Exploring the Relationship Between History and Modern Architecture

The Menokin Foundation is pleased that its historic site is the focus of a Harvard Graduate School of Design studio course for this spring semester. The course ─ Ruins, Memory and the Imagination — is taught by Nelson Robinson, Jr. Professor of Architecture, Jorge Silvetti, who leads 12 graduate students through the complex design and interpretive issues surrounding the historic Menokin site.

The Menokin Foundation owns and operates a 500-acre site that was the plantation home of Francis Lightfoot Lee, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and is located in the heart of Virginia’s Northern Neck region.  Foundation President W. Tayloe Murphy, Jr. commented on the studio, “I have always taken pride in the Foundation’s firm belief in incorporating education and learning as parts of its mission.  We offer learning opportunities for everyone whether their interests lie in history, architecture, nature, art, or conservation.  This current collaboration with Harvard takes the educational opportunities available at Menokin to a whole new level.”

Students explore basement of the Menokin ruin.
Students explore basement of the Menokin ruin.

Over the course of the studio, which concludes in May, multiple historical layers will be sorted out and revealed by the graduate students enrolled in the studio as central themes of interpretation at Menokin:  the existing architectural ruins of an eighteenth century structure and the stories they imply—dense chapters of American history in its revolutionary years, with its cultural manifestations inscribed in the institution of The Plantation and its architecture;  the earlier layers of pre-colonial aboriginal occupation of the site by the Rappahannock Indian Tribe; and the current cultural significance of an imposing natural landscape rich in geological strata, flora and fauna.

Professor Silvetti commented on the timely opportunity that the Menokin partnership offers the Harvard Graduate School of Design and its students, “In no other time as in the present have we found Architecture in such perplexing contradictory relationship with History: on the one hand the practice of architecture is under intense social and political pressures to relate positively to  ‘a history’, while on the other, the discipline of architecture has become utterly indifferent, even oblivious to history itself.”

The students, who hail from the United States, Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Ghana, China, Korea, and Russia, will each develop a design project to include: a Conservation Research Laboratory; a Visitors Center; Visitors Waterside Harbor; as well as the design of all elements necessary to structure and present the Menokin site narratives to the visitor.  The students will present their projects to a juried panel in early May at Harvard.

Students enrolled in the studio are from around the world.
Students enrolled in the studio are from around the world.

“This studio could be titled ‘The Architect as a Story Teller,’” smiles Professor Silvetti,but that’s the instructor’s title and the students should find their own title for the narrative they would develop.”

Menokin Foundation Executive Director, Sarah Dillard Pope, commented, “It’s been a pleasure working with Jorge Silvetti and this young, talented, international group of designers.  This academic exercise offers the Menokin Foundation an opportunity to showcase their talents.  The studio also draws attention to our professional team’s efforts to devise innovative preservation and interpretive solutions for the Menokin site.”

Conservation at Menokin: Pre-register for Carpentry Class

Conservation at Menokin


October 12 – 13, 2013

Martin Kirwan King
Conservation and Visitor’s Center
4037 Menokin Road  l  Warsaw, VA 22572
Instructors from Oak Grove Restoration
Hank Handler – President
Patrick Handler – Vice President

During more than thirty-five years in business, Oak Grove Restoration Company has evolved from a high-quality woodworking shop into a full-service general contracting and consulting company specializing in historic preservation and the careful conservation of irreplaceable historic architectural fabric. Their diverse client base includes state and local governments, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the National Park Service, private homeowners, historic sites, and house museums.

Oak Grove has worked at Menokin for many years, starting with the return of the interior paneling to the property in the 1990s, and continuing with the stabilization and catwalk system that exists today. They are part of The Menokin Project Team.

Course Description

Day 1: History of Wood

  • Old growth and Second growth
  • Wood quality
  • Grading lumber
  • Specific woods for specific jobs
  • Skills and knowledge gained: a comprehensive understanding of unique qualities of wood species and their use in traditional building

Day 2: Traditional Tools and Methods

  • Traditional woodworking tools
  • How to make repairs to beams, splices, scarf joints, Dutchman etc.
  • Window design, restoration, and maintenance
  • Door design, restoration, and maintenance
  • Skills and knowledge gained: a preliminary
  • Knowledge of traditional wood working tools and their uses; an understanding of the traditional
  • Design of wood windows
Get Your Name On The Registration List now by sending us an email at menokin@menokin.org. Please be sure to include your full name and a phone number.

Once the registration information is finalized, we will contact you to see if you are still interested and would like to confirm with a paid registration.

Minimester at Menokin – St. Margaret’s Students Pay Us A Visit

Some students from St. Margaret’s School in Tappahannock spent an afternoon at Menokin late in February as part of their “minimester” program.

Minimester as described on the SMS website:

Creative inquiry, experiential learning and the study of interdisciplinary topics are all intrinsic to each Minimester course. Every February, faculty teams teach one week courses outside the core subject areas, giving students the opportunity to learn during extended periods of time and with more hands-on experience.

This group’s focus, led by instructor Dale Harder, was to embark on an in-depth exploration of historic places in Virginia. They visited Monticello, Mt. Vernon and Stratford Hall before coming to Menokin.

Though short on time, the students did a little research on one of Menokin’s artifacts. The dictionary pictured below was found on the floor of Menokin in 1965 by then University of Virginia student Calder Loth. The SMS students were unable to find anything definitive, but did learn that there was a Richard H. Lyell (b. 1818 – d. 1901) that is now buried at Calvary Church Cemetery in Richmond County, VA. Perhaps this is the same man from whom the dictionary was purchased?

Here is a picture of the condition of one of the interior rooms at Menokin taken during that 1965 visit. The Southside Bank calendar on the wall is dated 1941. How long had it been since someone had lived in this room? And who was the last person to use the dictionary?


A gobble, gobble here and a gobble, gobble there.

Writing from France on January 26, 1784 to his daughter Sally (Mrs. Sarah Bache) in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin shared his thoughts on the wild turkeys in America.

For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.

The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has these facts to share about this elusive bird. Those pictured here are residents of Menokin, and have been sporting about the property quite a bit in the last few weeks — no doubt spurred on by the rising sap and surging hormones.

  • Courtship begins in late March and early April. Egg laying commences around mid-April and peak of nest incubation is normally the first week of May (May 5). Hatching takes place 28 days later, normally during the first week of June.
  • Acorns are favored foods. Unlike deer, wild turkeys have a poor sense of smell and taste and they normally select acorns based on their size and shape. In contrast, white-tailed deer normally select white oaks because of their lower tannin content and less bitter taste.
  • Oak crops have a significant impact on fall turkey harvests. The harvest declines in years with good mast crops as flocks move less and typically stay in forested areas making them more difficult to locate and hunt. Conversely, during mast failures birds move further in search of food and typically are seen in fields and clearings making them more vulnerable to hunting and predation.
  • Wild turkey beards grow throughout the life of the bird and usually gain about 4 inches annually. Juvenile males or “Jakes” normally have a beard that is about 2-4 inches in length by their first spring gobbler season. Adult males or “Toms” commonly sport beards that are 8-12 inches in length. The overall length of the beard is regulated by wear as the beard drags the ground.
  • Hens can have beards and on rare occasions they have spurs. The Department estimates that about 5% of some local turkey female populations have beards. The occurrence of spurs is extremely rare however.
  • Spurs have a bony core and are covered with a keratinous material similar to our fingernails. Spurs grow throughout the life of the bird and can be used to estimate age.
  • The appearance of wild turkeys is the result of black, white, and brown feathers. Occasionally there are variations in feathers that result in color aberrations. “Smokey gray” birds lack any brown feather coloration and have been described as ghost-like in appearance. Red phase or eruythsite birds have red coloration in their feathers instead of brown. Occasionally we find melanistic birds that all black in color. In contrast, albinos are all white.
  • Virginia’s wild turkey population is estimated to be approximately 180,000 birds. Populations are not uniform across the state however as the highest population densities can be found in the Tidewater, South Mountain, and South Piedmont regions.
  • Weights of spring gobblers normally range from 17-19 pounds in Virginia.
  • Peak gobbling in Virginia would normally take place in early May based on gobbling surveys taken before we started spring gobbler hunting. Peak gobbling typically would coincide with peak nest incubation. However, gobbling rates decline as the spring season progresses because of harvests and reduce gobbling due to hunting pressure.

Hope Springs as a Daffodil

Just when you think you can’t stand one more, gray, damp, dreary day of February, the hardy daffodil pops up to save the day.


The woods at Menokin are resplendent with the paint daubs of yellow that are splattered among the leaf litter on the forest floor. They grow in clumps that are spread like a stream along a bed known only to them.

There is debate about when these harbingers of spring were first brought to Colonial America. There are many accounts of a wide variety of narcissus bulbs being cultured and coveted in the early days of our country.

The variety we have here is known as Narcissus pseudonarcissus L. – daffodil. and the USDA credits them as being a native plant to Virginia as well as 26 other states.

USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. Vol. 1: 532.

All I know is that when you need a late winter boost of spirit, gazing into a bouquet of daffodils is just what the doctor ordered.