While the historic mansion has been closed for extensive reservations, the historical experience at Morven Park is hardly on hold. In fact, the seeming inconvenience of lacking the property’s biggest draw has actually given Morven Park’s staff the chance to dig deeper into the area’s history.
"We are getting the opportunity to talk about the architecture of the house," Tracy Gillespie, director of historical operations for the site, said. "We are having the opportunity to prove a lot of theories that we didn’t have before."
The tour guides at Morven Park try to take visitors up to the side of the house whenever possible, Elizabeth Babcock, a site interpreter, said, to show them the original stone of the house, which was built in 1750.
"You can see the different layers," Babcock said. "It shows how you have the brick layer, stone layers and then it was all stuccoed over."
The staff of Morven Park always knew the home was built in several pieces, with each owner adding their own style to the design, but some aspects, such as the existence of tall Italian towers added by owner Joseph Swann Jr. during the Civil War, were always under debate. Now, thanks in part to the extensive restoration, staff members were able to see exactly where the towers were located in the mansion’s structure.
"Even we were surprised by the towers," Babcock said. "But now we can show people where they really were."
The construction has also given staff members access to some artifacts that would have gone undiscovered otherwise. One entire display inside Morven Park’s Coach House is dedicated to items found under the home’s floorboard and stairs.
"It’s neat that the kids can see the relics from these other times that they might not have seen otherwise," Doug Smith, Morven Park’s chief site interpreter said.
If the restoration project remains on track the mansion will open to the public again in the spring of 2009, but until then staff members remain dedicated to fully developing the other things the property has to offer.
"We are adding depth," Gillespie said. "It is easy at a historic house museum to rely on the house itself. This has made us step up to the plate with our interpretations."
<sh>Morven’s Civil War
<bt>Civil War history has long been one of the biggest draws of Morven Park, and since the closing of the mansion, the living history tours have only grown.
"The programs have really evolved," Babcock said.
Last summer, the property had only one soldier hut, built as it would have been during the Civil War, but a second hut was recently completed with a third hut under construction.
Visitors to Morven Park can watch how the Confederate soldiers, who camped on the property during the winter of 1861 and 1862 following the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, would have really lived.
"We might have 12 site interpreters," Smith said. "We’ll talk in first person. We’re cooking, doing firing demonstrations. We set the camp up like they had it so people can get a real idea of what it was like."
In addition to the three huts, Smith is working with local Boy Scouts troops to construct a trail and bridge through the woods and across the stream to where the original solider camp site is located. Smith said 64 hut sites have already been identified and he plans to build a fourth hut on a spot where a soldier actually would have lived.
"We want to be able to take people over there and show them the real site," he said. "It’s really neat because you can see the [hut] sites almost laid out in company streets."
In the future, Smith also hopes to begin leading archeological digs in the area of the campsite, so people can come and search for their own Civil War relics.
"There’s just so much history here that people can explore," he said.
Fighting and Frolicking: The Civil War Comes to Morven Park will be held Saturday, Sept. 1, Sept. 15, Sept. 29, Oct. 6 and Oct. 20., on the hour from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
<sh>Christmas in November
<bt>For the second year, Morven Park will hold a living history weekend that depicts life at Morven Park during Christmas 1861. Smith said he hoped to have more than a dozen site interpreters on hand for the weekend, in order to give visitors a truer sense of what it might have been like for the troops of the 17th Mississippi Regiment.
The interpretation will be held at the soldiers' huts, which will be decorated for Christmas.
"A lot of the celebration was really in the mansion," Smith said.
Christmas 1861 with the 17th Mississippi will be held Nov. 10 and 11.
<sh>World War I
<bt>When most people think of Morven Park they do not think of the World War I. However, thanks to Gov. Westmoreland Davis and his wife, Marguerite, the war was closer to home than ever.
Smith said that Gov. Davis was very involved during World War I, going to visit the troops and holding fund-raising drives to support the troops.
"He would write personal letters to any family that might have lost someone," Smith said.
Marguerite Davis was also involved in the war effort, volunteering at the munitions factory and helping to design the jumpsuit, "woman-alls," worn by the female factory workers.
"She went down every day to the factory," Babcock said.
During the World War I tour, site interpreters interview Gov. and Marguerite Davis, asking about the efforts and experiences during the war. The questions are then opened up to visitors, who can speak one-on-one with the Davises.
"Everything they talk about actually happened," Smith said. "Which makes people want to know more."
A living history program on World War I and the Home Front will be held Saturday, Sept. 8, Sept. 22, Oct. 27, Nov. 3, and Nov. 17, on the hour from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
<bt>Since the closing of the mansion, Morven Park’s carriage collection has become increasingly popular as a way to observe a portion of Virginia’s history. The collection, which was donated by Viola Winmill, includes more than 100 carriages, about 30 of which are on display.
"Many of them are constantly being restored," Babcock said. "Probably about 70 percent that are out are a better quality than when Viola owned them."
The Winmill Carriage Collection is open Sundays, from Sept. 2 through Nov. 18, and showcases one woman’s love for the horse-drawn carriage.
"She just fell in love with them and started collecting," Babcock said. "And now we have them."