Stratford Hall’s Gretchen Goodell: An Interview

The gracious Gretchen Goodell has thoughtfully cared for the interiors and collections of two of this country’s greatest historic sites: the house where George Washington died and the house where Robert E. Lee was born. Gretchen has her MA in Museum Studies/American Studies from George Washington University. She was the Assistant/Associate Curator of Mount Vernon from 2003-2007 and currently serves as the curator of Stratford Hall and as Adjunct Faculty in the Historic Preservation Dept, University of Mary Washington. Her most recent publication: Entries “Servant Hall” and “Scullery” in World of a Slave:  Encyclopedia of the Material Life of Slaves in the United States, Kym S. Rice and Martha B. Katz-Hyman, editors (December 2010). She and I once had a debate over the use of artificial food in house museums over beers in Old Town Alexandria. But, this blog is family friendly, so I avoided that question in this, the twelfth in a series of house museum stewardship interviews.

Can you give me a day in the life of a Stratford Hall curator?

I am responsible for caring for a wide and varied collection – from fine and decorative arts to paleontological specimens – so there is really no typical day.  Often I find myself responding to public inquiries about objects; researching pieces in the collection for our weekly Facebook “From the Collection” post; dealing with environmental or security issues that turn up in the house or exhibit areas; discussing new exhibits with my colleagues; and keeping our docent staff up on the latest acquisitions or changes in the historic area exhibits.  We are in the planning stages for new exhibit galleries as well as new tours in the house, so many of my long-term tasks center on these areas.

Stratford Hall is one of the great houses of Virginia. What can today’s visitor learn from its history?

Although Stratford Hall is most readily identified as the birthplace of Robert E. Lee, it was also the home of four generations of the Lee family that included royal governors, politicians, proponents of women’s rights, social leaders, and social pariahs.  The Lee family embodies the early history of our country – from colonists to patriots to secessionists.  The house itself, built circa 1738-1745, is an incredible piece of architecture that touches upon English/Scottish country house traditions and embodies the work of over one hundred enslaved workers as well as hired and indentured craftsmen.  Their legacy lives on in the brick H-plan structure, with original c. 1738 woodwork in the Hall and Federal period woodwork in other spaces.  The house also illustrates in places the history of early historic house restoration and the power of the Colonial Revival mentality – Fiske Kimball served as restoration architect for the structure when restored in the 1930s/1940s and his legacy lives on in many of the spaces, as well as the ladies of the Robert E. Lee Memorial Foundation (RELMF), who purchased the property from the Stuart family in 1929.

Our idea of the past is in constant flux.  Can you walk us through the various museum interpretations of the Great Hall, one of the most spectacular historic interiors in America, over the years? 

When first opened to visitors, the Great Hall still contained many of the private collections of the Stuart family, who continued living in the house through the early 1930s.  At that point, the furnishings combined local as well as English antiques from the 18th through early 20th centuries.  Once restored for museum visitors, the furnishings were sparse – the ladies of RELMF were still building a collection through purchase, donation, and loan.  For instance, furnishings included three Chippendale side chairs from Virginia that Robert E. Lee sat on during a visit to a Virginia plantation during the Civil War.  In essence, the Hall was at that point a shrine to the Lee family, as were many of the rooms in the house, and did not have a distinct interpretation.  In the mid-20th century the Hall received a major refurnishing that included red damask furnishing textiles (window hangings, window seat cushions, and upholstery), upholstered couches, and the inclusion of musical instruments.  Much of the furnishings dated to the early/mid-18th century and ran the gamut of English and American high-end antiques.  This is the Great Hall that many remember.  Some of the decisions during this time were made based on documentation, but much was based on current ideas of what “colonial” interiors included.  The interpretation centered on entertaining and music of the gentry in general and focused on the fine and decorative arts then in the collection.  Finally, in the early 21st century, the focus shifted to reflect more fully the early origins of the room and its furnishings, as well as the historic use of the space and the Lee family in particular.  Curators looked to the 1758 inventory for the furnishings plan (which included two tables, twelve chairs, two sofas, and a chandelier) and restored the paint colors of the woodwork to the second layer (c. 1760) of paint.  In essence, it was at this point that a distinct story could be told – the early years of the Lee family and the Hall, when it was utilized for reading (the four book closets held much of Thomas Lee’s library) and entertaining.

What is more important when sharing a historic interior: the authentic relic or a thoughtful recreation?

I really think that is a tough either/or.  Visitors to historic houses in essence are looking for the “authentic” experience – that want to often know what objects are “real” (i.e. belonging to the house/family).  But as we so often do not have original Lee family objects to display, we tend toward the recreation based on historic documentation and our knowledge of common practice in the Virginia gentry.  More recently we are also looking directly to archaeology for some of our best documentation, and using that evidence to procure period or reproduction objects that more fully illustrate the life the Lees and others on the plantation led.  Our current interpretation plan is also striving to be more inclusive of various stories – from politics to religion to race to social and domestic issues – so we look to recreate interiors that tell those more complicated stories through props and creative arrangements.

If you could ask the house one question what would it be?

What did your outside steps look like?  When the house was restored in the 1930s/1940s, massive stone and brick steps were installed at all four sides of the house.  This likely obliterated any remaining archaeological evidence of the original stair configurations and continues to cause maintenance issues for the original brick structure.  Plus, these installations skew our understanding of how the residents of Stratford actually used the house.  We think that the main stair was the front south, while the north stair would have been a balcony over a work yard instead; the east and west were likely either a balcony only or single wooden stair.  Not a very glamorous question, but one that we continue to ask ourselves!

What has been the most exciting discovery during your time there?

While not a discovery, per se, we just completed the first stage of a comprehensive Historic Structure Report (HSR) for the Great House and it has been tremendous in helping us understand the historic appearance and use of the house.  Original plaster that we thought had been obliterated during the 1930s restorations revealed paint colors and closet/wall configurations that would have been hard to discover otherwise.  The HSR preliminary findings are whetting our appetite for future room projects and in-depth architectural investigations.  For my part, in the Parlor they discovered one lone carpet tack with a fiber attached.  That is currently being analyzed and I look forward to hearing the findings.

What did you take away from your recent participation in the Attingham Summer School course?

Seeing all of the remarkable interiors and interpretations during my Attingham coursework really taught me to have fun with interiors.  As a curator of a historic house, my job is not only to care for the objects, but also to use interiors to teach.  My job is nothing without visitors and we need to make our exhibits interesting and relevant.  Ask questions and share the answers (or lack thereof).  Play with historic lighting levels to help visitors more fully understand life in the 18th and early 19th centuries.  Get visitors involved and engaged.  As I mentioned, we are developing a new interpretive plan for the Great House, and my visiting of similar houses in England and Wales really helped broaden my understanding of country house life and gave me new ideas for our future exhibits.

What are the five (plus one database!) essential books in any house museum curator’s library?

At Home:  the American family, 1750-1870 by Elisabeth D. Garrett (1990)

The Festive Tradition: Table Decoration and Desserts in America by Louise Belden (1983)

Textiles in America, 1650-1870 by Florence M. Montgomery (2007)

For my particular site/geography I also rely on:       

Southern Furniture 1680-1830: The Colonial Williamsburg Collection by Ronald L. Hurst and Jonathan Prown (1997)

Back of the Big House:  The Architecture of Plantation Slavery by John Michael Vlach (1993)

 Probing the Past database