).
2By-Laws of the Robert E. Lee Memorial Foundation, Inc.. Article II, Section 6.
3Ware, William Rotch. The Georgian Period. (New York: The American Architect 1908). p. xii.
4Alexander, Frederick Warren. Stratford Hall and the LeesConnected with its History. (Oak Grove, VA: F. W. Alexander,(New York: Scribner's Press,1912).
5Kimball, Fiske. Domestic Architecture of the AmericanColonies and of the Early Republic. (New York: Scribner's Press,1922).
6Armes, Ethel. Stratford on the Potomac. (Greenwich, CT: United Daughters of the Confederacy, William Alexander, Jr., Chapter, 1928).
7Hosmer, Charles B., Jr. Preservation Comes of Age: From Williamsburg to the National Trust, 1926-1949. (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1981). Vol. I, pp. 191.
8ibid., p. 201.
11Correspondence from Fiske Kimball (from Castle Park, MI) to Mrs. Horace Van Deventer (Knoxville, TN). dated July 15, 1930. (Stratford, VA: Dupont Memorial Library, Archives).
12Contract between the Robert E. Lee Memorial Foundation and Restoration Architect Fiske Kimball, dated June 15, 1932. (Stratford, VA: Dupont Memorial Library Archives).
13Letter to Mrs. Charles D. Lanier from "Aleen" dated January 7, 1936. (Stratford, VA: Dupont Memorial Library Archives).
15Pointed out by Richard Guy Wilson.
16Letter from Claiborne to Kimball, dated November 25, 1935. (Stratford, VA: Dupont Memorial Library Archives). Box B2-6a/70.
17Fiske Kimball to Mrs. Van Deventer, dated August 19, 1937. (Stratford, VA: DuPont Memorial Library Archives).
18Fiske Kimball to House Restoration Committee, dated May 18, 1935.(Stratford, VA: Dupont Memorial Library Archives). Box B26a/70.
19Mrs. William Cabell Bruce to Fiske Kimball, dated July 1, 1938. (Stratford, VA: DuPont Memorial Library Archives). Box B22a/4.
20Fiske Kimball to Mrs. Bruce, dated August 6, 1938. and Fiske Kimball to Mrs. Bruce, dated July 14, 1939. (Stratford, VA: DuPont Memorial Library). Box B2-2a/4.
21Fiske Kimball to Mrs. Van Deventer, dated June 28, 1933. (Stratford, VA: DuPont Memorial Library Archives). Box B2-6a/67.
22Fiske Kimball to Mrs. Lanier, dated May 20, 1939. (Stratford, VA: DuPont Memorial Library Archives). Box B2-2a/51.
23Fiske Kimball to Mrs. Lanier, undated, 1943. (Stratford, VA: DuPont Memorial Library Archives). Box B2-2a/51.
26Incidentally, despite the negotiation necessary for a final design, Kimball appears to have rather liked the Council Hall project, as evinced by cheerful letters and humorous remarks in the margins of one copy of the drawings for the first design. One example is a line pointing to a scale figure running towards the building at the end of which is "We might meet Leaping Lena" (no doubt referring to one particularly eccentric member of the Foundation.
27Most all of the information on Wesley Paine is part of the oral history of the Museum, and his story is portrayed here as recounted by Judith Hynson, Librarian/Archivist at the Jessie Ball DuPont Library.
Alexander, Frederick Warren. Stratford Hall and the Lees Connected with its History. (Oak Grove, VA: F.W. Alexander, 1912).
Archives, Jessie Ball Dupont Memorial Library. (Stratford, VA). With particular relevance are the "restoration folder", the file box series B2-2a, Constitution of the Robert E. Lee Memorial Foundation, and By-Laws of the Robert E. Lee Memorial Foundation.
Armes, Ethel. Stratford Hall on the Potomac. (Greenwich, CT: United Daughters of the Confederacy, William Alexander, Jr., Chapter, 1928).
Hosmer, Charles B., Jr. Preservation Comes of Age: From Williamsburg to the National Trust, 1926-1949. (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1981).
Kimball, Fiske. Domestic Architecture of the American Colonies and of the Early Republic. (New York: Scribner's Press, 1922).
Ware, William Rotch. The Georgian Period. (New York: The American Architect, 1908).