The home of Jeff Davis, and the Confederacy

Richmond: The White House of the South -- a social, political and military center -- has been restored to its glory days

Short Hop: Virginia

August 08, 1999|By Karen M. Laski | Karen M. Laski,Special to the Sun

No one foresaw the house at the corner of 12th and Clay streets in Richmond, Va., becoming the White House of the Confederacy, least of all its owner, Lewis Crenshaw. But when Crenshaw transformed his 1818 neo-classical mansion into a Victorian-style home with a "French flavor," he unwittingly created a setting worthy of its future role.

Crenshaw installed large, heavy pieces of Victorian furniture with dark, wood frames upholstered in somber shades. Then he added individual furnishings and appointments with decorative motifs representing Rococo Revival.

When Virginia seceded from the Union in April 1861, the capital of the newly formed Confederate States of America moved from Montgomery, Ala., to Richmond. Crenshaw sold the house and its contents to the city, which leased it to the Confederate government for its official executive mansion.

President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis, his wife, Varina, and their young children occupied the mansion from 1861 to 1865. The Davises had six children. Two sons and a daughter, ages 2 to 6, moved into the mansion with them and another son and daughter were born there. (One son died before 1861.)

During those years, the elaborately decorated public rooms served as the military, political and social center of the Southern cause.

After the Davises fled Richmond in the spring of 1865, looting occurred while Federal troops occupied the mansion. A general took the bust of Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson that adorned the dining room mantel. U.S. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles asked for "a chair from Jeff Davis' House."

In 1870, the federal government auctioned off all the furnishings. The mansion served as a school for the next 20 years.

Richmond officials decided to destroy the building in 1889 and replace it with a new one. But the building was saved by a group of Richmond women, The Ladies' Hollywood Memorial Association, whose principal mission until 1890 was maintaining Confederate graves in Richmond's Hollywood Cemetery.

Renaming themselves the Confederate Memorial Literary Society to take responsibility for the mansion, they converted it into a Confederate museum, with artifacts and documents representing Confederate history. Many objects sold at the 1870 auction were returned.

By the 1960s, there were enough furnishings to re-create several period rooms. When the Museum of the Confederacy opened next door in 1976, the mansion underwent a complete restoration. It reopened to the public in 1988, looking almost as it did in its heyday.

Tours begin in the entrance hall, where two life-size statues of Comedy and Tragedy grace niches. The wallpaper, stenciled to resemble marbled stone, is typical of the faux surfaces popular during the 19th century. A painted canvas floor was installed to protect the oak flooring from muddy boots.

The dining room, which could seat 23, is the largest and most elegant room in the house. Military and political strategy sessions were as common here as seven-course meals.

The center parlor and drawing room, decorated en suite, were reserved for entertaining. Gasoliers (gaslight chandeliers) hang from decorative ceiling medallions, maroon flocked wallpaper adorns the walls, and a horse-chestnut-patterned carpet covers the floor.

Davis' library, furnished with rocking chairs and tea tables, was called a "snuggery" by one visiting Cabinet member. The president's substantial collection of books disappeared, taken by Union soldiers as souvenirs.

The second floor was the family's private quarters. That is, if privacy is possible in a household with six children, 20 servants, a secretary and several military aides. Half the furnishings are original; many of them are upholstered in plain, durable black horsehair.

Davis, who suffered from recurring bouts of malaria, often was forced to work at home in his second-floor office. An 1853 roller map of North America hangs on one wall and his 1829 commission in the U.S. Army on another.

Roses, the Davises' favorite flowers, are featured on the wallpaper of the master bedchamber and in Varina's dressing room. The two 1850s "technologically advanced" reclining chairs on display were popular during the Civil War.

Regardless of age, all the Davis children lived in the nursery. None of the sleeping furniture was ever recovered. A miniature tea set, several dolls and games are strewn around the room to indicate the presence of young children.

This splendid residence has never failed to impress visitors, whether they came during the war years or come today.

WHEN YOU GO ...

The White House of the Confederacy, at 1201 E. Clay Street in Richmond, Va., is open daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Only guided tours are available. Admission is $7 for adults, $6 for seniors and $4 for students 7 to 18. Children 6 and younger admitted free. For information, call 804-649-1861.

* The adjacent Museum of the Confederacy houses the nation's largest collection of Confederate artifacts. Among the displays are J.E.B. Stuart's plumed hat, saddle and sword; Robert E. Lee's personal effects, including the uniform and sword he wore at the Appomattox surrender; and the private's uniform with lieutenant-general straps that Ulysses S. Grant wore at Appomattox.

* The museum is open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.; closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Admission is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors and $3 for students 7 to 18. Children 6 and younger admitted free. * Combination tickets for the two sites are $9 for adults, $8.50 for seniors and $5 for students 7 to 18. Children 6 and younger admitted free.

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