GLOUCESTER — Landmarks aren’t always those that evoke warm, happy memories. Sometimes they are the places that hold a complex history of struggle, strife, and some of the darker moments that pockmarked the legacy of a storied place.
In a thicket of black walnut trees at the end of a gravel road sits one such example of this in the form of Rosewell Plantation. With a carcass made of columns of red bricks reaching into the sky, this effigy to the complex dynamic of Virginia’s history from its founding to the present day leaves a stain upon the minds of those who visit what is left on these grounds.
This is one of those places where you simply need to pause and reflect upon the history… the people… that used to be here.
Opulence Born in Williamsburg
If the family name, “Page,” sounds familiar to historians and Historic Triangle residents, there is a reason for that.
In the mid-seventeenth century, Colonel John Page emigrated from England to the New World. Settling in the Williamsburg area, he was a man of great wealth. Working as a prominent figure in the slave trade for the Royal African Company, Col. Page owned a considerable amount of land in and around the Historic Triangle.
In fact, he is credited with giving a plot of his land to Bruton Parish Church after its 1674 establishment.
When Col. Page died at Warren Mill in James City County on January 23, 1692 at the age of 63, he was buried at the church.
His progeny went on to have children, one of which was Mann Page I. A boy born with a silver spoon in his mouth and a first name for his mother’s maiden, Mann Page I was raised on the grounds of Rosewell in Gloucester, envisioning the opulence that could exist at this tranquil spot on the York River.
From Vision to Reality
What Mann Page I wanted was a home that would not only rival country estates in England, but the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg. He was determined to not only assert his claim over his inherited land, but to leave a lasting impression on other influencers who moved in his same circles. He was so wrapped up in appearances that he didn’t care the financial cost of exuding stature.
When Mann Page I did not live to see his home come to fruition, his son, Mann Page II, who inherited the family land following his father’s death, saw to the completion of his father’s vision. And that end result must have been breathtaking.
At the time, the Rosewell Plantation house was the largest of its kind in the British American colonies. The three story red-brick building’s exterior aesthetic was Federal-style with large windows capped by keystones and two cupolas perched atop its flat, lead-tiled roof. These features sent a tacit message to those who saw the home as they were not generally included in architecture other than government buildings.
The interior included thirty-three rooms and 17 fireplaces. There were panels of imported black walnut, marble floors and mantel pieces, with a grand staircase as the focal upon entering the home. What was further impressive was the partially in-ground, “three-quarter height” basement.
The family’s tobacco fields (a crop that was the primary cash flow for the Page family) and home were manned by at least 100 slaves at any given time; creating the Page’s wealth on the backs of those held in the bonds of chattel slavery.
Despite the façade put on by the Page family, this monument to their power bankrupt them as it was not completed until around the period in which the tobacco trade began to dry up. He began selling off parcels of the family’s 27,000-acre property.
Like most things, the façade remained and was passed down to the subsequent generation.
Mann Page II’s son, John, lived in the legacy of his father’s and grandfather’s decadence. He was a contemporary and classmate of Thomas Jefferson at William & Mary, where they spent their days pondering the quandaries of the universe. Historians have surmised that Jefferson may have visited John Page at his family’s Gloucester plantation.
The American Revolution
When the cause of liberty came knocking at Rosewell’s door, John Page answered.
Like many of his counterparts, he sunk the family’s money into the Virginia Militia; funding his way into the Commonwealth’s history.
Following the war, Page went on to become a three-term governor of the newly-minted Commonwealth of Virginia. During his governorship, he moved his family to their Dinwiddie County plantation, Mansfield, and never again did a Page darken the doorstep of Rosewell
Between 1808 and 1838, Rosewell remained vacant as its once lavish gardens became overgrown and its iconic stature in early Virginia wealth pushed to the wayside.
A New Era for Rosewell
The year 1838 marked the end of the Page-era of Rosewell’s life. That same year, a man named Thomas Booth purchased the property for $12,000. Nicknamed the “biggest vandal in America,” Booth stripped the home of its lavish marble, black walnut, lead roof, and gorgeous cupolas; selling off anything that could be considered of value.
He then raised the flat roof and added a widow’s watch; a style more in keeping with the architecture of the Antebellum age.
Finally, he sold off the property and turned a tidy sum on his investment.
The plantation and house then passed through several different owners.
During the Civil War, Rosewell was left relatively unscathed by the war that surrounded it. In 1864, Mary Virginia Deans Mayer wrote a letter to her sister, Anna Smith, about her experience with Union soldiers raiding the house in search of provisions but left after acquiring what they needed.
Following emancipation, many of the slaves whose families worked the grounds for generations remained at Rosewell, earning a very low wage to keep working the fields.
For them, this grand monument to eighteenth century grandeur did not represent the fantasy of power and wealth that Mann Page I intended, but of the hell in which an untold number of Black Americans endured on those grounds.
“Let it Burn”
On the evening of March 24, 1916, historians believe that stray embers from a fire that burned in one of the home’s many fireplaces lit a spark that led to the torching of the Rosewell house.
The Taylor family, who owned and occupied the home, managed to escape unharmed as neighbors rushed to the house in a futile attempt to quell the blaze.
Nearby, James Andrew Carter, who was descended from the slaves that once worked the grounds of Rosewell, looked on from across the creek. He watched the orange and red flames dance against the night sky. When one neighbor asked him if he would render assistance, all he could utter was, “Let it burn.”
The Taylor family lost all that they had in the fire and subsequently abandoned the property, leaving the house a literal shell of what it once was.
To add to the ruin left in the wake of the fire and its subsequent abandonment, the unexpected explosion at the Yorktown Mine Depot in 1943 crumbled more of the home’s fragile structure to the ground, leaving just a vague reflection of what Rosewell once was.
A Landmark Lost
In the years that have followed, a romantic interest in this somewhat lost landmark has remained.
The graves of the Page family were moved to the cemetery of nearby Abingdon Episcopal Church, though a stone was placed where the family’s not-so-final resting place was.
However, there are countless unmarked graves of slaves whose names we may never know that fill the property, in the ground the toiled and bled in. These are the stories that are mostly lost to the ages; leaving just the idyllic story of a rich family, and not that of those who were forced to make that fortune come to be.
In 1979, the Taylor family donated the grounds to the Gloucester Historical Society. When the society received an estimate to rebuild the historic home, the $5,000,000 price tag was well outside its reach. Instead, the society ultimately decided to preserve what it could to tell as much of the full story of Rosewell as possible.
As teams began removing overgrowth from the two and a half century old structure, it started to crumble around them. The vines were most of what was holding together what was left of Mann Page I’s fantasy.
The original foundations of the property’s workhouses were discovered, marked and archaeology performed to learn more about the lives that passed through this place.
Today, The Friends of Rosewell and the Rosewell Foundation work to preserve this often-overlooked connection to Virginia’s past. A small visitors center has artifacts on display and docents ready to share the history that was made just a short distance from the building.
And in that short distance stands the forlorn structure that looms over the property. This was a place that was paid for on the backs of slaves who worked the tobacco fields, stood witness to the birth of America, was gutted by fire, knocked to the ground by a nearby explosion, and remained a symbol of oppression from an era before emancipation.
What these tall chimneys, crumbling window frames, and broken stairs represent is the complicated history of not only Gloucester, but of all of America in the juxtaposition between looking at the past through their eyes, and those of ours today.
If you would like to see this Landmark Lost for yourself, you can visit the Rosewell Visitors Center, located at 5113 Old Rosewell Plantation Road in Gloucester, Tuesdays-Saturdays 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and Sundays 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. It must be noted that the visitors center is undergoing renovation and for those who plan to visit should call (804)693-2585 to make sure that it is open during renovations.
Please visit the foundation’s website for more information regarding admission and hours.