<bt>This is a story about a mini-mall and a jigsaw puzzle house. Or it could be; the ending is really up to you. But first, take a walk along Mount Gilead Road, between Braddock Road and St. John's Church in the Historic District. Look south, toward Lee Highway (Route 29) and you'll see a stand of trees along the top of a hill. Now look again and see the tree that stands above them, the towering, 200-year-old white oak. It's the last "Royal Oak" and marks the site of one of the oldest "manor houses" of Centreville. The house, dismantled and in pieces, is waiting to be re-assembled someday, somewhere. Its foundations remain on the site, as do the unmarked graves of the Roberdeau family. An out-of-town developer wants to build a mini-mall there and the county plan includes an extension of Leland Road that would run more or less right through the oak tree. What follows is a brief overview of the history the oak tree has witnessed, the story of Royal Oaks.
MANY OF THE early buildings in Centreville reflected the owners' commercial aspirations. Taverns such as Mount Gilead were built as places of business, conveniently close to the main road. Royal Oaks, however, reflects another side of Centreville, the agricultural community of farms and families. The house was built near the top of a hill, shaded by the oaks, standing at the end of a tree-lined drive, away from the bustle and dust of Braddock Road. It spoke of its owners' aspirations to status within the community, the quintessential home of a Virginian gentleman farmer
The Royal Oaks house consisted of two stories, a large attic and cellar. There were 10 rooms with nine-foot ceilings. The beams were hand-hewn, 22 feet long and 12 inches square. The heart-of-pine floor planks were of various widths, six to 13 inches, and the parlor was graced by an eight-foot wide mantel "of beautiful, although simple design." A decorative ring was painted on the ceiling where a chandelier once hung. A Queen Anne porch was added sometime in the 1870s and the mortared stone wall that stands along Braddock Road was built in the 20th century.
THERE ARE CONFLICTING stories about who actually built Royal Oaks. According to the great grandchildren of Revolutionary War patriot and statesman Gen. Daniel Roberdeau, the General built Royal Oaks for his son James in 1785. Others have said it was an estate of the Lane and Triplett families. Cornelia Peake McDonald wrote in her Civil War-era diary that, "the home once occupied by Col. Simon Triplett — which descended to his son James Lane Triplett, and from him to the Roberdeau family, has always been called Royal Oaks. Tradition claims that when one of these oaks dies a member of the Triplett family dies, and coincidence has often corroborated the saying."
Norman Baker's extensive review of land records tells another story, however. Baker concluded that Newton Keene built the house for his family sometime between 1765 and 1770. If this date is correct, then Royal Oaks was built around the same time as Mount Gilead and is the one other structure to survive from the days when Centreville was Newgate. Or it would be, if it could be restored.
GEN. ROBERDEAU may not have built Royal Oaks, but James Roberdeau and his family did reside there. The Roberdeau's story illustrates the important ties Centreville then had to Alexandria and points west. It is also a poignant account of family life in the early 19th century.
James Roberdeau was born in Alexandria and grew up in Winchester. In 1818 he married Mildred Lancaster Denny and thus came to own Royal Oaks (Mildred had inherited the estate from her father). Like many large farms in Truro Parish, Royal Oaks used slave labor during this period. The 1820 census indicates that there were seven slaves and one free 'colored' man included in the Royal Oaks household.
James and Mildred had three children in as many years but only one child survived to adulthood. Mildred died in 1821. Sometime before then she had written to Dr. Stabler, a well known apothecary in Alexandria (the shop is now a museum in Old Town), that she was "afflicted — with a paralytick [sic] stroke" and wished to undergo the latest in medical treatments, electrical shock. Mildred was laid to rest in the northwest corner behind the Royal Oaks house.
James then married Martha Lane Triplett in 1822. Together they had seven children, four of whom survived. James died in 1832 at the age of 47. He was buried beside Mildred on the Royal Oaks grounds. Martha lived a long life and was buried at the Fairfax Court House.
Of the five surviving Roberdeau children, only two remained in Centreville. The eldest daughter, Jane, married Walter Powell. They bought Royal Oaks shortly after they were married in 1841 and sold the property to the Whaley family in 1845.
MEMBERS OF THE Whaley family owned Royal Oaks from 1845 to 1869, but they may have resided there longer. Shortly after purchasing Royal Oaks, Robert Whaley and another man agreed to donate the land for St. John's Church. In addition to overseeing Royal Oaks, Whaley owned a general store with Alexander Grigsby. He and Grigsby also sold bought and sold slaves. The two men had a falling out and Grigsby sued Whaley in 1858. Larger conflicts would soon trivialize their dispute.
Centreville was a focus of national attention during the Civil War. And within Centreville attention often focused more narrowly on Royal Oaks. It is generally believed that the house served as headquarters for both generals McDowell (1861) and Pope (1862). Royal Oaks is also reputed to be one of the places Col. Mosby and his men hid while conducting raids into Union-held territory (records do show that Robert Whaley's son, Walter, served under Mosby's command). Interviewed in 1938, a local resident described Royal Oaks during the war as "the capitol of all this country."
The Civil War crushed the local economy. It is amazing that any of Royal Oak's oak trees survived the war, since Confederate and Federal troops alike thoroughly stripped the area. Royal Oaks was sold at auction to John Dear in 1869. Dear did not take possession of the house, however, and Walter Whaley appears on an 1879 Atlas, apparently residing at Royal Oaks. Walter also appears on the 1880 census living in Centreville with his wife, Jennie V. Utterback, and their two boys.
ANOTHER CONFEDERATE veteran, Benjamin Simpson, bought Royal Oaks in 1884. The property was divided among his heirs in the early years of the 20th century. The section containing the Royal Oaks house then passed through a number of hands in short succession. Many of the owners were from families prominent within the local community such as Enos M. Utterback and "prosperous farmer" Jim Dobbins. In 1922, Mrs. William Harrison Lamb purchased Royal Oaks and resided there into the 1950s. The Lambs published numerous stories about Royal Oaks history in their paper, the Herndon Observer.
The Good Shepherd Church in Burke inherited Royal Oaks from Lamb. The church decided to raze the old building. Norman Baker attempted to rescue Royal Oaks by purchasing just the house from the church in 1959 and then carefully dismantling it. Baker intended to reassemble the house on his property in Fauquier but he never realized those intentions. It remains in Baker's possession as a collection of structural timber and stones.
Good Shepherd Church never built on the Royal Oaks property, and subsequent owners have been unable to develop the site — so far. It is possible that the Historic District can be expanded to include the Royal Oaks site and that this might encourage its preservation. It may even be possible to somehow restore the Royal Oaks house. But without public interest and support, it is more likely that the 200-year-old oak tree will be cut down and mulched. The bones of Mildred and James Roberdeau will be removed and buried elsewhere. And the old house will be left in pieces, still waiting for someone to put it back together.
Contributing to this story were Mary Ahrens, the staff in the Virginia Room at Fairfax City Library, and Paula Ziztler, an archeologist at Fort Roberdeau in Pennsylvania.