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Simple farmhouse turned Italianate villa became home for college

Simple farmhouse turned Italianate villa became home for college

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Somewhat hidden by the massive boxwood circle encompassing its front lawn sits the buttery yellow Sweet Briar house, one of the first Italianate-style villas constructed in Virginia.

This home carries with it a multitude of histories — architecturally as a humble farmhouse turned extravagant villa; historically as the foundation of a women’s college; and culturally as an example of how a segment of genteel Virginia society lived.

Despite its lofty past, Sweet Briar College President Meredith Woo said the house feels comfortable and welcoming.

“It’s a great honor to live in the house,” she said. “I think what is extraordinary about the house is how livable it is. There is a feel to the house that is enormously protective and comforting and generous. It is a very big house but even when I’m there by myself I don’t ever feel the house is too big or the space is too large or that it can get lonely or forbidding. It’s a very cozy and comfortable house.”

S. Allen Chambers, author of the book, “Lynchburg: An Architectural History, wrote the house is a prime example of the Italianate style, quoting the college’s third president, Dr. Meta Glass, in the feeling the house inspires.

“‘She is a rather noble home and a friendly house. She has gathered her gardens about her in a satisfying and an inviting way. … He would be a bold and indifferent one who did not agree to its beauty and charm,’” Chambers wrote.

The original house was built in about 1790 by Joseph Crews. Known as Locust Ridge, it was a two-story, six-room farmhouse constructed of red brick, according to literature from the college.

Elijah Fletcher, a school teacher from Vermont, purchased 1,000-acre Locust Ridge with his bride, Maria Antoinette Crawford in December 1830 for $7,000. The couple had four children — Indiana, Elizabeth, Sydney and Lucien.

“It was bought, in part, with the intention of being used as a summer place, and as late as 1846, Fletcher still planned to ‘make a genteel home in Lynchburg for a centre and then our rural establishment we will make and adorn as becomes simple rural establishments,’” Chambers wrote. “Even then, however, there were plans to improve and modernize the house.”

In April 1851, Elijah Fletcher wrote to his brother, Calvin, that construction had begun on the two towers framing the original central portion of the house, saying, “This is a project of my daughters, and as I rarely deny to gratify any of their desires, have consented to this,” Chambers quotes in his book.

The additions were completed in 1852, transforming the old farmhouse into a home inspired by the Fletcher family’s extensive travels.

“His daughters — Indiana was then twenty-three and Elizabeth, twenty — spent the entire summer at Sweet Briar, ‘wishing to stay and superintend their building in which they take much interest and about which I permit them to exercise their own taste,’” Chambers quoted from Fletcher’s letter.

“...Their superintendency must have been a relief to Elijah, who in the same letter admitted that he had ‘never done much in the building way, always finding it better to buy a house than to build one.’”

In a letter dated Nov. 7, 1852, Fletcher told his brother the plaster work was completed, the hearths and mantels installed and the painters and paperhangers began their work, Chambers wrote. Furniture ordered in New York and Philadelphia had begun to arrive.

“The house that emerged after the renovations is one of the most charming country villas anywhere in Virginia,” Chambers wrote. “Elijah was, however, a master of understatement in continually referring only to the addition of the towers to the house. The work also included the handsome, two-story arcaded portico centered between them, which was connected to their bases by one-story extensions.”

Chambers wrote the Federal-style origins of the house weren’t disguised entirely by the Italianate construction. The doorways with arched fanlights on the first and second floor were left unchanged, and may, “have been part of the inspiration for the handsome arcades of the portico, which frame them and repeat their curves.”

The cornice caps of the towers likely followed the lines of the original house, Chambers wrote.

“Had there been no existing work to follow, the towers would undoubtedly have sported the more unusual bracketed cornices of the Italianate style,” Chambers wrote. “The towers at Sweet Briar house are studiously asymmetrical — almost to the point of absurdity. Although equal in height, depth and width and covered in identical roofs, each has a different fenestration [the arrangement of windows and doors]. As originally planned, however, the towers were to have been far more individual and more in accord with the Italianate fondness for irregularity.”

Elijah Fletcher served as Lynchburg’s mayor for two terms in the early 1830s, published The Virginian newspaper and was a founding member of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. He died in 1857; Maria Antoinette Crawford Fletcher died five years before her husband.

The Italianate villa passed to their daughters, though Indiana employed her uncle’s help in taking over her sister’s portion of the property. At that point, the Fletcher estate encompassed 8,000 acres.

“Indiana operated the plantation as a single woman,” said Mary Pope Hutson, vice president of alumnae relations, communications and development for the college. “She got married after the Civil War ended in 1865 to a New York clergyman by the name of James Henry Williams.”

Their only child, daughter Maria Georgiana Williams, known as Daisy, was born in 1867. Daisy died at age 16 and is buried in the campus cemetery with her family.

A savvy investor, Indiana Fletcher Williams left an 8,000-acre estate worth more than $1 million when she died in 1899. Her will dictated her estate would be used for the education of young women.

The centerpiece of the Fletcher plantation became the heart of the college built out of a devotion to education in remembrance of her lost daughter.

By 1901, Gothic architect Ralph Adams Cram was commissioned to build the campus.

“Cram, a dedicated Gothic architecture proponent, bowed to Virginia’s traditions and designed the buildings in an English Renaissance style, stating that ‘history, tradition and architectural style predetermined the course to follow,’” wrote Travis McDonald, director of architectural restoration at Poplar Forest, in an opinion piece published in The News & Advance on what could be lost had the college closed five years ago. Instead a concerted effort from the college community, alumnae and supporters resurrected the school.

Cram’s firm designed more than a dozen buildings and his work led to a collection of Colonial Revival architecture in Lynchburg, McDonald wrote.

John McBryde, a founding board member for the college, explained his vision in 1901 that “every spot, every object should make its aesthetic appeal, for attractive surroundings and artistic buildings have a profound and lasting influence on the hearts and minds of young girls just emerging into womanhood,” McDonald quoted.

“This physical legacy is nationally significant because people believed in ‘dreams’ and paid for the highest quality. The ‘reality’ now, and in the future, is that this site and its buildings are an important landmark of national significance that deserve as much thoughtful and careful planning for its use as that which went into its creation,” McDonald wrote.

In the initial years of the college, the Sweet Briar mansion was home to faculty, a post office, an infirmary and the college’s administrative offices. Sweet Briar College’s first president, Miss Mary K. Benedict called it home. Dalton suspects all 13 college presidents have lived there.

In 1927, a fire severely damaged the central portion of the house. Photographs guided the home’s restoration and much of the original furnishings were saved — among them, the $1,000 harp Indiana and Elizabeth purchased in London in 1846.

The second floor now serves as Woo’s personal quarters. The first floor is used as a celebration of sorts of the college’s heritage and as a living laboratory. Woo opens one room with its own bathroom for classes and the first floor, with its two parlors, a dining room, a music room and Woo’s personal library, plays host to a number of campus community events.

Many of the rooms contain original furnishings from the Fletchers, or give nod to the family — pieces such as the two mahogany sofas with their peacock-patterned fabric. Indiana was known to keep birds at her estate.

“It tells a lot of how certain strata of society in Virginia lived,” Woo said. “The house is decorated, really, with the furniture that has survived and was inherited from the original founding family. I have one room which we call the east room that looks out of the garden. The view from the east room is great.”

Pieces from the college’s 4,000-work art collection are displayed along its walls, such as Jaune Quick-to-See Smith’s 1989 work, “Racism: Bones of Color,” which hangs above the fireplace in the music room. The room used to be known as the middle parlor until Woo brought her baby grand piano.

“I like every part of the house,” Woo said. “I have a very spacious library, dining room with beautiful wallpaper we put in with a pattern of roses — in the college named Sweet Briar that is the place with the most roses.”

A champagne toast is held on the balcony for graduating seniors and Woo entertains student leaders in the home. One room on the east side with its own bathroom and exterior door serves as a place one can reflect on art.

“The intent from the old days, when you have houses that go to the college officials … is that the homes ought to be open and welcome for students and to be welcoming as well,” Woo said.

The house underwent its first major rehabilitation since 1983 about three years ago, spearheaded by a group of alumnae that included Kathleen Kilpatrick, former director of historic resources for the commonwealth, and the design firm of Glave & Holmes.

“The approach is to continue to rehabilitate the house in the manner not only the Fletchers would have, but to have a balance between the eclectic and grand but also a prudent rehabilitation that was not over the top,” Hutson said.

Plaster work had to be repaired in almost every room downstairs as well as painting and updating wall coverings.

“I am so grateful to them [the alumnae],” Woo said. “It’s a work of love, a labor of love. When something is done through a labor of love, it looks different.”

The gardens surrounding the property have been restored by the Garden Club of Virginia.

“The Garden Club of Virginia has been an incredible partner,” Woo said. “I deeply appreciate their caring for the house and college and supporting our college and landscape.”

A recent project conducted in partnership with Bartlett Tree Service pruned three trees adjacent to the house with limbs threatening the historic home. The company also drafted a three-year plan for the management of plants surrounding the villa.

The Garden Club of Virginia has been involved in restoration efforts of the grounds around the Sweet Briar Mansion since 2008, and their work has helped manage the 389 boxwoods on the property and create the brick turnaround, parking area and overlook, said Betsy Worthington, chairwoman of the Garden Club of Virginia’s restoration committee.

Sweet Briar originally was a working farm, and it’s that agricultural heritage Woo is paying homage to with the several new initiatives, from the vineyard to the pollinator habitats.

“The Sweet Briar House is a landmark — that’s its designation,” Hutson said. “It’s becoming a central pillar of President Woo’s vision for the center for sustainability to protect our natural and built environments and to have that kind of laboratory on campus for students to learn about history preservation and how to carefully steward what you inherit.

“We honor our land and we honor our heritage.”

PHOTOS: Simple farmhouse turned Italianate villa became home for college

Somewhat hidden by the massive boxwood circle encompassing its front lawn sits the buttery yellow Sweet Briar house, one of the first Italianate-style villas constructed in Virginia.

This home carries with it a multitude of histories — architecturally as a humble farmhouse turned Italianate villa; historically as the foundation of a women’s college; and culturally as an example of how a segment of genteel Virginia society lived.

Sidener is the special publications editor for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5539.

Sidener is the special publications editor for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5539.

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