Be the first to connect to this house!
Connect to Westover Plantation →

Westover Plantation

Charles City, Virginia

Built circa 1750, for William Evelyn Byrd III (1728-1777) and his first wife Elizabeth Hill Carter (1731-1760), of the nearby Shirley Plantation. Westover is located on the James River, six miles west of Charles City. During the French and Indian War, Major-General Francois-Jean de Beauvoir (1734-1788), Marquis de Chastellux, stayed as a guest at Westover and described it as the most beautiful place in America. Barely changed from that era, it is today considered to be among America’s finest examples of colonial Georgian architecture. It is particularly noted for it’s elegant 18th century gates, the secret passages and magnificent gardens that are open to the public.
Westover was named for the resident son of the Governor of Virginia, Henry West (1603-1668), 4th Baron de la Warr. In 1665, Sir John Pawlett sold the majority of the plantation to Theodorick Bland I of Westover (1629-1671). In 1688, his sons Theodorick Bland II (1663-1700) and Richard Bland (1665-1720) sold the estate of 1,200 acres to William Byrd I (1652-1704) in return for £300 in cash and £10,000 in tobacco and cask.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Byrds were one of America’s best known families on both sides of the ocean; not merely for their substantial wealth and position in society, but for their cultured and refined tastes. William Byrd I was known as “the Black Swan of Westover” in reference to the birds he introduced to his plantation from England.

William I built the first house at Westover, which some believe may have been incorporated into the present mansion, but this seems circumspect. On his death, the plantation was inherited by his son, William Evelyn Byrd II (1674-1744). He is remembered as a man of letters and a statesman. He was President of His Majesty’s Counsel and the founder of Virginia’s capital, Richmond. For many years it was assumed that William II had built the house as seen today around 1730, but recent surveys have dismissed this assertion.

It was William Byrd III (1728-1777) who sometime after his father’s death in 1744 built the house seen today. On coming of age, he had inherited 179,000 acres, hundreds of slaves, mills, fisheries, vessels, warehouses and a store. But, while being educated in the law at London, he acquired an unhealthy obsession with gambling which led him almost to financial ruin and ended with him taking his own life in 1777. His second wife, Mary (Willing) Byrd (1740-1814), was left with the onerous task of salvaging Westover and an inheritance for her ten children; and this she managed by selling off her husband’s property in Richmond, Williamsburg etc.

The outbreak of the American Revolution again threatened the future of Westover. Mrs Byrd attempted to remain neutral but this merely led to the plantation being raided by both sides in 1781. On attempting to recover property taken by the British, she was accused of trading with the enemy by the Americans. She avoided a trial by means of an eloquent appeal to Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), 3rd President of the United States, and thus for the second time in only a matter of years skilfully retained the family’s legacy. In 1817, three years after her death, her children sold the estate which was at sometime subdivided and resulted in new houses springing up on the old estate such as the Evelynton Plantation.

The Byrd children sold the estate to their relation William Carter. In 1821, Carter sold the property to Robert Douthat (1800-1858), the winner of the Philadelphia lottery. It was then briefly under the ownership of a grandson of William Byrd III, George Evelyn Harrison (1797-1839) of the Brandon Plantation, from 1828 until it was sold the following year to Colonel John Armistead Selden (1799-1868).

Selden and his family lived at Westover happily for nearly forty years and were not in the slightest bit fazed by the ghost of Evelyn Byrd (1707-1737) who had died there of “unrequited love” and appeared before them on at least two occasions. But, on the outbreak of the Civil War and with the approach of the Union army, the Seldens fled Westover for another of their estates further south.

In early 1862, Westover was occupied by the Union General Fitz-John Porter (1822-1901), the protégé of General George Brinton McClellan (1826-1885) who was stationed at the nearby Berkeley Plantation. A cannon ball shot by the Confederates from south of the James River accidentally struck Westover’s East Wing; the wing burst into flames and in doing so, according to some sources, destroyed the Byrd’s library of 4,000 books.

In reference to the Byrd library, it is worth noting that William Byrd II had amassed a collection of 3,625 volumes that was famous throughout the western world, and it may be that the 4,000 books referred to earlier were one and the same collection. If that is the case, then these books were not burnt, they were in fact sold to Isaac Zane (1743-1795) who kept them in Virginia before sending them to Philadelphia to sell at auction. 

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was reported to be interested in buying some of the collection but thought them too expensive. The books were eventually sold off one by one up until roughly 1800. Zane’s sister, Sarah, donated 124 medical and scientific volumes to the Pennsylvania Hospital, and these books comprise the largest known single portion of the Byrd collection to be kept together to this day.

When Colonel Selden returned to Westover in September of 1862, he found the plantation “swept of everything” and “the estate entirely ruined (so I) should not have known it”. The very next day, Selden sold Westover to two Richmond men, Andrew Elliott and Major Clay Drewry, “for the sum of fifty thousand dollars cash, fifteen thousand dollars less than I had been offered for it before the War.” In 1866, the property passed to Drewry’s son, Major Augustus H. Drewry.

In 1899, after the death of Augustus Drewry, the estate was purchased by another descendant of the Byrd family, Mrs Clarise Sears (Risley) Ramsey, who restored the tired interior of the house. Hiring the New York restoration architect William H. Mesereau, she rebuilt the east wing and added hyphens that connected the previously separate 18th century wings to the main house.

In 1921, Westover was acquired by Richard Teller Crane II (1882-1938) and his wife Ellen Douglas Bruce (1872-1952). In 1952, Mrs Crane left the property to her daughter Mrs Bruce (Crane) Fisher (1914-2008), who is credited for protecting Westover when the estate was threatened with subdivision and halting significant changes to the house when given an open-space easement to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. It remains with their family today and is occupied by the Crane’s great grand-daughter, Andrea Kulenkampff Fisher (b.1974) and her husband Robert Gustave Erda (b.1973).

Westover is approached by a long tree-lined drive and sits amidst 150 year old tulip poplar trees and ‘ancient’ boxwood. Originally, the plantation cultivated tobacco on an enormous scale, which eventually gave way to corn, wheat and soybeans on what remains of the farm today. An expansive lawn leads down to the James River and magnificent formal gardens surround the house with a hedge featuring a rare iron clairvoyee. In the grounds, there is a privy, an ice house, a collection of some fourteen brick barns of different ages and most notably three elaborate 18th century English wrought-iron gates, which are without doubt among the most elegant of their kind to be found in America.

The house covers 2,500 square feet and almost all the materials used to construct the house were sourced locally, including the distinctive red bricks – at a time when most planters shipped such materials from England. The central house of three stories has been connected to the two original wings since 1900. Architecturally, it stands out for it’s simplicity in style and proportion. It has an unusually steep hip roof, one of only two clasp-purlin types in Virginia, and tall chimneys in pairs at both ends of the main house. It’s elaborate entrance of Portland stone is the most copied doorway in America, lending it’s name to the style known as “The Westover Doorway”. The interior has exquisite detailing with moulded plaster ceilings and full length panelling.

The first Westover Church was a half a mile or so from the present house and the burial grounds contain the tombs that can still be seen today of various prominent early Virginians, including: Theodorick Bland I, William Byrd I, the tragic romantic Evelyn Byrd (1707-1737) who King George II famously complemented on her presentation at Court; Lt.-Colonel Walter Aston (1606-1656) and Benjamin Harrison IV (1700-1745), the ancestor of two U.S. presidents.

Westover is a National Historic Landmark and with an admission fee the gardens and grounds are open to self guided tours daily from 9am to 6pm. Group tours of the house are available by appointment during Historic Garden Week. It is similar to nearby Carter’s Grove (built in 1755 by cousins of the Byrds) and shares many architectural details with Duke House, both of which are also found in Virginia. 

References

William Byrd 111 – real life and suicide
http://www.history.org/almanack/people/bios/biowbyrd.cfm