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Must-See RVA! — Second Brockenbrough House

A look into the history of Richmond places that are still part of our landscape.



AKA, White House of the Confederacy
1201 East Clay Street
Built, 1816-1818
Architect, Robert Mills?
VDHR 127-0115

What once ye were, so shall ye be all thy days.

[HOR] — note the cupola on the roof, which has since been removed

Six years after Dr. Brockenbrough had built his mansion at Clay and Eleventh Streets, he bought from Hall Neilson another halfacre lot, only a block away, and before the end of 1816 had begun another large house. The coming of Robert Mills to Richmond as architect of the Monumental Church, and the beauty of the house he had designed for John Wickham diagonally across from Dr. Brockenbrough’s earlier one was probably what inspired the new house. 1816 was a boom year, and the lot alone cost $10,000.

The following year Brockenbrough added another lot to the east, on what is now only a very steep hillside. The ravine between Church and Shockoe Hills, then unspoiled by railroad tracks, no doubt seemed a more commanding location than the one he had chosen for his former house. In 1818 the new house was not yet finished, but the chief work on it was done that year, as is evident from two insurance policies taken out at that time. It is first insured for $7000 and later in the year for $20,000.

October 2018 — eastern facade

Though not yet occupied, the house was obviously nearly complete when this second policy was secured, consequently it is interesting to compare it with the present house. The dimensions are 67 by 52 feet, the walls are brick, plastered outside, the roof of slate. Both the small front porch and the big back portico show in the drawing. The chief difference is in the height—the house is described in 1818 as having 2½ stories. The half-story would be the high basement. Parapet walls all round is another detail that does not correspond with the present house.

(Find A Grave) — Dr. John Brockenbrough

Dr. John Brockenbrough, who had become, after the death of Abraham Venable in the Theatre Fire, President of the Bank of Virginia, was one of the leading politicians, citizens, and gentlemen of his day. On the jury for the trial of Aaron Burr he had made the acquaintance of John Randolph of Roanoke, and they became the closest of friends. Randolph visited Brockenbrough again and again in both of the latter’s homes. Of Brockenbrough, Randolph wrote a friend, That gentleman stands A1 among men, and said of him to another, He is not as other men are.

(Find A Grave) — John Randolph

Randolph was no less devoted to Gabriella Harvie Brockenbrough, who had first been married to Thomas Mann Randolph of Tuckahoe. John Randolph said of her, There is a mind of a very high order: well improved and manners that a queen might envy. Blennerhassett called her the nearest approach in this town to a savante and bel esprit. It was no doubt Mrs. Brockenbrough who laid out the now vanished garden on the slope of the ravine. John Randolph said that most gracious and amiable friend excelled in gardening and in all the domestic arts that give its highest value to the female character.

(Find A Grave) — James A. Seddon

In 1844 Dr. Brockenbrough sold the house for $20,000 to James M. Morson, himself retiring to his property at Warm Springs, where he died. Morson only owned the Brockenbrough house a year. In 1845 he sold it to his wife’s sister, one of the two beautiful Bruce girls, who shortly afterwards married James A. Seddon. It was probably during the Seddons’ ownership that the third story was added.

When Morson left the Brockenbrough house, he moved to Dover in Goochland County. In 1857 his brother-in-law James A. Seddon likewise sold the house in town and moved to Sabot Hill near Dover. Seddon subsequently had an important part in the Confederacy, being one of Virginia’s representatives at the Peace Congress in January, 1861, and later Secretary of War of the Confederate States. The Brockenbrough house was purchased by Lewis D. Crenshaw, who remained there until June 1, 1861, when he sold it to the City for $35,000.

(Mississippi Encyclopedia) — Jefferson Davis & Varina Howell Davis

The City had intended to offer the use of the house to President Davis, but he refused to accept this, and the Confederate Government rented the house from the City for a presidential residence. As soon as the house and the furniture which the City had bought were ready, the Davises moved in, and there they lived until April 2, 1865 when the President and government officials fled from Richmond. The chief events that took place in the house while it was the White House of the Confederacy were the birth of Varina Anne (Winnie) Davis, the baptism of the President by Dr. Minnigerode of St. Paul’s, the tragic death of little Joe, not yet five, who fell from the back porch on April 30, 1864 and was instantly killed, the marriage of Jefferson Davis’s sister to Captain William Waller, and an attempt, fortunately frustrated, by some of the servants to burn the house, in January, 1864.

(LOC) — illustration of President Lincoln visiting the late residence of Jefferson Davis — Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 29 April 1865 — sketch by Joseph Becker — note the missing cupola

On April 2, 1865 President Davis and the government officials fled from Richmond. The conquerors took immediate possession of the former executive mansion; General Weitzel is even said to have breakfasted on the fare provided for the President. During the visit of a few hours that Lincoln paid to the city on the day Richmond was occupied, a reception was held, chiefly of Union officers, in the late White House of the Confederacy.

(LOC) — Beers Illustrated Atlas of the Cities of Richmond & Manchester, 1877— Plate G — showing the full extent of the property

Seized by the United States Government, the Mansion was held until 1870, when it was returned to the City. Having barely escaped being turned over to the Freedman’s Bureau to be used as a Negro Normal School, it was in 1871 made into a public school, called Central School, and continued to be so used until 1890. In a recent letter to the News Leader, a former pupil has vividly described his boyhood there and the adaptation of the house and the many outbuildings then standing to the uses of a public school.

The A. B. C. class was located in the former kitchen, east of the mansion. The girls’ playground was in the garden that Mrs. Brockenbrough and Mrs. Davis had loved. The janitors, Henry and Paul, lived in the former slaves’ quarters. The writer recalls the large trees: Among them were two 150-year old horse chestnuts, a live oak and an English walnut. There were also stables, and the place was surrounded by a ten-foot brick wall.

(Find A Grave) — Colonel John B. Cary

In November 1889 a movement to tear down the former White House as no longer suitable for a school was initiated in the City School Board. Fortunately a sufficient number of citizens were opposed to this to prevent the same fate that later overtook the Van Lew house. On December 9, 1890 Colonel John B. Cary offered a resolution in the Board of Aldermen that an appropriation for a new school be made and that the White House be turned over to the Confederate Memorial Literary Society for use as a museum as soon as the new school was ready.

October 2018 — iron stairs leading from the rear portico

On June 3, 1894 (Davis’s birthday) this transfer formally took place. Under the supervision of Henry C. Baskerville, architect, the house was repaired and fire-proofed. In every particular the old house in its entirety was preserved, the woodwork [replaced by iron] being used for souvenirs. On February 22, 1896 it was opened to the public as the Confederate Museum with ceremonies appropriate to such an occasion.

October 2018

Of the half-dozen Richmond houses that have been attributed to Robert Mills, the second Brockenbrough house is the only one in which any proof of his authorship has thus far been found. Mr. Kimball has seen a letter from Dr. Brockenbrough to the architect which he considers establishes the fact. It is interesting to compare this house with the Wickham house, always attributed to Mills. Without the third story the proportions would be similar, low and broad. The fact that both are stuccoed has little significance, since we are not sure the Wickharn house originally was stuccoed.

October 2018 — front door transom

Concrete resemblances are the triple windows (though these have not the recessed arches of the Wickham house) and, on the inside, the elliptical entrance-hall, the niches both there and on the steps, and the stairway itself. This last is a smaller adaptation of the striking palette stair of the Wickham house. Tucked away in the hall on the right, it is not a feature of the architecture as that of John Wickham’s house is, but perhaps Mrs. Brockenbrough demanded the extra service stair which balances it on the left.

(VDHR) — 1975 nomination photo

The three chief rooms across the garden side follow the same arrangement as those of the Wickham house, with the advantage of better lighting, since the portico is two stories high. Perhaps the high portico was Dr. Brockenbrough’s own amendment, as he had built a similar one on his first house. This is certainly the most magnificent garden-front portico in Richmond, and, with the elliptical one on the Archer Anderson house (1815) set a fashion that did not exhaust itself until the late 1840’s.

October 2018 — portico window detail

The woodwork and plaster cornices of this house are less delicate than those of the Wickham house, but the central room with its hold ceiling and folding doors to match is very effective. From the point of view of one studying its architecture, the White House of the Confederacy is in very unsatisfactory condition, the rooms being filled almost to the ceiling with Confederate relics.

October 2018 — garden portico today

The process of fire-proofing involved concrete floors, and the mantels have all been changed long ago from the originals. In spite of these drawbacks it is a magnificent building, and it is earnestly to be hoped that some day the relics may be moved to a more nondescript setting and Dr. Brockenbrough’s mansion restored to its former charm. [HOR]

October 2018 — horse-head hitching post

It’s unfortunate that this otherwise innocent house should suffer guilt-by-association, but then you could argue that same stain of guilt is all that has kept it from being demolished by VCU.

Even though the connection with the Confederacy was brief, worshippers of The Lost Cause ensured that this house would never be thought of differently. Mary Wingfield Scott’s quip about the Van Lew House (as well as her racist aside on the Freedman’s Bureau) underscores the point: it was okay to tear down the home of a northern sympathizer, but never the crib of Jeff Davis.

Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy. You may not like it (are citizens of Kraków happy that Auschwitz is in their backyard?), but it happened here, and the Confederate White House is at least a reminder of the awful things that went down. Go see it if you get the chance. Besides, it’s not a heroic bronze statue, it’s a marvel of architecture, and Abe Lincoln was there, so focus on that.

(Second Brockenbrough House is part of the Atlas RVA Project)


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