Historic Structures

Kenmore House, Fredericksburg Virginia

Date added: June 28, 2021 Categories: Virginia House Plantations & Farms

Kenmore was built as a plantation house by Fielding Lewis and his wife, Betty Washington Lewis, soon after they acquired the property in 1752. The original 863-acre plantation extended to the west of the thriving Tidewater port of Fredericksburg, Virginia, on the Rappahannock River. Kenmore is best known for its elaborate plasterwork ceilings, reputed to be the finest of their kind in America. The geometric floral designs were derived in part from Batty Langley's City and Country Builder's and Workman's Treasury of Designs (London, 1756). The "Stucco Man" who plastered Kenmore's ceilings also designed ceilings at Mount Vernon, the home of Betty Lewis' brother, George Washington. The symmetrical Georgian design of Kenmore is characterized by two five-bay brick facades, a half-hipped roof, end chimneys, and a modillion cornice. The river entry is distinguished by a finely executed one-story portico supported by aquia sandstone columns of the Tuscan order. Thomas T. Waterman speculates that Kenmore was designed by architect John Ariss in The Mansions of Virginia, 1703-1776 (Chapel Hill, 1946). Although little documentary evidence has been found to substantiate his claim. Although Colonel Lewis' primary business was raising grain, tobacco and flax, he helped establish the Fredericksburg gunnery for the Continental Armies in 1775. Lewis descendants sold Kenmore in 1797. During the first half of the nineteenth century, Kenmore was owned by the Samuel Gordon family, who named the house after their ancestral home in Scotland, "Kenmuir." The William K. Howard family lived in Kenmore from 1881 until 1914 and restored the plaster ceilings to their original condition. In 1922, Kenmore was acquired by the newly formed Kenmore Association. The mansion and gardens were restored, flanking dependencies were reconstructed on their original sites, and the house was furnished. Now a National Historic Landmark, Kenmore is open to the public as a house museum under the direction of the Association.

Kenmore was built by Fielding Lewis for his bride, Betty Washington (sister of George), after Lewis acquired the land in 1752. Its simple exterior is a perfect foil for the exquisitely lavish and rich plasterwork found on the ceilings and chimney pieces of the first floor rooms. The design of the library ceiling can be traced to a plate in Batty Langley's City and Country Builder's Treasury. Although such lavish work was by no means foreign to contemporary English stucco work, it was exceedingly fare in eighteenth century American houses. Kenmore's plasterwork decoration is considered to be among the very finest colonial work extant in the country.

In addition to its magnificent interiors, Kenmore is also known as the home of Fielding Lewis, a Revolutionary patriot. In 1775 he was appointed by the Virginia General Assembly as commissioner of the factory at Fredericksburg which made small arms for the troops. Lewis invested much of his own money in the venture, and at the time of his death, was virtually bankrupt.

Although the farm lands originally connected to Kenmore are now residential sections of Fredericksburg, the immediate vicinity of the house still retains a park-like setting. The exterior of the house is extremely plain but well proportioned. Its entrance facade is two stories high, and five bays wide, with a modillioned cornice and a jerkin head roof. The garden front features a small but finely executed one story pedimented Doric portico. The walls are laid in Flemish bond without rubbed or gauged brickwork. The two flanking dependencies have been reconstructed on their original foundations.

The interior of the house retains most of its original paneling and woodwork although it is of little interest when compared to the magnificent plasterwork added shortly after the house was completed. This remarkable work is found on the ceilings and chimney pieces of the drawing room, dining room, and library. The plaster decoration combines forms taken from both the Rococo and Adamesque styles.

Although little altered over the years, the house has been carefully restored. With its fine collection of eighteenth century furniture, Kenmore's interiors present one of the best pictures of the height of colonial artistic achievement.