(Almost) Lost America: Menokin, Richmond County, Virginia.

Unlike the two previous entries I’ve done in the Lost America series (here and here), this ghostly ruin may be headed for a happy–or at least happier–ending.

This ancient house, called Menokin, dating from before the American Revolution, is intimately wrapped up in early American history. Located near Warsaw, Virginia, it was built by a family called the Tayloes–and their slaves, who didn’t get the credit of course–in 1769 on the occasion of the marriage of their daughter, Rebecca Tayloe, to a wealthy fellow called Francis Lightfoot Lee. As it turned out, Lee would be pretty important. He was a “double signer,” affixing his scrawl to two of the three U.S. founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. He was a member of the Lee family from which came the Confederate Civil War general Robert E. Lee and many other illustrious Virginians.

Menokin is connected to this proud history, but it’s also a sad place. Rebecca Tayloe Lee died here in 1797. Unable to go on without her, Francis himself died four days later.

Menokin is built of stone, but contained a plethora of beautiful colonial and early American woodwork. Documented photographically in the 1930s, some interior shots have survived, as you can see below. One can imagine Francis Lightfoot or another member of the Lee family staring into one of these crackling fireplaces more than 200 years ago, perhaps pondering some deep political or personal problem. The old walls of Menokin, now in ruins, have certainly absorbed a lot of memories over the years.

Constance Greiff, in her 1971 book Lost America (the inspiration for this series), charges that later owners treated Menokin “with hostile indifference” that had turned it into “a pile of stones.” It does appear the house was abandoned and left to fall into ruin about 1935. However, at least part of it does still exist, and much of the woodwork from the interior was quite fortunately preserved. The site is now a National Historic Landmark and is undergoing an inventive and audacious restoration project.

lost-america-master-sm

The Menokin Foundation has been working to rehabilitate the house, which remained in its ruined condition as seen above (the header photo is from the 1930s) until at least 2008. Their ambitious plans have involved erecting a sheltering structure over the house and filling in the missing pieces with modern structural glass. The very interesting video detailing this project is below.

Lost America is not a one-note story of declination and decay. If the Menokin project is successful, it will represent a rare example of our society appreciating the architectural and historical treasures that lay all around us, and preserving them before it’s too late.

The photos of Belle Grove are in the public domain. The cover of Lost America is copyright (C) 1971 by The Pyne Press; I believe my inclusion of it here constitutes fair use.
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