Built c.1811 by Robert Carter Burwell, a descendant of Robert “King” Carter, Long Branch Plantation in Clarke County, Virginia sits in the middle of 400 acres at the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley. The house served as the focal point of a bustling wheat plantation in the antebellum period, and continued to serve as a farm after the Civil War. Having moved through several owners during the 20th century, since the 1990s, Long Branch has been preserved as a historic house museum open to the public.
Robert Carter Burwell inherited an
approximately 1000-acre parcel with a creek called Long Branch running through
it in 1788 and established a wheat plantation on the land. Wheat was a major cash crop – it was ground
and then sent to the coast to be shipped to Europe where it was in high
demand. The plantation also held
livestock including pigs, cattle, sheep, horses, and oxen. Slaves were the majority of the workforce
until the end of the Civil War, when they were freed. Evidence from the 1870 census shows that at
least one family stayed and worked on the farm after the war.
20 years after starting his plantation, Burwell began to build his home. This was designed in the Federal Style,
popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries
throughout Virginia. Burwell
corresponded about the design for his home with architect Benjamin Henry
Latrobe, designer of the US Capitol Building, and upon Latrobe’s suggestion
modified the original plans to include a secondary staircase for slaves and
servants. While there is no evidence
that Latrobe ever visited Long Branch, he certainly influenced the building’s
Burwell’s death in 1813, the house passed to his sister, Sarah, and her husband,
Philip Nelson. The Nelsons did not
occupy the house until 1820, originally choosing to remain in their home at
nearby Rosney, only a few miles from Long Branch. By the 1830s, the house was being used as a
girls school, while Rosney was employed as a boys school. The land continued to function as a wheat
plantation, but there were financial issues which resulted in Philip Nelson
selling Long Branch to his nephew, Hugh Mortimer Nelson, around 1840.
and his wife, Adelaide, oversaw an extensive renovation beginning in 1842,
which saw the character of the house change dramatically from the earlier
Federal Style to Greek Revival. It was
at this point that the impressive hung spiral staircase was added to the house,
along with new interior trim, both porticos, and the belvedere. The patterns for the interior trim were taken
from books by Minard Lafever, an American architect whose designs were
was during this period that the house was in its heyday – the plantation was
very productive as a result of agricultural advances and the Nelsons
entertained numerous guests including author Washington Irving. This period of prosperity came to an end with
the Civil War. Hugh M. Nelson was
wounded and died as a result in 1862, after which the family struggled to
maintain ownership of the house and land.
Despite attempts by creditors to wrest Long Branch away from the
Nelsons, through considered legal wrangling, Adelaide was able to maintain the
family’s ownership of the house and farm, albeit at reduced size. During this period many possessions were also
sold as a result of debts owed and the house was never fully refurnished while
owned by the Nelson family resulting in the house remaining virtually unchanged
from the 1860s through the 1950s.
was in the 1950s that Long Branch left the ownership of the Nelson family. The property was sold in 1957 to Abram and
Dorothy Hewitt, who raised their family and farmed cattle, corn, and alfalfa until
they sold the home in 1978. The Hewitts made
necessary renovations to the house, though few of these were structural
changes, save work done on the building that was originally the summer kitchen,
which served as Abram’s office. After
being sold by the Hewitts, Long Branch went through a series of owners and
speculators, slowly falling into greater disrepair.
going to auction in 1986, the property was bought by Harry Z. Isaacs, a textile
manufacturing executive from Baltimore.
Isaacs completed an extensive remodel of the house, including the
addition of the west wing to make the house appear symmetrical. The house was meant to serve as Isaacs’ residence;
however, he was diagnosed with cancer and died in 1990 having only spent a
handful of nights in the house. The
house was left in the care of the Harry Z. Isaacs Foundation so that it could
be open to and enjoyed by the public. Today,
Long Branch serves as a house museum and special events venue, while the land
is used as a farm for retired horses.