Historic Structures

Berkeley Plantation - Harrison Family Home, Charles City Virginia

Date added: January 5, 2022 Categories: Virginia House Mansion

Berkeley, erected in 1726, was the birthplace and life-long home of Benjamin Harrison V, a Signer of the Declaration of Independence for Virginia, planter, politician, and Governor of Virginia. Berkeley was also the birthplace of William Henry Harrison (1773-1841), soldier and President of the United States.

Berkeley was built by its owner, Benjamin Harrison IV, in the early Georgian style in 1726. It was apparently the first Georgian mansion in Virginia to use the pedimented end gable, a gable roof with each end being treated as a pediment, complete with modillioned cornice and rake mold. Benedict Arnold, leading British troops in 1781, plundered the Berkeley plantation. The mansion was architecturally altered and its interior redecorated in the Adam style sometime during the period 1790-1800. In 1862, during the Civil War, the plantation, then known as Harrison's Landing, sprang into prominence again with the withdrawal of the Union Army of the Potomac from the Battle of Malvern Hill. The plantation was the supply base for the Union Army, which lay camped in the fields about and General George McClellan maintained his headquarters in the mansion itself until his army was withdrawn to northern Virginia. While the army lingered here in 1862, General Daniel Butterfield originated the bugle call, "Taps," on Berkeley Plantation.

Benjamin Harrison V, the son of a well-to-do planter, was born at the family seat, "Berkeley," probably in 1726. He attended the College of William and Mary but left without graduation in 1745, on the death of his father, to take up the management of the family estate. Shortly thereafter he also married Elizabeth Bassett. In 1749 Harrison was elected to the House of Burgesses and served in this body from 1749 to 1775, often as its speaker. He was a delegate to the Continental Congress from 1774 to October 1777. He was a member of the Virginia conventions of 1775 and 1776 and of the Virginia House of Delegates from 1776 to 1781 and from 1784 to 1791. He was speaker of Virginia House from 1778 to 1781. In November 1781 Harrison was elected Governor of Virginia and twice reelected (1781-1784). He died April 24, 1791, and was buried in the family cemetery adjacent to his plantation home "Berkeley."

Berkeley was built by its owner, Benjamin Harrison IV, in the early Georgian style in 1726, as the date and his initials in the brickwork indicate. The mansion is two-and-a-half stories high, about 60 feet long by 41 feet deep, and has a dormered gable roof with two tall interior ridge chimneys. The brick walls are of Flemish bond, the window jambs and corners are treated with narrow rubbed brick dressings, and the openings with gauged, flat, brick arches. The house has a beveled water table and gauged, flat, belt course. The existing central doors of the north and south five-bay facades have broad piers supporting pediments, all in gauged brick, but these are reconstructions, and little of the originals remain. A fragment of a stone cornice in the basement suggest that they were of stone. The roof line and gable ends have modillioned cornice and the ends are treated as pediments. An another unusual feature is the size of the windows, which are four lights wide, instead of the usual three, and have 12 over 12 light sash. The existing sash are reconstructions, but the openings are such that any other arrangement with standard size colonial glass would be difficult. An original transom with lights of this size also still remains in place over the west side door.

By 1800 Berkeley was flanked by two brick dependencies, each 20 by 45 feet and set slightly forward or south of the house, facing the James River. The existing two-story brick dependencies, which occupy the same positions, were erected in the period 1840-50.

The plan of the mansion is the familiar center hall plan, with two rooms on either side and two interior chimneys, a plan widely utilized in the second half of the 18th century. The original plan has been modified by at least one, and perhaps two, alterations, but the basement brickwork makes it apparent that the main elements have not been changed. The center hall, 12 feet wide, extends though the house and on either side are two pairs of large square rooms. Space for a small stair has been taken from the office in the northwest corner. This change probably dates from about 1800 when the house was largely retrimmed. The existing center hall stair, located on the west wall near the south end of the hall, has been reconstructed in the position were such stairs were usually situated. The framing and some fragments of 18th-century trim also indicated that Berkeley was altered and its woodwork largely redone in the Adam style, probably by Benjamin Harrision VI, in the period 1790-1800. The only finish on the interior that indubitably belongs to the early are the two fine mottled-grey marble facings of the east fireplaces on the first floor, and in the east of the each chimney, the floor and trim also appear to antedate the 1790-1800 alteration.

The mansion and 1400 acres of land were acquired by Mr. John Jamieson in 1915. The house, then in poor condition, was put into good repair. In 1937-38 the owners carried out an extensive program of restoration and reconstruction to return the structure to its 18th-century appearance. This work involved the removal of a large 19th-century porch that surrounded the house on all four sides, replacement of the window sash, exterior door framings, and reconstruction of the center stairs.

Berkeley is marked by State Historical Marker V-7, located 7.2 miles west of Charles City on Virginia Route 5. This sign reads:
"Berkeley and Harrison's Landing
A short distance south. The place was first settled in 1619 but was abandoned. It was repatented in 1636. Benjamin Harrison, Signer of the Declaration of Independence lived here; his son, William Henry Harrison, President of the United States, was born here, 1773. In July-August, 1862, General McClellan had his headquarters at Berkeley while the Army of the Potomac was here."