Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Spirited People I Have Known Dept.

2306 East Grace Street, 2003

During the early 1970s I became very interested in architectural history and had the chance one summer to study with one of the leading experts on Virginia architectural history. Our time was split between classroom lectures and tours of some of the state's great historic structures. Because of the good name of the professor, our small class gained entry into private homes and properties that were never open to the public.

At Scotchtown, in Hanover County, we were introduced to the keepers of the house, a wonderfully eccentric and outspoken couple. The husband was a well-known physicist and academic who had worked on the Manhattan Project, later shared a cubicle with William Faulkner at the University of Virginia and was given to wearing stylish ascots and hats, even in the humid Virginia summer. The wife was an opera singer and historian. Together they had successfully fought to protect this historic structure, once home to Patrick “Give me liberty or give me death” Henry, from demolition.

I found the couple cordial, knowledgeable and enthusiastic about their work. They were also wonderfully irreverent and, as such, great fun to be with. You didn’t have to be around them long to recognize that they were the kind of larger-than-life personalities who could cause headaches in the staid society world of Richmond in those days.

During the 1960s, they’d been influential in the preservation and restoration of structures on Richmond’s Church Hill. Back then, homes that had been restored were rented to preservation advocates before being put on the market for sale. This couple rented the house shown above for several years before their outspoken style became too much for the conservative wags at the nonprofit that oversaw the restoration to take.

The couple was asked to vacate the house. They were initially insulted. There was talk of a movement to prevent their eviction. Then they decided to have a good laugh over it and move on rather than attract negative attention to the restoration project. But before they left, they sent out invitations in the style of black-bordered death notices to an eviction party at the home. By all accounts it was a rollicking affair, attended by friends and foes alike, and talked about for many years thereafter.

I lost track of the couple when we moved from Richmond in 1983. In checking up recently to see whatever had happened to them, I learned that after the wife died in 2008, the ailing husband’s doctor suggested that he hire a live-in nurse to look after him. He did, and much to the consternation of the nephew who assumed that he would inherit a comfortable fortune from his childless uncle, the old physicist adopted the 63 year-old nurse a few months before he died and left his entire estate of nearly $2 million to her.

I bet he laughed all the way to the grave.


  1. Wow! What a story. Well, he did what he wanted, and that's as it should be, in my opinion! What a great house. I'd love to have seen inside that one. (I have to smile, because the rounded portion of the building reminds me of the Charleston historic "bosom house," given that moniker for the same reason, only I believe two sides of that house make it even more appropriate. Haaaa!)

  2. Eerie. I was just reading about Scotchtown last night, before drifting off to sleep.

    Great story -- but how did a physicist end up in a cubicle near Faulkner? That might explain either Faulkner's style, or 1950s nuclear politics, or both! There's a dissertation in that nugget, or at least a good yarn!