The Ruins of Rosewell; Rescued from the Cruel Hands of Nature and Man

There are 50 keystones missing. Perhaps some adorn nearby mantles. Others maybe are forgotten, collecting dust in attics or as doorstops. Regardless, they’re gone, likely for good, wrenched from a once-palatial mansion that now shows just how cruel a curator man can be.

Long ago Rosewell was the seat of a sprawling plantation in Gloucester County, Virginia. When Mann Page II completed the stately residence in 1737, it was among the largest homes in Virginia, and remained, for nearly two centuries and through a host of owners, a spectacle to behold.

The foundation walls were three-and-a-half feet thick. The main floor had thirteen-foot-high ceilings, the two above that just slightly less. There were four chimneys and 17 fireplaces, and a man could stand inside the largest one. Eight adults could fit shoulder-to-shoulder on the grand staircase. A Page descendant remembers looking out from one of the two cupolas and being able to see Yorktown’s Victory Monument eight miles away.

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All that grandeur went up in smoke when Rosewell burned in March 1916. The disastrous fire, however, wasn’t the first time the home had been gutted. Thomas Booth, a 19th century owner, sold off many of Rosewell’s original architectural features and furnishings–the lead roof, mahogany panels, marble mantles. Afterward the mansion was a cold a featureless frame, livable but lacking the opulence that made it one of the Old Dominion’s finest homes. The fire was a nail in the coffin.

The owners left the towering ruins to the elements. You can hardly blame them for the apathy, though. The upkeep was hard enough for an intact structure. Charred and crumbling brick walls had no chance–never mind that Thomas Jefferson was once a visitor there.

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Fairly quickly nature went about reclaiming what the fire left. Virginia creeper and English ivy crept up the walls, inserting their aerial roots where they could. Saplings sprouted around the foundation, inside the four walls until the grand old mansion was nothing but a tangled and unmanageable thicket. The freeze cycle hastened the decay; water slipped into small cracks, froze and expanded, moving mortar just a little each time. But that was enough. The entire southern wall collapsed in 1955.

What nature couldn’t cleave from the old mansion, vandals did. There were once 52 keystones above Rosewell’s windows. They were imported English Portland stone. Today two remain intact. Famed archaeologist Ivor Noel Hume witnessed firsthand the destruction around 1960 as he was excavating an 18th century trash pit. He recalls vandals hurling bricks and rocks at the arches above the window openings until the keystones came down. Today, all but two are gone. In their place are gaping holes and gnarled masonry.

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The handiwork of vandals. Note the only two remaining keystones in the bottom photograph.

The Rosewell Foundation, created by the Gloucester Historical Society, has brought the property a long way. The Greaves family donated the ruins and a few adjacent acres in 1979. Since then, volunteers have removed brush and stabilized the remaining brickwork. The mansion is a shell of what it once was, of the glory Mann Page originally envisioned. But beneath that battered facade is a dignity that eclipses the challenging circumstances Rosewell has has endured for much of its storied existence.

Consider visiting Rosewell or making a donation to the foundation.  It’s a worthy cause.

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About Ben Swenson

Ben lives in Williamsburg, Virginia. He is writing a book on places of historic value that have been forgotten and are being reclaimed by nature. Abandoned Country is a companion blog to that project. You can contact him at benswenson@cox.net
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