This Place Matters

Menokin Matters to many people. Over 200 of them came to a Gala on Sunday, May 15, to honor two — Helen and Tayloe Murphy — for their decades of service to Virginia, the Northern Neck, the Garden Club of Virginia and the Northern Neck, and the Menokin Foundation.

Most agree that Menokin Matters. But to many of them, as of Sunday, it now matters a little bit more. This is true for many reasons, all of them sound and valid. But for most, it is because of the words of this man. Calder Loth.

Calder Loth - Retired Architectural Historian with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and Honorary Trustee of the Menokin Foundation.
Calder Loth – Retired Architectural Historian with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and Honorary Trustee of the Menokin Foundation.

Calder has been a huge part of the Campaign to Save Menokin long before there was a campaign; long before there was a Menokin Foundation; long before the house was a ruin; long before the woodwork was removed. His knowledge of, and passion for Menokin are  unparalleled. He was the obvious choice to be the keynote speaker at the Gala.

I am privileged to have the opportunity to share his speech with you here. Believe me when I tell you that reading these remarks in no way touches the magic of hearing them spoken aloud by Calder. Among his many gifts, public speaking is truly one.

Comments by Calder Loth at the May 15, 2016
Menokin Foundation Gala in Honor of Helen and Tayloe Murphy

You may wonder why I was asked to speak to you about Tayloe and Helen at this event. I did too.  I think it may be because Tayloe and I are among the few people still alive who daringly ventured into Menokin while the house was still completely intact.  I trespassed in 1965 with two of my U.Va. colleagues.  

Tayloe is too polite to trespass; I’m sure he got permission. 

Nonetheless, Tayloe has known and fretted about Menokin longer than any of us. Being a native of the Northern Neck, and one with family connections to this place, and, more importantly, a student of our nation’s history, he can appreciate more than any of us what a priceless and significant historic place this is, even as we see it now.

Decades before the Menokin Foundation was formed, Tayloe worked, albeit unsuccessfully, to purchase Menokin for preservation.  But it couldn’t be bought then.  

Beginning in the late 1960s, as the house crumbled and the interior woodwork disappeared, all we could do was despair— at least until the summer of 1985 when I received a phone call from Dora Riccardi.  She told me that she and her brother Edgar Omohundro were the owners of Menokin.  

She said she’d received a letter from the National Park Service threatening to remove the property’s National Historic Landmark status because of its deteriorated condition.  She didn’t want that to happen.  She said she and her brother were now willing to sell Menokin to an entity that would preserve it.


And she wanted to know if I would help them.  Well sure!  What else could I say?  But I did say it could take a while, and it did.   

My first thought was to work with an educational institution.  The University of Mary Washington seemed an obvious choice.  Some months later Mary Washington organized a meeting at Wakefield to explore options.

Attending that meeting was Tayloe Murphy…. the first time I met him. He asserted his passion and concern for Menokin and promised to do anything he could to help our efforts.

Also attending was a retired corporate executive, who kept needling me about realistic strategies for which I had no good answers.

Rather than get impatient, I said to myself, this guy seems pretty organized, and has time on his hands; we can use him. It was Martin King. The rest is history.

Martin initially felt we needed to work with the APVA, now Preservation Virginia. So in August of 1985, APVA staff member, Richard Rennolds, and I met here with Edgar Omohundro just to see what we were up against.   I don’t know if any of you have ever seen a Mayan ruin before restoration, but that’s what this place looked like— jungle-like.

In the course of the discussion, we asked Mr. Omohundro, what happened to the interior woodwork. Was it sold or stolen?   He said no. He said he couldn’t protect the house from thieves so he had the woodwork removed in 1967 and stored in a vacant house nearby.  We asked if we could see it. He said sure.

Whereupon we went to the subject house, and like King Tut’s tomb, we looked in, and saw wonderful things.  It was all there.  But the house was unsecured. Its front wall was actually bulging out.  Richard said this stuff is not safe here and offered to move it to secure storage at Bacon’s Castle;  and there it remained for more than a decade. 

So fast forward to 1995. By then, Edgar Omohundro was the sole owner. Taking advantage of this situation, Martin King proved to be a negotiator more skilled than Donald Trump.  He convinced Omohundro to give Menokin (500 acres with waterfront!) as well as the woodwork, to the Menokin Foundation.  That was pretty brazen. There wasn’t any foundation. It had to be quickly formed.  Martin then asked Omohundro whatever happened to the carved keystone from the front entrance.  Omohundro said “Why it’s under my back porch, you can have that too.“

Well, the foundation was duly formed with Martin as President and Tayloe as Vice President.

Now I could go on and on about all that’s happened since the Foundation was formed twenty years ago.   But I need to say what a privilege it is this day to celebrate Menokin, whose original occupant, Francis Lightfoot Lee, put his life on the line by signing a document that created our nation.
His action, and that of his colleagues—the signers, has impacted all our lives and millions more. And we are making Menokin a site that will continue to change lives. 

The ancient Romans talked about the Genius Loci, the spirit of the place, the effect a place has on one’s psyche.  The Genius Loci has profoundly permeated the Northern Neck.  This rural peninsula has produced people who have changed the course of history, even world history. I don’t know what it is about the Northern Neck that made that happen, but it did happen.  Our challenge here is to nourish that spirit, and to protect the tangible evidence of that spirit in order to continue to make it happen.  

The Genius Loci of the Northern Neck has certainly permeated Helen and Tayloe Murphy. What is it about this area that instills in one the energy, drive, determination, and dedication, to serve?  Some of that just might be a character trait that’s fast becoming rare: Noblesse Oblige–the instinct that tells one: I am privileged, therefore I have the privilege to enrich others who are not as privileged as I. 

Our Constitution did away with a legalized hereditary nobility. But I don’t think any would say that Tayloe and Helen are not of a noble class—not noble in terms of social status, but noble in character and dedication, just as was Francis Lightfoot Lee.    

To read the full list of their records of service would keep us here well into the night.  So I will just focus on their relation to this place.   As we all know, Tayloe long served this region as a delegate in the General Assembly. And through that office he helped secure funds for the huge canopy that has protected the ruin for the past sixteen years- a reliquary for our precious relic.

 When Governor Warner picked Tayloe to be his Secretary of Natural Resources (and no one has been better qualified for that office before or since), Tayloe properly resigned from the Menokin board to avoid conflict of interest. So who could replace him? Helen!  Indeed, Helen became Foundation President, and gracefully guided us for several years of a challenging period.

And if she didn’t have enough to do, she has also served as the Chairman of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (my office), and President of the Garden Club of the Northern Neck, and the Garden Club of Virginia.

Now when Helen’s term on the Menokin Foundation concluded, can we guess who replaced her? A well-qualified former cabinet Secretary.

It was during Tayloe’s and Helen’s tenures as foundation president that the concept evolved for treating Menokin in a unique way—not an ordinary restoration or reconstruction, but what I call a high-tech anastylosis.

An anastylosis is the scholarly term given for the treatment of ancient Greek and Roman ruins– that is gathering up the stone fragments of a ruined temple and fitting them into a reconstruction, with all the missing elements in new stone.      

With Menokin, we are putting the missing elements back in glass– in a very high-tech system of architectural engineering that has never been done before.  It will offer a new way of interpreting colonial architecture and construction techniques.  And it will be really interesting looking! 

So — high-tech anastylosis—a 21st-century approach to restoration and interpretation.   

It has taken countless hours of working with numerous architects, contractors, and specialists to develop a feasible design out of a nebulous but enticing concept.  And the stabilization of the mansion’s original stone foundation to support the new structural materials is starting this summer, finally! 

Your support is making this happen. Your continued support will bring this captivating concept into reality. Seeing it come together will be intriguing to watch.  And viewing this construction process will be an essential component of our education program.   

With the mention of education, we should ask: why are we doing this?

 Foremost, we are paying off a debt to Frank Lee, for what he did for us 240 years ago.  In so doing, we are making Menokin a learning place, not an ordinary tourist attraction. 

Our high-tech anasytlosis will be Menokin’s unique focal point, its main draw.  But Menokin is multifaceted. Menokin is also a nature preserve— a nationally significant bird habitat. Our 500 acres has prehistoric archaeology: Menokin has nourished people for more than a 1000 years. We have slave archaeology and potential for unique garden archaeology. And with all our original architectural fabric, we can offer the study of architectural conservation and preservation theory.

But very importantly— we can also focus on patriotism, making Menokin a venue for deliberating the ideas of citizenship and public service. Menokin has true Genius Loci.

So this is a really a splendid occasion—one to celebrate Menokin on the cusp of a new and exciting period of its history, and an occasion to thank you for helping to make this happen,  and to invite you to sustain the momentum.

And what an honor it is today to honor two people, Helen and Tayloe Murphy, who have so graciously served this site, this region, and this Commonwealth in so many ways, for so many years, and are still doing so.

So please give them our heartfelt applause.

And applaud we did. Hearts were opened. Energy and resolve were confirmed and renewed. Support flowed in (well over $100,000 raised in one evening!).

What is this magic that Menokin holds over us? Why do we work so hard and so long to save it? The answer is obvious.  This place matters.

  

 

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