Birdwood Plantation, Charlottesville Virginia

Date added: June 20, 2023 Categories: Virginia House Mansion Plantations & Farms
Mansion from Northwest (2003)

Birdwood is a unique dwelling built between 1819 and 1830 as the plantation home of William Garth, one of the most successful planters of antebellum Albemarle County, Virginia. The house exhibits many of the characteristics common to buildings at the University of Virginia and other early nineteenth-century houses in the area known to have been built by Thomas Jefferson's builders. The immediate grounds surrounding the mansion contain four structures that are unusual compared to similar Jeffersonian properties in the county, including a brick smokehouse, and an office with a basement icehouse. The house is also significant for its Colonial Revival additions undertaken by Charles Edgar and Hollis Rinehart, both prominent citizens of Charlottesville. This work included the extension of the house, a distinctive water tower designed in the form of a lighthouse and ornamental gardens.

The present Birdwood property sits on land that was part of an original crown land grant to David Lewis in 1759. The property was first named Birdwood by Hore Browse Trist, an associate of Thomas Jefferson, after a county vicar in England, Reverend John Birdwood. Trist owned the property for ten years before selling his six hundred acres in 1810. In 1817, William Garth purchased the property from his brother Jessie Winston Garth and had the extant brick dwelling built there sometime before 1830. The Garth family was already prominent in local affairs including Thomas Garth, father of Jessie and William, who was a leader in Albemarle County's involvement with the movement for independence. At least two roads still named for the family traverse parts of central and western Albemarle County once owned by the Garths.

Under the ownership of William Garth, Birdwood became one of the most successful farming operations in Albemarle County. As a member of the local farming community, William Garth pursued an interest in scientific advances in agriculture that started with his father's generation and included John Hartwell Cocke, Thomas Jefferson, William Meriwether and William Cabell. Garth hosted meetings of the Hole and Corner Club No. 1, a group of local plantation owners, at Birdwood and experimented in increasing crop returns. By the 1850 census Garth had amassed nearly $50,000 in assets from his 1,000 acres of land. The core of his holdings at Birdwood employed most of his fifty-two slaves in producing wheat, corn and tobacco. The prosperity of the Garth family continued until the Civil War at which point their reliance on the use of slave labor greatly reduced profits. Family accounts and local tradition claim that Northern troops occupied the house for three days during the Civil War, plundering the mansion at Birdwood, ruining crops in the fields and freeing numerous slaves. The account also states that General George Armstrong Custer later arrived at the property, before his entrance into Charlottesville in 1865, to apologize for the treatment of the family at the hands of the army.

As the seat of the Garth family for about sixty years, Birdwood saw much wear and tear from the eleven Garth children, including graffiti scratched on one of the window panes that reads "Gabe Garth, June 22 1844." Following the death of William Garth in 1860, the property was to be divided evenly by his heirs. Instead, a long court suit over the property was initiated and was finally settled when the property and house were put up for auction. A broadside advertising the sale in 1875 is in the collections of the University of Virginia.

The house was subsequently owned by Samuel and Annie Buck and William C. Chamberlain before being sold to Charles Edgar in 1903. According to one source, Edgar added land to the Birdwood property and built the sizable addition to the mansion as the south part of the dwelling. After owning the property just six years, Edgar sold the house and 535 acres to Hollis Rinehart. Rinehart, whose family became wealthy from exploits in the railroad business, became a successful businessman as a partner in Rinehart and Dennis Construction and as the creator of the Charlottesville National Bank and Trust Company. Additionally, Rinehart served as a member of the University of Virginia's Board of Visitors and created an eight-story office building for his bank in downtown Charlottesville. Rinehart enclosed the south porch of Birdwood, took out the walls between rooms on the first floor to create two large rooms and paneled the eastern one. On the grounds, he built the distinctive water tower just east of the mansion in the form of a lighthouse and probably added the ornamental gardens and statuary south of the tower.

In 1921, Rinehart sold the property to Henry L. Fonda who raised show horses of national acclaim and Hereford cattle on the property. In 1936, Fonda sold the property to James DeWitt Wilde who in turn sold the property to Cornelius W. Middleton in 1940. One source mentions that Middleton carried out "extensive improvements" to the house and property. It is at this time that the roof cupola, still visible in sketches from a 1935 book, was removed. Middleton continued to use the acreage of the property to raise Hereford cattle before selling the property in parcels to the University of Virginia, first in 1967 and then in 1974. The approximately twelve-acre site of the house today has been separated from the original farmland, which has been divided into numerous properties. The improvements on the land include the university's Birdwood golf course that surrounds the mansion site. For a short time, the mansion served as a conference center for the university but ceased to function as such in the early 1990s. The mansion is not currently in use but has been considered as a possible site for a number of university-related academic centers.

Building Description

Located in the foothills west of Charlottesville on nearly twelve acres of land, Birdwood is a two-story brick plantation house built between 1819 and 1830 for William Garth. It bears many similarities to other Jeffersonian-inspired houses in the local area and may have been constructed by builders who at the same time were constructing the University of Virginia. The original portion of the house is a cubic brick mass laid in Flemish bond and dominated by a monumental entrance portico supported by four Doric columns. The doorways of the main facade on the first and second levels are both single doors topped by elliptical transoms and latticed sidelights. The symmetrical facades and overall proportions are carried throughout the exterior walls by window and door openings, incised brick panels and four interior end chimneys. The roof is presently covered with a slate roof but portions of the original metal-covered hipped roof survive under later additions. The original plan is a square, double-pile, central-passage design with four rooms on each floor. The building has a significant addition from the Colonial Revival period also of Flemish bond that elongated the building and created a perpendicular secondary axis in the resulting floor plan. The majority of interior woodwork and fireplaces also date to the Colonial Revival period although some details date from the first period of building. Birdwood possesses a collection of dependencies as well as agricultural outbuildings and structures from both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as well as the remains of a late-nineteenth/early-twentieth-century garden.

The Birdwood mansion consists today of two main blocks, an 1819 Jeffersonian house and an equally massive Colonial Revival addition to the South. The original five-bay, three-story section still dominates the image of the house with an entry portico on the north facade supported by four monumental Doric columns. A semi-circular window occupies the pediment of the portico and the Doric entablature extends around the entire building. A tall flight of stone steps leads to the main floor, which rests on a high basement. Above the front door is a small balcony adorned with a wooden, Chinese Chippendale railing. It is suspended by iron rods. An elliptical-arched door with sidelights serves as the front entrance and a second door of identical form serves the balcony. The first-floor doorway is a product of the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, while the second-floor opening is original. The hip roof on the original block is accentuated by four interior end chimneys, while the gable roof of the addition is pierced by a single central chimney. The roof of the entire mansion is now covered with slate. Brickwork on the entire house is laid in Flemish bond with mortar joints on the original portions of the building of a cleaner quality than that of the addition. The walls feature double-struck mortar joints and appear to have been painted red and penciled, as were the immediate dependencies. Between the two stories and at some areas where no windows exist, rectangular incised brick panels help to continue the symmetry of the exterior.

The east and west sides of the mansion are lined with one-story porches on brick piers that feature Tuscan columns and railings of turned balusters. The east porch runs along a portion of the original house block, while the west porch runs the entire length of the original block and extends to serve the west door of the perpendicular cross passage. The east door of the passage is reached by stone steps. Both exterior doors of the east-west passage are identical to the front door with elliptical transoms, sidelights and small Corinthian columns framing the door opening. On top of the west porch and below the cornice line sits a distinctive white-stuccoed projection with curved corners and a western-facing window. Stone steps on the south side of the building lead into a large sun porch that spans the entire width of the house. The only doorway to the basement is below the east stair landing.

Throughout the upper floors of the mansion, the rooms have windows with six-over-six sash surrounded by molded frames, topped with lintels fitted with louvered shutters. Windows in the basement have three-over-three sash with molded wooden frames. Those in the original section of the house have exterior shutters as well as bars for security. Two circular windows help to light a large room on the first floor of the addition. They are placed just south of the doorways leading to the cross passage on the east and west sides of the house.

The site contains four original nineteenth-century dependencies that frame the immediate campus of the mansion and one nearby two-room stone plantation quarters for either slaves or overseer. Two other stone structures south of the house may date from the original building period although they have been modified. A stable and garage southwest of the house and a distinctive lighthouse-shaped water tower to the east were added in the early twentieth century. The grounds also contain traces of the late nineteenth or early twentieth-century ornamental gardens that include sculptures and an elaborate iron and fieldstone gate at the main entry road from Route 250. There are two brick residences south and southeast of the main house.

Birdwood was originally a double-pile plan with a central passage dividing the four rooms on each floor. Little remains of the original treatment on the main floor. In the early twentieth century, two interior partitions were removed to convert the four original rooms on the first floor into two large entertaining areas, one on each side of the stair hall. The west room holds two identical fireplaces with molded surrounds and brick jack arches marking the fireboxes. The mantels are supported by Ionic pilasters and contain a frieze with three urns and garlands. Sections of the wall have small applied moldings to create frames that look like paneling while a detailed cornice of dentils topped by egg-and-dart molding and beading above encircles the room. Radiators have been installed throughout the house under some of the windows. The east room has been fully covered with wooden paneling that includes engaged Doric pilasters and pediments with dentils topping both doorways leading into the passage. Though the cornice is the same as in the west room, the ceiling has a different treatment of plaster paneling and medallions adorning it. Bookcases line the walls on the west side of the room and around the now-covered southeast fireplace. The cases have glass doors with lattice-shaped mullions and open in pairs facing each other. A door on the east side of the room leads to the east porch of the house. Modern carpeting now covers the plank floors in this room alone. The entrance passage has the same cornice and wall treatment as the west room but includes paneling below the chair rail. An arched opening supported by pairs of fluted Doric columns on pedestals separates the entry area from the stair and hall to the addition.

The passage leads by the stair, through an arched opening and into a perpendicular passage in the addition. The same type of cornice runs throughout the addition but is now paired with a high, marbleized chair rail with paneling below. The marbling and height of the rail match the mantel of a fireplace positioned in the middle of the south passage wall. An arched opening with sliding pocket doors on the south wall mirrors the one to the front passage of the north wall, and leads into a large entertaining room on the south side of the house. This large south room contains a fireplace connected to that of the cross passage and allows access to the large sun porch visible from the exterior. A doorway on the east wall of the large south room leads into the early twentieth-century kitchen complete with back stair and electric dumbwaiter.

Cracking on the plaster in the southeast corner of the entrance passage and replaced floorboards on the second-floor show that the now-straight main stair originally turned on a landing to reach the second floor. The second-floor passage is adorned with a simple cornice and chair rail. Unlike the door surrounds and flooring on the main floor from the Colonial Revival period, the doors and floors of the second story date from the original Jeffersonian period. The most remarkable survival is the second-story exterior doorway at the north end of the passage that leads to the suspended balcony. The moldings and glass for the doorway are original. Some of the panes contain the names of former residents scratched on them. The four rooms on the second floor have been reworked in many places to add early twentieth-century restrooms including one that occupies the projection over the west porch visible on the exterior. Unlike the first floor, the passage on the second floor has been extended around the stair to the addition that essentially mimics the four-room plan of the original section.

The main stair continues to the attic level where three closet areas have been framed, though no area of the attic is finished. The roof framing shows signs of recent repair but also has much of the original timber still in place. A portion of the original standing-seam metal roof is visible on what was the south roof of the original house, now preserved under the Colonial Revival addition.

The basement carries the same four-room plan as the floors above with storage spaces slightly modifying the original room sizes. Fireplaces extend to the basement floor in the two north rooms and may have done so throughout the original house block. A portion of the brickwork and basement window frames of the original house are well preserved in the addition rooms of the basement level.

Birdwood Plantation, Charlottesville Virginia Mansion from Northwest (2003)
Mansion from Northwest (2003)

Birdwood Plantation, Charlottesville Virginia Southeast corner of Mansion showing large Sun Porch (2003)
Southeast corner of Mansion showing large Sun Porch (2003)

Birdwood Plantation, Charlottesville Virginia East side of the Mansion looking North past Gardens and Statuary to Water Tower, Southeast Dependency (garage) and Northeast Dependency (office and icehouse) (2003)
East side of the Mansion looking North past Gardens and Statuary to Water Tower, Southeast Dependency (garage) and Northeast Dependency (office and icehouse) (2003)

Birdwood Plantation, Charlottesville Virginia Southwest Dependency (smokehouse) with Northwest Dependency (kitchen) in background (2003)
Southwest Dependency (smokehouse) with Northwest Dependency (kitchen) in background (2003)

Birdwood Plantation, Charlottesville Virginia Quarters South and East of Mansion area, looking at Southeast corner of building (2003)
Quarters South and East of Mansion area, looking at Southeast corner of building (2003)

Birdwood Plantation, Charlottesville Virginia Cottage South and West of Mansion area, looking at Northeast corner of building (2003)
Cottage South and West of Mansion area, looking at Northeast corner of building (2003)

Birdwood Plantation, Charlottesville Virginia Farm Outbuilding with Silo South and West of Mansion area, looking at Northwest corner of building (2003)
Farm Outbuilding with Silo South and West of Mansion area, looking at Northwest corner of building (2003)

Birdwood Plantation, Charlottesville Virginia Stable South and West of Mansion area, looking at Southeast corner of building (2003)
Stable South and West of Mansion area, looking at Southeast corner of building (2003)

Birdwood Plantation, Charlottesville Virginia Main passage and stair on first floor, looking South (2003)
Main passage and stair on first floor, looking South (2003)

Birdwood Plantation, Charlottesville Virginia Northwest room on first floor, looking South (2003)
Northwest room on first floor, looking South (2003)

Birdwood Plantation, Charlottesville Virginia Cross passage in south addition, looking West (2003)
Cross passage in south addition, looking West (2003)

Birdwood Plantation, Charlottesville Virginia Original molding detail from second-story passage door leading to Northeast room (2003)
Original molding detail from second-story passage door leading to Northeast room (2003)