On a table inside Lord Fairfax House this spring, a brochure quoted Mark Twain. “He did no brilliant things, he made no brilliant speeches,” wrote Twain, “but the enduring strength of his participation was manifest, his fearlessness in confronting perilous duties and compassing them was patent to all, the purity of his motives was unquestionable, his unpurchaseable honor and uprightness were unchallenged.”
Twain was writing about Francis Lightfoot Lee, a signer of the Declaration of Independence along with his brother Richard Henry, and Lord Fairfax House, now the home of John and Leslie Ariail, was the site of a reception for the Menokin Foundation, an organization dedicated to saving Lee’s home. Next week, the Foundation celebrates the beginning of construction on a new conservation building at the Menokin estate.
Menokin was the home of Francis Lightfoot Lee and his wife Rebecca Tayloe. The 1,000-acre estate and Georgian mansion was a wedding present to the Lees, given to them by Rebecca’s father in 1769.
The estate still exists, located on Cat Point Creek in Richmond County. The Lees lived there until their deaths in 1797. The estate eventually reverted back to the Tayloes, as the Lees were childless. In 1823, the Tayloes sold Menokin, and on July 4, 1995, the current owner, Thomas Edgar Omohundro gave what was left of the property to the Menokin Foundation.
NOW, LEE’S MANSION is in ruins on the remaining 500 acres. About 50 years ago, an aged tree fell upon the house during a storm. The roof and part of an exterior wall were damaged.
But it is a ruin with possibilities. All of the undamaged paneling and interior woodwork were removed and stored in nearby Bacon’s Castle, cared for by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities. Around the same time the original 1769 pen and ink plans for the mansion and gardens were found in the Tayloe family papers.
In September of 1998, the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond opened a new wing in their ongoing exhibit, “The Story of Virginia.” The exhibit now includes the reassembled woodwork from the Menokin dining room.
At the Ariail’s home, Menokin Foundation President Martin Kirwin King and Calder Loth, from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, told attendees how Menokin could be saved. King is a neighbor to Menoking, and put in action a long-range project for the property.
"By working to preserve the Menokin ruin, and by creating a center for the investigation and study of the history and culture of the people who helped shape our nation,” said Loth, “we honor and celebrate the contribution of Francis Lightfoot Lee and Rebecca Tayloe and their families to the building of that nation.”
FOREMOST IS conservation of the house. A grant was received through the U.S. Department of Interior’s “Save the Treasures” program to construct a roof structure, completed last October, sheltering what remains of the foundation and walls of the mansion.
Since then archaeologists from Jamestown have been exploring the site. Most recently, while plans were being formulated for the construction of a visitor/research/conservation center, the remains of what appear to be slave quarters were unearthed.
“It is probably the most interesting 18th century restoration project in Virginia,” said John Ariail, a member of the Menokin Foundation board since its conception. “From the original plans we have the garden maps which were extensive, the interior woodwork that was stored in Bacon’s Castle and most of the stone used for the house is still on the site."
“It will become a hands on teaching site for students of research, history and anthropology,” added his wife, Leslie Ariail.
With 200-plus guests in attendance, King described the road from ruin to schoolyard. “Our long range plans for the site include conservation of all the architectural elements and thorough archaeological investigations of both prehistoric and historic sites on the property."
Among the guests at the Ariail home, Alexandria resident Arthur Keleher, commented that “this is a project that ought to be supported and one that is not on everyone’s radar screen. Menokin is one that could be significant when completed.”
Osborne Mackie noted that, “Menokin is the most lamented ruin in Virginia. It really didn’t have to happen. We have other ruins in Virginia but this is perhaps the most well known.”
For more information see www.menokin.org.