Historic Structures

Mount Airy Plantation, Warsaw Virginia

Date added: January 7, 2022 Categories: Virginia House Mansion Plantations & Farms

This is a villa type of house, with a five-part plan; two story center block, flanking square dependencies, and connecting covered passages. The spreading symmetrical plan was perfect for the Southern plantations, and a number of them proliferated there. Mount Airy is also a rare example of stone masonry during the eighteenth century in Virginia.

Although destroyed by fire in 1844, the magnificent interiors may have been executed by the exceptionally talented William Buckland, following his work at Gunston Hall before he moved to Annapolis.

The intellectual appeal of the plan is balanced by the coloristic effects created in the elevation by the use of contrasting brown sandstone and a lighter colored local limestone. The exterior detailing is classical throughout, and may be traced directly to plates in Adam's Vitruvius Scoticus (1750) and Gibbs' A Book of Architecture (1728).

Built in 1758 by Colonel John Tayloe, the house remains in the family today. Still maintained as a working plantation, both the buildings and lands are well-maintained in their superb location overlooking the valley of the Rappahannock. A number of outbuildings are of historical interest, including an appealing ruin of an eighteenth century orangery. To the south of the house is the family graveyard, wherein is burled Francis Lightfoot Lee, one of the signers of The Declaration of Independence.

Mount Airy is one of the most monumental of all eighteenth century Georgian houses. It achieves this by two means: through a very formal Palladian plan derived from the pattern book of James Gibbs, and through the use of stone rather than the more usual, but decidedly more domestic, brick. It is, furthermore, the earliest realization in the colonies of the ideal scheme of the full Palladian villa.

The composition is a five part plan (center block, flanking dependencies, and covered passages) which reaches out from the crest of a hill to dominate the surrounding landscape. In this way, it is more closely attuned to eighteenth century landscape design ideals than many houses of the period which have subsequently come to be themselves dominated by large shade trees.

The one visual theme which overrides all others at Mount Airy is order. From the sunken forecourt at the North front, one's attention is very forcefully drawn to the center block by the balanced, flanking, dependencies and passages. It is an almost unavoidable focal point. Drawn along that center axis then, one moves up the formal stair to the open trabeated loggia which itself forms a slightly projecting pedimented pavilion. The elevation of this front is almost certainly derived from William Adam's Vitruvius Scoticus (1750) and shows many common features with Haddo House, Aberdeenshire. While the appeal of the beautifully developed symmetrical plan of Mount Airy is surely an intellectual one, those who would call the design of the house cold, should note the appealing use of materials which adds a touch of non-intellectual informality. Constructed of poorly consolidated brown sandstone which is rather like grit , architectural details are set off in local limestone (possibly Acquia Creek stone) giving the whole a coloristic effect which is inconsistent with other formal aspects of the house. As Pierson has pointed out, this warmth of surface and detail is considerably out of tune with the smooth-cut masonry surfaces and flat monochromes of High English Palladianism, The ultimate conclusion to be drawn is that while the house has elements of Gibbs, of English Palladianism, and of Adam, it is in fact a composition in colonial-Georgian more than anything else. Interestingly, it might be added that the carefully-hewn brown sandstone walls are laid in apparently random courses, which in its own way is a very remarkable feat indeed.

The South front (as well as the plan) almost certainly comes from James Gibbs' A Book of Architecture (1726) and differs from the North front in that the projecting loggia/pavilion is here arcuated, while trabeated at the North. The rustication of the pavilion at this front is perhaps even more effective than at the North, with the boldly outlined voussoirs and keystones creating a very strong effect.

The East elevation ts distinguished by a pair of Palladian windows, the lower being more formal, the upper more simple with an elliptical center window.

The plan of the rectangular two story center block is of great interest for its simplicity and balance. The broad entrance salon is placed squarely on axis, and extends clear through the house from loggia to loggia. This magnificent 20' X 30' room is braced by a pair of rooms at either side. The original location of the stair is uncertain, but it probably was in a stair hall between the two east rooms.

The interior carving at Mount Airy may have been done by William Buckland, one of the greatest of all Georgian craftsmen, between the time he finished working for George Mason at Gunston Hall and the time he moved on to Annapolis, Maryland. We may assume that they were as splendid and ambitious as the rest of the house, but Mount Airy was gutted by fire in 1844 and scarcely any original woodwork remains.