As a continuing effort to bring attention to the great Historic House Museums of Virginia I bring you Belle Grove Plantation. Belle Grove is one of the 27 historic sites of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Under the sure guidance of her director, Kristen Laise, this beautiful home continues to be relevant today as a witness to significant people and events of the last two and a half centuries.
My visit was on a beautiful early fall day, weather perfect and the views from the porch of the mansion unrivaled. It is always a wonder when you can enjoy a vista that remains unchanged since the early 18th century, and such is the case at Belle Grove. With rolling hills, bucolic pastures and the Blue Ridge Mountains in the far distance it is not hard to imagine either Nelly Madison Hite or a civil war commander from either side enjoying the same views as I.
Kristen Laise was generous with her time and information and that always makes my job easier. We toured the mansion and saw all the restored rooms and those in different stages of restoration.
One of the most challenging and important jobs of a successful historic house museum is to not only to pay homage to the sometimes many families whose ownership the home passed through but also to appeal to the various interests and ages present in any visitor audience. Here the staff thoughtfully left panels in walls and doors open to see the layers of lathe and paint that were uncovered in the previous restoration process.
The rooms are set up to reflect a home in the late 18th and early 19th century with information that shows the visitor how carefully the staff pays attention to the smallest detail. Granted, the house is not a “grand and stylish” residence; it is however a wonderful interpretation of a prosperous landowner who spent a conservative amount on interiors. Yet the house still had beautiful carved trim and mantels and also the requisite “faux” painted doors and sometimes a rather striking pigment on the walls of the major receiving rooms.
As you enter through the lower level of the house where the home’s kitchen with its massive hearth is located, you are greeted with a delightful gift shop and an ancient brick floored room for media presentations. The center floor is the typical 4 over 4 with a long “breezeway” hall that runs the length of the house.
The interiors have been guided by the very well known and thought of historic interior designer, Jeanne Dunbar, from Richmond, Virginia. If Jeanne has placed an item or chosen a finish or fabric you can rest assured it is accurate.
Jeanne has used reliable sources for the home’s various finishes such as the carpets throughout by the esteemed J.R Burrows Company of Rockland, Massachusetts. The interior’s interpretation––though not completed–– certainly has managed the balance between the “finished” spaces (I use this term tongue in cheek as I never met a curator that felt an interior space had exhausted all the investigative avenues to it) and the rooms that have not been restored.
Belle Grove is like many historic house museums I visit that have very few pieces that were actually present in the house as its history is fraught with a number of different owners and auctions. Finding furniture or decorative pieces to furnish the home that were actually owned by the Hite’s is a continuing challenge.
Belle Grove also faces the same challenges of any museum today––competition for the donor dollar. With the fund raising landscape growing ever tighter it lies with the staff of these museums to come up with new and innovative ways to bring in revenue to help keep the museum a living, breathing entity that is educational and always exciting.
Belle Grove’s staff is facing this challenge head on with a long list of activities and innovative events that are on its calendar.
The next big event is to be held on the weekend of October 18th-19th with a Civil War encampment and events held with the support and involvement of the National Park Service. This weekend looks to be filled with excitement, education and enjoyment for all ages and levels of interest and I urge you to attend if possible.
In closing, let me say that I could not have been more impressed with my visit to the lovely Belle Grove Plantation. Although I have visited many historic home museums that are grander, with larger staffs and greater resources, there is something about Belle Grove that tugs the heart. Perhaps it is the museum’s beautiful, gentle setting or its staff and director that are so dedicated to simply doing a great job as caregivers and guardians of this wonderful home.