Dr. Camile Wells of The College of William and Mary gave an architectural tour of the Great House. The emphasis was on how the house accommodated, supported and hid the slaves who built and maintained it.
The Lee family home was the largest 18th century home in the Northern Neck area, and the Lees were among the very richest families in terms of acreage owned. The home was designed to reflect this status. One of the features of the design was to provide access to serve the Lees and at the same time minimize the contact between the two races and classes.
She asked seminarians to let the house tell the story about the delineation of white and black areas. The smallness of the windows on the first floor as compared to the second showed the difference. The lowest level supported the slaves and the tasks needed to support the family quartered on the second level. Between the two chimneys on the roof, the Lees arranged a platform to dance under the stars, literally dancing under the stars and above the enslaved African Americans below.
In the inside of the house, Dr. Wells reinterpreted the circulation of the house in terms of separation of the two races. Two doors flank the passageway of the house on both sides of the great hall. They now hold books behind them, but originally they provided for quick access for servants into the room where their services were required, minimizing their presence in the Lees' lives.
The passageway itself was originally designed as a servants' passageway to provide them with the same quick and brief access to the Lees. The passages were dark and devoid of the decorative side niches and recessed doorways that characterize the passageway today.
The Lees altered the passageways probably out of a
frustration of their own limited access because of the restrictive circulation
patterns. They began to use and share the same passageways as the slaves,
and changed the design and the purpose of the passageway.