Thursday, September 10, 2015

Throwback Thursday: History of the beautiful Oatlands Historic House and Gardens

This piece about Oatlands Historic House and Gardens was originally posted in June 2014 when I relaunched this blog. Today I'm republishing it as a "Throwback Thursday" post. 

I've been itching to get back to visit this property, was really hoping to go in May or June to see its gorgeous gardens, but unfortunately wasn't able to go. The property is great to visit at other times too. For instance, you can see this wonderful tree!

This is a unique tree located at Oatlands.


Northern Virginia is closely tied to early American history. Across the region many original structures still remain, and are open to the public. Preservationists have done a remarkable job restoring and maintaining a number of properties. Oatlands, located in Leesburg (Loudoun County), is one such property. This plantation highlights 200 years of American history.

Mansion at Oatlands Plantation in Leesburg, Va.
Mansion at Oatlands Plantation in Leesburg, Va.

History of Oatlands

Oatlands plantation was established in 1798 with almost 3,500 acres of prime farming property. Built by George Carter, a young bachelor who had inherited the property, the land grew to become a substantial piece of prosperous property, cashing in wheat crops. Carter was a descendant of one of the first families to come settle in Virginia from abroad. The Carter history in America began in 1649 when John Carter immigrated from Buckinghamshire, England (George Carter was born in 1777, the first of his family to be born in the newly named United States).

Construction of the home began in 1804 and the home was originally designed to be a classic Federal-style mansion, but mid-build was transformed to Greek revival style. It  wasn't finished for many years. Over the decades, Carter expanded his mansion and added the elaborate gardens. In the aftermath of the War of 1812, he turned his attention to business during the recession that commenced, rather than invest in the completion of the house. Although, the house was finally completed in 1835, it is theorized during the build time styles had changed, suggestion this as the reason why the design had changed mid-build.  

The house was designed differently as you can see looking upon the house from the rear

Carter never married until late in life, but in 1835 he wed Elizabeth Grayson Lewis, a widow. The couple went on to have two sons together. After Carter passed away, Elizabeth managed the property, along with her sons. The Civil War took a toll on the family's prosperity, as their wealth had been built using slave labor. After the war, the mansion was used as a girls' boarding school, and later, a bed and breakfast. In 1897, the family let the main property go, selling it to Stilson Hutchins, the founder of the Washington Post. Hutchins never actually lived at Oatlands and sold the property in 1903 to William and Edith Eustis, an affluent couple from Washington, D.C.


Bridging the 19th and 20th Centuries

With the Eustis family buying Oatlands, this bridges the history of the home from the 19th to the 20th century. William was an avid horseman, and his primary motivation to buy Oatlands as a secondary home was to have a base in Virginia where he could be near the social events and fox hunts in the region. His high interest in equestrians is very evident when you tour the house.

Bachelor's cottage at Oatlands, Leesburg, Virginia

Bachelor's cottage on Oatland's property, circa 1820. This building is not open to the public.

In one of the rooms, the connection to U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt is also highlighted. Edith and President Roosevelt had been childhood friends in New York's Hudson Valley, and maintained contact over the decades. This is noted on the tour. The Eustis' are also said to have acted as liaison to opening their Virginia home to Roosevelt meeting his mistress, Lucy Mercer, according to some accounts. The Eustis' restored Oatlands to its former glory, without making many structural changes, and Edith Eustis took it upon her mission to restore the once beautiful gardens. 

Reflecting pool in the gardens at Oatlands Plantation
Reflecting pool built by Edith Eustis in the 1930s

Gardens at Oatlands
The gardens at Oatlands are quite expansive

Gardens at Oatlands

With restoration and ongoing care, the gardens still bloom heartily to this day. After Edith's death in 1964, the couple's two surviving children donated the home, its furnishings and 261 acres to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It was later opened to the public.


Touring the home and gardens

No photos are allowed to be taken of the inside of the home, but during the tour you'll see many period pieces, family paintings and photos that had belonged to both the Carters and Eustis families. The tour guides are informative and can usually answer questions about the home and history of the families. The restoration of Oatlands truly showcases both the 19th and 20th centuries, as parts of the house reflect the Carter era while others are clearly modernized, such as the upstairs bathrooms, showing how the Eustis' lived.

This article only touches upon the intimate and intricate relationships that are likely connected to this home. In early American history, many of the families reflected in the region have several ties that bind them to other prominent families and pieces of history. Today, the property is listed as a National Trust Historic Site and a National Historic Landmark, and, for a fee, tours of the house, property and gardens are open to the public. In addition to the house and gardens, there are other structures on the property where visitors can explore. The gardens, during the spring and summer months, are truly worth spending a lot of time in. 

chauffeur's house at Oatlands
Chauffeur's House at Oatlands. This structure is not open to the public.

greenhouse at Oatlands in Leesburg, Virginia
A glimpse inside part of the historic greenhouse at Oatlands

Smokehouse at Oatlands
Smokehouse at Oatlands

I've taken this tour several times and will likely be returning again.

Former carriage house at Oatlands Plantation.
The former carriage house has been refitted to serve as a welcome center, gift shop and a space where Oatlands holds scheduled teas and other events. Oatlands is open seasonally from March until December 30. You can check the website for current prices, hours of operation and also explore to see what special events are taking place throughout the season.  

Related reading:
Interesting historic grand homes to explore in Northern Virginia

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