Going to great lengths for presidential comfort

Virginia: John Tyler's Sherwood Forest plantation house stretches to 300 feet, the longest frame dwelling in the country

Short Hop

June 13, 1999|By Stephanie D. Fletcher | Stephanie D. Fletcher,Special to the Sun

Sherwood Forest, the Virginia plantation that once belonged to President John Tyler, is owned by his grandson and wife. It is an unusual place. As visitors walk to the house from the parking lot, along a short path through a wooded area, they must first pass a leaf-littered pet cemetery. Two more or less equal rows of little wooden crosses inscribed with names like Wink, Changa, KitKat and Beau mark small graves, some of which possess the added embellishment of concrete lawn ornaments -- a sleeping kitten here, a duck there, a dog holding a basket in his mouth at the end of one row. At the small memorial garden for beloved animals, members of the public turn right and continue along the path through a wide expanse of lawn shaded with large trees.

On first approach, visitors do not notice anything particularly different about the handsome, white two-story house in the distance -- except maybe that it is decorated with flags. However, the perception changes on closer inspection, especially when tourists pull out cameras and start thinking about snapping a souvenir photograph of the entire house. That would be an almost impossible feat. At 300 feet, the 10th president's home southeast of Richmond claims the distinction of being the longest frame dwelling in America and stretches the length of a football field. So, unless a photographer stands at a sharply oblique angle and doesn't mind having a bunch of trees obscuring the view, there is no way to frame the entire front of the building within the sight of a conventional camera.

Adding on

The extreme length of the building is a result of the attachment of two dependencies -- a separate kitchen and Tyler's law office -- to the two-floor main residence by means of long one-story additions. Tyler added the second addition in 1845 and it functioned as a distinctive-looking ballroom. However, the house is only one room wide. So, although the structure seems to go on and on in one direction, it is very narrow. It looks rather like a train or, perhaps, like a python that has swallowed a pig (although it is certainly an attractive snake).

Inside, the house is ornate, embellished with sconces, cornices and carved mantles, and decorated with family furnishings, silver, heirlooms and paintings. Much of it once belonged to the former president; however, some of the Tylers' most precious possessions were lost when his wife, Julia, sent them to Richmond for safekeeping during the Civil War. The family items that were sent to the Confederate capital were destroyed. It is ironic that the plantation was spared and Richmond was not. The present Mrs. Tyler has added authentic period antiques to flesh out the collection of authentic Tyler property on display in the house.

My favorite room is the ballroom, which connects Tyler's law office to his home. A curved ceiling arches over the long, thin space and a strip of bright green and white wallpaper, featuring swags and flowers, runs around the top of the wall where it joins the ceiling. The effect is lovely, but it is difficult to imagine ladies clad in full swishing hoop skirts dancing the Virginia reel in such in such a confined space.

I learned from the knowledgeable guide who led my tour group that this plantation was originally part of a 1616 land grant known as "Smith's Hundred." The plantation house, which was built around 1730, exhibits a Virginia Tidewater architectural style. The ninth president, William Henry Harrison, inherited the property in the late 18th century and it had several owners before John Tyler bought the house and surrounding 1,600 acres in 1842 (during his term in office). He retired to his new home after his stint as president.

Deep roots in Virginia

Tyler was born March 29, 1790, to an established Virginia family who lived at Greenwood Plantation, 4 miles west of Sherwood Forest. He had served as governor of Virginia, U.S. senator, U.S. representative, state senator, and member of the Virginia House of Delegates before he won the vice presidency in the election of 1840.

Tyler was the first vice president to assume the presidency after the death of his running mate (and neighbor), William Henry Harrison. Harrison was a war hero affectionately dubbed "Old Tippecanoe" as a result of his success at the Battle of Tippecanoe Creek during the Shawnee Indian Wars. "Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too!" is a campaign slogan that many remember from school history books.

When Harrison died of illness only 30 days into his term, Tyler took over, and, instead of following the lead set by his predecessor, he followed his own agenda. A slave-holder and a strong proponent of States Rights, he was considered a renegade in Washington and was almost ousted by his own political party.

It is no accident Tyler chose the name "Sherwood Forest" for his plantation, because he identified with the fictional character Robin Hood. He re-entered politics in 1861 as a member of the Confederate Congress.

Tyler married twice, first to Letitia Christian and, after her death, to Julia Gardiner, a woman 30 years his junior. During his married life, he fathered 15 children.

A stroll around the house and grounds that once belonged to the 10th president offers many insights into the man who once lived there. John Tyler was a lawyer, public servant, husband and father, and all facets of his life are open for inspection at his plantation homeplace near the banks of the James River.

WHEN YOU GO ...

Getting there: Sherwood Forest Plantation is 18 miles west of Williamsburg and 35 miles east of Richmond on Virginia Route 5.

Hours: Open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m.

Admission: $8.50; students $5.50.

Information: Write Sherwood Forest Plantation, P.O. Box 8, 14501 John Tyler Memorial Highway, Charles City, Va., 23030; 804-829-5377; fax, 804-829-2947; online, www.sherwoodforest.org.

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