Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.

National Register of Historic Places

Plantations of Virginia – Exploring the State’s Historic Homes


Jai Williams and Charlene Giannetti spent six months visiting 40 plantations in Virginia, taking tours and talking with the families and the professionals tasked with caring for these historic properties. Their new book, Plantations of Virginia, has just been published by Globe Pequot Press. Virginia has produced eight presidents and three of those – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison – were Founding Fathers whose leadership and inspiration were critical to the birth and success of the new country. Their homes, Mount Vernon, Monticello, and Montpelier, remain the crown jewels and should be experienced by every American for their historic value.

But there are many other plantations worth a visit, including the grand mansions located along the James River. Like so many other areas of the country, Virginia has become focused on preserving its history, which, in many cases, involves saving and restoring these homes and surrounding grounds. These “works in progress” have fascinating stories to tell.

Jai and Charlene talk about what became for them a transformative journey, researching and writing Plantations of Virginia.
Plantations Right Photo

How did the two of you come together to write this book?

Charlene: About five years ago, my husband and I began dividing our time between New York City and Alexandria, Virginia. Although we had lived in Washington, D.C. in the 70s, we hadn’t spent much time in Virginia. So we began to explore Virginia’s history and a great deal of that history, particularly about the Civil War, can be discovered by visiting plantations. Our country continues to grapple with slavery’s legacy and that issue certainly played out in the state’s plantations.

Jai: I’ve lived in Virginia for quite awhile now and you are subconsciously immersed in history wherever you go. After visiting various plantations with my mother over the years, I began to realize that the tours were often glorified to be ones of “happier times” for all and additionally some narratives were specifically left out. I felt that those stories needed to be told, even if briefly to include all persons involved in plantation life.

How did you select the plantations you visited?

C: Of course we had to include the crown jewels – Mount Vernon, Monticello, and Montpelier – the homes of our Founding Fathers. We also knew we wanted to visit the plantations along the James River, including Westover where the HBO miniseries John Adams starring Paul Giamatti was filmed. Andrea Erda and her family still live in this magnificent home and she was very gracious showing us around and talking about Westover’s history. After that, we broadened our search to every corner of the state and were rewarded with some amazing finds, including some plantations that are now mere shells but being renovated in order to preserve their history.

J: Virginia is thriving with plantations both publicly and/or privately owned. Others listed in text were either no longer standing or unavailable to contact, although the information stated as such. Because of this, a list was compiled and we reached out to each plantation individually to ask their permission to come and tour, photograph, and write about their history.

Can you tell us how you gathered your information?

C: Before each visit, we read all the information that was available in print and online. We took the tours, some provided by volunteer docents others by historians with extensive knowledge. We learned not only about the specific plantation, but about how the home and its inhabitants – both the family and the slaves – were affected by the Civil War. We also focused on the architecture and, if the structure was being restored how that work was being done. The amount of research involved in these restorations is amazing and those who work on these projects are truly design detectives.

J: Sites like the National Register of Historic Places as well as the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, Historic Register were researched alongside information provided by each plantation’s docent, website and text. To make sure that the information was correct as some reports were written in the 60s, 70s, and 80s on the aforementioned sites; we provided each plantation with a copy of the text before we submitted it to the publisher for a final fact check.

Bacon's Castle

Bacon’s Castle

Jai, You took the photos for the book. Can you tell us how you approached that part of the assignment?

J: With the exception of a few plantations such as Montpellier, Mount Vernon, etc., photographing each plantation was therapeutic. At times, being in a place that held so much untold history felt heavy, especially as the book developed. Regardless of how each story was told by the docents, capturing the house, its interior, and grounds, my goal was to provide each reader with an opportunity to draw their own inference based on the text. Furthermore, shooting towards the end of the year (autumn/winter) removed, in my opinion, the lightheartedness sometimes conveyed when these same places are shot during the (spring/summer).

It seems these plantations are now used in different ways. Can you explain?

C: Many are strictly preserved as historical sites and attract thousands of tourists each year. Families still live in some of these homes and we were fascinated that young children were being raised surrounded by such rich history. A few have been turned into inns or operated as bed and breakfast places. These provide another experience for those who wish to truly immerse themselves in history. And then there are those that are being brought back from rubble, determined individuals on a mission to preserve history.

J: While others have been turned into event places and offices for staff.

What was the most surprising discovery?

C: For me, it was what I learned while touring Montpelier. The home of James and Dolley Madison had passed through many hands and was last owned by Marion du Pont. With each owner, the buildings and grounds underwent dramatic changes. When Marion died, her heirs transferred ownership to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, an organization that vowed to return Montpelier to what it had been during Madison’s lifetime. Visiting Montpelier, I learned more about Madison, known as the Father of the Constitution and the Architect of the Bill of Rights. And his wife, Dolley Madison, was a huge celebrity in her time and the first President’s wife to be called the First Lady.

J: Two things: First, that many tours would either omit or gloss over the slavery aspect. However, plantations like Poplar Forest, Sully Historic Site, Monticello and a few others give dedicated slave tours in addition to their regular tours. Hopefully, other plantations will consider adding something similar as there is interest and to tell the whole story, certain voices cannot be omitted.

Secondly, how interconnected plantations were in Virginia. Numerous owners built or inherited more than one plantation over the course of their lives, particularly among those considered Virginia royalty such as the Carters, Berkeleys, and Tayloes.


Endview Plantation

What did you discover about the slave experience at these plantations?

C: Learning about a slave’s life on the plantations was always the most sobering part of the journey. How a slave was treated varied depending upon the plantation’s owner. We heard many horror stories which brought to mind scenes in the Oscar-winning film 12 Years a Slave. It was disappointing to realize that Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, despite their battles for independence and human rights, all kept and never freed their slaves. The Marquis de Lafayette, who was instrumental in helping America win the Revolutionary War, couldn’t understand how his fellow patriots and friends were slave owners.

We also found that slavery continues to be a difficult topic in the state. While some of the plantations were very upfront discussing this part of their histories – many had special exhibits and even asked for the public’s help in locating descendants of slaves – others said they preferred we skip that part of their stories. Of course, we didn’t and that often meant digging deeper for the facts.

J: There are many narratives left to be discovered.

Mount Vernon, Monticello, and Montpelier are perhaps the most visited plantations in Virginia. What should people focus on when they visit these three sites?

C: There’s so much to focus on with these three plantations. Plan to spend a full day at each. Monticello and Montpelier are close together so spending a weekend in that area of the state will allow, not only enough time to see these homes, but also provide a side trip to Virginia’s wine country. There’s even a bed and breakfast featured in the book- The Inn at Meander – where you can stay. The guides at Mount Vernon, Monticello, and Montpelier are very knowledgeable, so taking the tours is a must. Ask questions! We never found a query that stumped one of these guides. Besides learning about the actual buildings, visitors learn about these three figures who had a major impact in setting up our democracy (including, of course, the Electoral College!)

J: Visit their libraries! There is so much information available to those interested and although you may have to set up an appointment, it is worth it.

Many of these plantations have undergone serious renovations. What is involved in restoring these homes and grounds?

C: Meticulous attention to detail. We were impressed with the amount of research involved. Experts are consulted about paint colors, fabrics, and the materials used inside and outside the home. Sometimes help comes from unexpected places. During one renovation, a mouse nest was discovered in a wall. The creature had used a piece of the home’s original wallpaper for its bedding. The restoration team was able to recreate that wallpaper for an authentic look.

J: Colonial Williamsburg is often used as a standard for checking information, dating objects, etc.

How were these plantations affected during the Civil War?

C: Virginia was in the thick of it during the Civil War. Many homes were occupied, sometimes by Confederate forces, but also by Union soldiers. What often happened was that the family would flee, leaving behind slaves to manage the property. When the families returned after the war, they often found that their homes had been virtually destroyed. Some were rebuilt, others abandoned.

J: As the economic tide changed, many homes were unable to recover and were either sold for meager prices or left behind altogether. Sadly, many were used as hospitals in which floors were painted black to cover the blood-stained wood to grounds being used as unmarked cemeteries.

Patrick Henry's Scotchtown

Patrick Henry’s Scotchtown

Do any of the personalities you write about in the book stand out?

C: I didn’t know very much about John Tyler, who became our 10th president after the death of William Henry Harrison. Tyler named his plantation “Sherwood Forest,” seeing himself as a latter-day Robin Hood. He had two wives, his second wife, the much younger Julia Gardiner, was the daughter of a New York senator. Although Julia turned down his first proposal, after he saved her during a tragedy on a naval ship, she agreed to marry him. A slave owner and Confederate supporter, Tyler would never be recognized for any of his contributions to the nation until 1915 when Congress build a monument in the cemetery where he and Julia are buried.

J: A few such as Patrick Henry who lovingly dealt with a wife who was mentally ill. Or William Berkeley who was exceptionally cruel to his slaves. And of course John Hemings who was an excellent carpenter.

What do you hope people will learn from reading this book?

C: After reading about the history of these 40 plantations, we hope that people will be inspired to visit many of them. We’ve grouped them together geographically, so spending a weekend in one area will allow for visits to several. Reading about a plantation’s story beforehand will allow a richer experience once the reader actually sees the real thing. We hope our book will start people on a journey. We applaud the many dedicated professionals who are working so hard to preserve these buildings and their stories. We can’t move forward until we truly understand where we have been. And the timing has never been more urgent for all of us to educate ourselves about this part of our nation’s history.

J: Whether you are passionate about history, architecture, slavery/slave accounts, or military involvement there’s something for everyone in this book. More importantly, to the public institutions and private families who make a conscientious decision to keep Virginia’s rich history available to all.

How did writing this book affect you?

C: I’ve always loved history and researching and writing this book has fueled my desire to learn even more. I was most affected by the people stories. We take so much for granted, our access to clean water, food, heated homes, health care, convenient transportation. Despite the grandeur of many of these homes, living was often a struggle. So many women died young in childbirth. We also heard many times of women who had died of “a broken heart.” (When that term was used to describe Debbie Reynold’s death, we were reminded that tremendous grief can indeed take its toll.) Living through the Civil War was horrific. So much destruction, so many lives lost. It was never easy to hear stories about how slaves were treated. It brought home how much work we still have to do to mend race relations in our country.

J: Realizing that intersectionality is a necessity for progression to occur in a country that so many people from all walks of life call home.

Photos by Jai Williams
Top photo: Tuckahoe Plantation

Plantations of Virginia
Jai Williams and Charlene Giannetti

Street Seens: Sidewalk Art to Look Up To


Mary Poppins and Bert used magic to create sidewalk art that opened a whole new world to the children and them. Courtesy of the artist they discovered wondrous new places and people that charmed, amazed and inspired.

st-vincent-ferrer-aisleChurch of St. Vincent Ferrer toward Great East Window

At absolutely no risk of overstatement I can say to all of us dwellers in our urban village who stroll the enclave of the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer (SVF), from 66th to Lexington and then east on 65th can enter a magical world of museum-quality sidewalk art every day of the week.

In the simple act of looking up at this National Historic Landmark Church, they will see a lavish gallery of Charles Jay Connick stained glass art created over more than three decades, beginning from around 1916 when the cornerstone of the Bertram Goodhue structure was laid. The architect imagined fine stained glass windows of the delicacy and refinement of those gracing classic Gothic churches like the iconic Cathedral at Chartres, as the perfect complement to his work in our urban village.

from-the-cancel-to-the-west-wallThe Organ Loft and Great West Window

When Connick was given the commission by the Dominican Prior he was, relatively speaking a “beginner: as his Boston studio was founded in 1913.  But his style was no doubt most attractive to both the Dominican Friars and their architect who would have found the delicacy of his work the perfect counterpoint to the massive Gothic Revival stone walls and tracery. That delicacy was one of Connick’s artistic signatures as was his use of blues that define so many of the windows of SVF. The lofty clerestory windows were placed to create what Connick calls “rivers of light and of color” that illuminate the interior from above. He revisits that theme in his notes and journals as well as his 1937 book Adventures in Light and Color.

dsc_8936_7_8_9_tonemappedThe center of the top of the Reredos 

By juxtaposing blue-dominant and red/gold-dominant windows he hoped to balance the effects of direct and indirect sunlight that occurred at different times of the day. What he learned at Chartres and elsewhere was the technique of painting on clear glass to achieve the subtle effects often lost in windows that are more opaque.

The decades-long collaboration of the Priors of SVF, the architect, and Connick is a story of respectful cooperation.  Some of the correspondence found in the Charles J. Connick Stained Glass Foundation Collection at MIT Libraries preserve exchanges like the one in which Connick comments on books about the Dominican Saint Albert the Great that the Prior had sent him and which fueled the creative vision embodied in the window that portrays that saint.

st-alber-the-great-windowSt. Albert the Great Window

A majority of the Clerestory windows feature saints set in the context of their contemporaries, their mentors and historic figures that influenced their lives and ministries.  They summarize the Order’s 800-year history and its relationship with New York. One of the surprises from history is a portrayal of Napoleon Bonaparte linked to the negative impact of the Napoleonic Wars that blocked the access of Bishop Luke Concannon who had been consecrated Bishop of New York, but who died before he could reach his see due to the blockade of the Port of Naples dictated by Napoleon. There is also the presence of the philosopher Aristotle (he’s the one with a green halo, versus the gold adorning angels and saints) as a figure in a window honoring the St. Albert the Great, teacher of St. Thomas Aquinas, whose philosophy and theology were strongly influenced by Aristotelian thought.

aristotle-window2Aristotle from St. Albert the Great Window (detail) 

The Catherine of Siena window honors the 14th Century Saint, who was a lay member of the Third Order of the Dominicans. She was philosopher, theologian, mystic, Saint, minister to the sick and skilled diplomat who succeeded in healing the breach in the Papacy that ended when she persuaded Gregory XI to return from Avignon to Rome. She did not hesitate to serve plague victims which made her a saintly icon of healers.  Long after her death at age 33, the strong, compassionate woman was declared a Doctor of the Church, Patroness of Italy and Europe. She is surrounded in the Connick window at CSVF with Saints like Agnes of Montepulciano, Catherine of Siena’s early 14th Century inspiration, and to her right, the 16th Century Catherine de Ricci, showing three centuries of visionary women, from mystical to diplomatic.

st-catherine-of-siena-windowSt. Catherine of Siena Window

st-agnes-of-montepulcianoSt. Agnes of Montepulciano from St. Catherine of Siena Window (detail)

Subjects of other of the major stained glass Clerestory windows range from patron of lawyers, St. Raymond of Pennafort; missionary to South America, St. Louis Bertrand; Saint Antoninus, symbolizing the Order’s relationship to art and architecture and champion of social justice issues such as the need for a living wage.

Two of the masterpieces of SVF’s world of stained glass art create the east and west boundaries of the nave’s pantheon of Dominican Saints. The Great West Window facing Lexington Avenue is a classic Rose Window whose theme is “the whole company of Heaven and all the powers therein.”  It depicts the nine choirs of angels and illustrates the relationship of great Dominican saints to the distinctive spiritual powers symbolized by each of the Angelic choirs.

center-aisle-toward-great-western-windowCenter Aisle toward Great West Window

The recently restored Great East Window is centered on the Return of Christ to Earth as a symbol of birth into new life. The major window of Saint Dominic stands at the head of the Friar’s Chapel, a replica of the Medieval choir, and setting for the daily communal prayer of the resident Friars. It is one of the most recently completed portions of the Church. Each smaller lancet, each smaller window punctuating the walls in a series of side chapels honoring patrons including St. Patrick, and others and portraying such Scriptural events as the Visitation of her older cousin Elizabeth by her young relative, the Virgin Mary. Each one of every size honors a Mystery of faith or saintly inspiration.

western-rose-window-detailGreat West Window detail

Medieval Cathedral exteriors, and especially their stained glass windows, functioned as “sermons in stone and glass,” especially for the many faithful who were illiterate.  The striking number of Connick windows in St. Vincent Ferrer’s French Gothic Revival structure make it a preeminent example Connick’s creativity, and one the three principal examples of his artistry in New York City. It is unusual to have such an abundance of the work of the master and his studio in a single location.

The large East Rose Window of St. Patrick’s Cathedral is one of the 14 of that Cathedral’s 94 windows designed and executed by Connick and his studio. Arthur Femenella, Sr. notes that that work was completed by Connick’s studio after his death in 1945. The third of New York City’s major examples of Connick’s artistry are to be seen at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Both its Greater and Lesser Rose Windows, Clerestory Level Windows, windows in the Arts Bay, and the Saint Martin Chapel are of Connick Design.  SVF and Saint Catherine of Siena Music Director James Wetzel reports that the Connick stained glass dates from around the first half of the 20th Century.

five-lancets-from-the-great-west-windowFive Lancets from the Great West Window

The glory of Connick’s artistry is unquestionable.  It is easy to understand why Connick ranks in a trio of masters along with Louis Comfort Tiffany and John La Farge.  His human and humane qualities are equally noteworthy. These include the fact that upon his death in 1945 he directed that his studios pass to the craftsmen who worked there with him in what he described as “only incidentally a business.”  They continued creating in his style and spirit as Charles J. Connick Associates, until 1986. A charming video documentary chronicling the Last Window shows an elderly craftsman narrating to a young woman, the steps involved in the restoration of a Connick window. The nearly two-year work of restoration of SVF’s Great East window with its central figure of Christ’s return in glory, demonstrated that the same painstaking skills of the 13th and 14th Centuries are being kept alive today.

the-top-of-the-reredos-and-the-great-east-windowGreat East Window, the “Window of the Last Judgement”

Before the closing of the Connick Studio in Boston, the craftsmen agreed to donate most of the studio records, working drawings and related materials to the Fine Arts Department of the Boston Public Library. The Connick Foundation works with Boston Public Library and Rotch Library at MIT to “conserve, maintain and enhance” the art form Connick and his colleagues developed.

For residents and visitors to the extensive Connick creations in our urban village surrounding SVF the voyage of discovery begins simply by looking up.

We would like to offer special thanks to the generous spirits who lent glorious images and insight into Connick’s masterpieces. Photographer Brian M. Kuttner is a retired general dentist from Millville, NJ, whose hobby is shooting famous architectural and historic sites, on the National Register of Historic Places.  He has created a portfolio of images documenting Connick’s works at the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer used in this story. On Facebook, readers can find his chronicles of its exterior, its side and auxiliary chapels, facades, and many other works of sacred and decorative art.  The pastor of Saint Vincent Ferrer, Very Rev. Walter Wagner, OP was most generous with his kind assistance and unparalleled knowledge, interpreting the scores of Connick’s works at CSVF; thank you to Arthur Femenella, Sr. President of Femenella Associates for his insight into Connick’s works at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and to James Wetzel for similar insight into the Connick works at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine.