Touring Sabine Hall with Ralph Harvard
On August 26, it was an enormous pleasure to visit Sabine Hall, one of Colonial America’s most extraordinary baroque houses, for a Trust Virtual Tour with Ralph Harvard. Landon Carter, an ambitious patriot and politician, built his principle dwelling in 1738 on an escarpment with garden terraces descending towards the Rappahannock River in Virginia. Remaining in the hands of his descendants, Sabine Hall is a well-used and well-savored private family home. We were greeted warmly by the owners and an array of canine supplicants, as well as any number of workmen and masons, as we strolled up the drive.
Sabine Hall was a bold precursor to the sedate Virginia style, reflecting Baroque Europe, rather than Wren’s Britain. Named for Horace’s Sabine Villa outside of Rome, the mansion was built in an adapted Italian taste at a time when colonists were experimenting with various architectural expressions from Continental Europe. The exterior is enriched with muscular Italianate stonework with details taken from from William Salmon’s 1724 pattern-book Palladio Londinensis, a period copy of which we had on hand for reference.
We entered directly into the vast central “hall,” an unabashedly grand paneled saloon 18’ wide by 38’ long. Set to one side is a broad elliptical arch, which frames the splendid flying staircase with its twisted walnut balusters and sweeping rail. The woodwork here is also academically grounded in Salmon’s book. Family portraits, marble busts, fine antiques, and ancient relics ring the room.
We were privileged to peruse a number of early documents in the house, although the George (who slept here) Washington letters are no longer present. An early plat featured the “visto” to the river, and a drawing by Robert Wormley Carter showed his plans for a 19th-century update of the house. Among the most impressive artifacts was a massive mahogany dining table said to have been owned by Robert King Carter, Landon’s father. Made by Peter Scott in Williamsburg circa 1722-30, the table is almost six feet across and still regularly used today.
Carter descendants, who own the extensive property, are currently working to preserve the sumptuous stonework, which was hastening to ruin. Cut along the Rappahannock River, the limestone, or freestone, is often associated with the Aquia Quarries, owned by Landon’s brother Charles, which also supplied the stone for the White House and Capitol. The current owners are lucky to be working with Ray Cannetti, master mason, to replace and repair the stone. 300-year-old houses such as this require constant maintenance, and there are no small jobs with a structure of this importance and scale. It is also time to remove, repair, and re-install the 200-year-old window sash, which replaced the originals about 1825.
Our visit began on the land side with a symphony of hammering and sawing, and some barking. But it ended on the river side, and during the question-and-answer period, the birds were chirping so loudly, they dominated our session! As we chatted among the chirping about history and architecture in the waning afternoon, with the owners on the porch and scaffolding on the house, we realized all was good at Landon Carter’s Sabine Hall, and how lucky we were to be a tiny part of its story.
Watch the recording here:
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Formerly known as the "blog,” the Bulletin features new research and scholarship, travelogues, book reviews, and museum and gallery exhibitions. The Bulletin complements The Magazine of the Decorative Arts Trust, our biannual members publication.