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November 23, 2004

Three centuries of architectural history define Peyton Randolph's urban plantation

The architectural history of the Peyton Randolph property begins approximately 60 years before the American Revolution.

Prior to late 1714, the property was owned by the City of Williamsburg, which took possession of land throughout the city when the city was chartered in 1699. William Robertson purchased several lots in 1714 and, in all likelihood, it was Robertson who built the first structures – three dwellings and a kitchen.

John Holloway, a Norfolk entrepreneur, purchased the property from Robertson in 1723. At the time, the four lots comprising the tract contained houses, an orchard and a windmill. Holloway, in turn, sold the property six months later to Peyton’s father, Sir John Randolph -- the only colonial-born Virginian to be distinguished with knighthood. Research indicates that the appearance of the property during the early Williamsburg period reflects a less gracious and affluent arrangement than exhibited in later times.

When the Randolph family acquired the property in 1724 the immediate back lot of the main house -- which became the principal residence -- began to take on the appearance of the “typical” 18th-century dwelling with several support buildings, an appearance that developed until Sir John Randolph’s death in 1737. Construction between 1724 and 1737 included a dairy, a smokehouse and conversion of an earlier building to a kitchen.

After the 1737 death of John Randolph, his wife, Lady Susannah, inherited the property. She retained possession until her death sometime shortly after 1754. It was she, probably with the help of her increasingly-prominent son, Peyton, who expanded the influence of the main house.

Two buildings appear to have been razed during this period and two others, apparently support buildings, constructed. By mid-18th century, the house and grounds are believed to have taken on the appearance of an urban estate with a large kitchen, several service buildings and a tenant house.

In 1755, Peyton Randolph inherited the property upon the death of his mother. As the sole owner of the complex, the prominent Virginian -- who served as the colony’s attorney general, member and Speaker of the House of Burgesses, and president of the 1st and 2nd Continental Congresses -- lived there until his death in 1775. It was during this period that the most dramatic changes occurred, both in the yard and in the main house.

A dendrochronology (tree ring dating) study performed on the midsection of the present house indicated that the timbers for the roof were harvested in 1753. The mid-section addition that connected two existing houses included a new roof line and re-oriented the house from the west, toward the Governor’s Palace, to the south, toward Market Square. The re-orientation of the main house to the south, facing Market Square, reflects a change in the attitude and economy of the town. Market Square, rather than the Governor’s Palace, became the hub of activity in mid-century Williamsburg.

The re-modeling and upgrading of the main house into a grand, if not opulent, dwelling was also reflected in changes made to the exterior service buildings as well. At least one structure was removed and another torn down or dramatically altered. At this time, a grand kitchen appeared with a vaulted wine cellar, a laundry, slave quarters and a covered passageway to the main house. The completed structure was rectangular, twenty feet wide and about forty-eight feet long.

The addition of the mid-section to the house early in this period caused a re-orientation of the backyard as well. A marl walkway, made of a mixture of clay and limestone containing crushed shell, was constructed leading northward from the mid-section, possibly to the end of the lot. At least two outbuildings, one a dairy, were constructed east of the walk.

After Peyton Randolph’s 1775 death in Philadelphia at the 2nd Continental Congress, his wife, Betty, inherited the house and property, which she retained until her death eight years later.

Joseph Hornsby bought the house and property at an auction held after the death of Betty Randolph in 1783. Several minor changes appear to have taken place during his 17 years of ownership. In addition to authorizing several repairs, Hornsby appears to have constructed an additional outbuilding and extended the walkway.

The Peachy family bought the Peyton Randolph House and lots some time around 1800, although the precise date is unknown. They retained the property for approximately 60 years. There is little evidence indicating major changes in the area during the Peachy period. The covered way was probably removed and one of the support buildings also was removed. A dairy was re-built in this period, apparently surviving until the early 20th century. Additionally, the granary underwent some changes during the Peachy occupation.

The house left the possession of the Peachy family about 1860, though the exact date is unknown, marking the beginning of an era of poor economic conditions in Williamsburg from the beginning of the Civil War in 1861 until the beginning of the “Restoration” in the 1920s. Williamsburg was occupied by Union troops during much of the Civil War, and the subsequent years were a time of slow growth. The Peyton Randolph House changed ownership four times before the end of the century, and a 1870s photograph shows the house in poor physical condition.

Several changes to the property took place from 1860 to 1920. The large kitchen was altered and the wine cellar under the kitchen was sealed with a layer of cement, converting it into a cistern for water collection. The last half of the nineteenth century also saw the erection of a water-pumping windmill over the well.

The Warburton family owned the property from 1900 to 1920. An early 20th-century photograph indicates the large kitchen was removed, but also reveals that two 18th-century outbuildings, a smokehouse and a dairy, were still standing in this period, but they and other remaining outbuildings were removed by 1920.

Ownership of the property passed to the Wilson/Ball family early in the 1920s, reflecting the last individual ownership of the Randolph property. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation acquired the Peyton Randolph House in 1938, though a Ball family member continued to live in the main house until 1947.

Radical changes occurred during the first 47 years of foundation ownership through 1985. The main house was fully restored in the early 1940s to its physical appearance during the Peyton Randolph period (1755-1775), and one lost structure was reconstructed to serve as a kitchen for the Ball family while the main house was being restored. A replica of Robertson’s windmill was built in its present location at the back of the property. Colonial Williamsburg had acquired the remainder of the land associated with the Randolph House by the 1960s and two 1920s houses were removed by the early 1970s.

Since its acquisition by Colonial Williamsburg and its use as a public exhibition building rather than a private residence, the Randolph House has ceased becoming part of any individual’s outward manifestation of social standing, self-worth, or idiosyncrasies. But it has continued to change as additional knowledge has accumulated about the property. Dramatic changes that Peyton Randolph would immediately recognize began in 1999 with an extensive interior restoration, a new exterior paint -- Spanish Brown -- that reflected the most recent research and reconstruction of the large kitchen and the covered walkway connection to the residence. In the several years since 1999, historic trades carpenters have reconstructed other outbuildings – a storehouse and a dairy. Late in 2004, the carpenters raised walls for a granary and second storehouse. With completion of Randolph’s “urban plantation,” guests will have a more vivid picture and understanding of life in 18th-century Williamsburg.

Media Contact:
Jim Bradley
(757) 220-7281