wood paneled fireplace arthur lee portrait on top of mantle

In Love with Lansdowne at Christmastime

Sitting within the town of Urbanna, Virginia, Lansdowne is a historic property unlike any other I’ve visited. It’s got it all, folks: the Revolutionary and Civil War stories, the connection to Virginia and national history, the neglect and finally restoration to its beautiful state, and best of all: a love story that will make you believe in the power of true love.

Brick Exterior from 1741

The original farmhouse was built in ~1741 by the Wormeley family not far away from their large plantation on the Rappahannock River called Rosegill. The Wormeley family then sold Lansdowne to a Scottish merchant, who sold it after the American Revolution to Arthur Lee, of the famous Virginia Lee family, for his retirement home. Originally, the current owners believe the house was one-story (no upstairs) with a hallway in the center and a room on either side.

As you can see from the side, the house has been expanded a few times since its original construction.

The first addition was likely built in the 1750s, and the later (siding) addition was added recently by the current owners in 2001. In order for that addition to be in line with the standards set by the National Register of Historic Places, they had to make sure none of the new addition was visible from the road in the front.

A Love Story Through the Ages

Arthur Broadus Gravatt, III, known as AB, is the proud owner of Lansdowne. In 1965, he took his then-girlfriend Diane to visit his family in Kilmarnock, Virginia and lamented to his mom that there was nothing to do to entertain them. His mom suggested taking a “whiskey cruise” from the Tides Inn in Irvington, Virginia across the Rappahannock River over to Urbanna. As AB explained it, this used to be a common weekend ritual for area residents to head to Urbanna to get their whiskey and then bring it in a brown bag that evening to the Tides Inn for the bartender to serve them.

Anyway, AB took Diane to Urbanna and as they strolled around, they came across Lansdowne. No one was living in it at the time. AB’s father had always told him there is always one door unlocked in every house in the state of Virginia, and sure enough, they found a back door unlocked at Lansdowne and gave themselves a little tour. Diane fell in love with everything about the house. Once they left the house, Diane told AB she would marry him, but only if he promised to buy her that house.

AB was in college and just about to attend Officer Candidate School for the U.S. Army, so he was in no position to be purchasing Lansdowne at that point in time, but Diane married him and they settled into their constant moving life as an Army couple. Along their travels, Diane was constantly collecting antiques and storing them for one day when she knew she’d have just the house to display them.

Lansdowne, meanwhile, fell into a state of serious disrepair. The windows were broken. The rain water was coming in through the roof. Local kids roller skated through the first floor. The disintegrating marble mantle in the front living room was in such a bad state that it became almost a contest for kids to break into Lansdowne and steal a piece of the marble.

It took Diane seventeen long years of following up with the owner of Lansdowne to convince them that she and AB should buy it, but ultimately she was successful. In 1998, thirty-two years after promising his girlfriend he would buy it for her, AB made good on that promise. At that point he was retiring from his service as a Colonel in the Army. The house required such renovation that they couldn’t move in for nearly three years. Everything had to be fixed. Finally, though, in 2001, they were able to move in and call Lansdowne their home.

Sadly, Diane passed away in May 2021 but AB keeps her love of Lansdowne alive through the care he puts into their dream home.

Yellow Wainscoting Entryway

Double doors with a beautiful transom greet visitors at the front of the house. The front hallway has the most beautiful original wainscoting going up to the ceiling.

On one side of the front door is a photograph of AB as a young Army officer.

On the other side is a photograph of Diane on their wedding day. AB purchased this grandfather clock in Kilmarnock, Virginia as a surprise for Diane. It originates from Kilmarnock, Scotland and was made in 1741, the same year as Lansdowne.

The view when you walk through the front doors is gasp-worthy. These enormous columns are truly impressive.

They are not original to the 1741 version of the house but were likely added sometime in the nineteenth century, perhaps after the Civil War. The Upton family purchased Lansdowne after the Civil War. A portrait of Elizabeth Faulkner Upton hangs in the living room and memorializes one little story from the Uptons’ years as owners. When Elizabeth’s husband passed away in 1918 and the family become impoverished, she defended Lansdowne from intruders with a shotgun.

Just beyond the columns is the staircase going up. I love the Christmas decorations everywhere. Look how thick that wall is below!

Original Green Living Room

The Williamsburg foundation came to visit Lansdowne and do paint samples to determine what the actual paint color on the walls was in 1741. This is the exact color matched paint: a beautiful colonial green!

There are reflecting mirrors on either side of the living room the were designed to elongate the room. These intricate wood mirrors were taken off of a ship that docked along the Rappahannock and were originally carved in Italy. 

How beautiful is this fireplace! I was impressed that the fireplaces are all able to have real wood burning fires in them. I know from our house how much work it is to get old fireplaces/ chimneys/ flues in working condition.

Pieced Together Marble Mantlepiece

When Diane set to work restoring this old marble mantlepiece, she had over 40 pieces altogether. She consulted with marble mantlepiece experts from all over the country about how to reconstruct this work of art. The best advice she was given was to buy superglue– a lot of it.

In the photo above, a piece was missing until Diane and AB were met by a man who brought it back and confessed he had stolen it from Lansdowne when he was younger. Isn’t that amazing?

I was so impressed with all of the Christmas decorations throughout the house. Diane loved Christmas and made it special for her family, so this Christmas especially her family took the time to decorate the house as she would have liked.

Sitting Room

Across from the green living room is another beautiful wainscoted space: this stunning sitting room.

This mantlepiece has a different style, which I love. It gives each of the rooms such different feelings.

An artist came to stay at Lansdowne to sketch/ paint the house and below is one of his original paintings. This room used to have those green colored walls.

During the Civil War, these bookshelves were able to lock up the family’s prized possessions: their books. Oh, if walls could talk! I would love to hear what these rooms experienced.

Sitting Room Alcove

There are tiny little nooks off of the living room and sitting room going to the side of the house. Diane decorated this one with a tea party all set up for children to play. In addition to their one biological child, Diane and AB fostered over thirteen children throughout the course of their marriage, adopting two as well. This couple is extraordinary in so many ways.

Sturdy Old Staircase

The worn treads on this staircase might make you think it’s wobbly but believe me when I say this is the sturdiest staircase.

I wanted to highlight the paneling and molding on all of the ceilings as well. Isn’t this intricate? I can’t imagine the woodwork time and expertise it must have taken to do every single room like this.

Upstairs Sitting Area

Upon reaching the upstairs landing, there is a large sailboat made by a family friend and old 1741 portion of the house is up two steps to the left while the 1750s and 2002 addition are to the right.

Here is the view up the two steps to the left: the hallway is so wide it is its own living room area.

These double doors going to the second story porch are original to the house. I love that they are pretty short– definitely not made for a 6′ tall person to walk through!

Martha Washington’s Rug

The rug in this hallway sitting room is none other than Martha Washington’s, legitimately from Mount Vernon.

AB purchased it as a gift for Diane and she absolutely loved it. It was reversible with a winter color on one side and a summer color on the other. (Below is a photo of the rug in its original location at Mount Vernon before AB purchased it.)

It makes quite a statement for this space and lends an incredible connection to America’s founding fathers.

Original Master Bedroom

In the front of the house is the original master bedroom inhabited by Arthur Lee, who lived at this house for years.

The interior shutters are absolutely amazing. They’re in really good condition and I just love the panel detailing on them.

Isn’t it cool to imagine Arthur Lee and whatever guests he had in this very room?

Arthur Lee purchased Lansdowne after the Revolutionary War in 1790. He never married or had children. His body was buried in an unmarked grave in the back of the property.

Corner Fireplaces in the Bedrooms

I love how each of the four fireplaces in the old part of the house have corner fireplaces that connect behind the walls. From the outside, there are only two chimneys.

The upstairs mantlepieces outside of the master bedroom are simple (and appear to be original to the house).

Former Dressing Room for Arthur Lee

This below bedroom was Arthur Lee’s dressing room. Look how thick the walls are and how short the doors are! I love it.

This room is smaller but still boasts incredibly tall ceilings for a second story.

I love the age-appropriate antique furnishings. Once Diane and AB moved in, she “called home” all the antique furniture she’d been collecting over the years they’d lived around the world with the Army.

Of note are the lack of straight walls/ trim/ clean right angles. Don’t you love how old houses settle and make things just fit this way?

Early Plumbing: Original 1940s Bathroom

This bathroom was added in the 1940s and remains largely untouched.

I love storing towels on the windowsill in between the shutters. It’s so perfect.

The wainscoting panels in this room double as storage too! Brilliant!

Master Bedroom

The first big addition to the house, likely done around the 1750s (but we don’t know for sure), boasts an enormous master bedroom. This used to be where balls took place and even large business meetings because the views from the windows could look out to the port of Urbanna where the businessmen would discuss their trade.

(Check out this antique chamber pot below! Ha!)

I love this room’s fireplace mantle.

It is so elegant and epitomizes colonial architecture.

Behind the master bedroom is the second story portion of the addition AB and Diane did in 2001; there is a spacious master bathroom with lots of light.

Rooflines in the Attic

A “secret” doorway tucked away in the wainscoting leads to these stairs that go up to the attic.

I just wanted to highlight these enormously massive wood beams that make up the frames of the original house. The 1741 construction was done with pegs and it is all sturdy and truly perfect.

Below you can see the original roofline for the first part of the house before the addition. Those cedar shingles are truly in perfect condition. It’s amazing.

Carefully Curated Dining Room

Going back downstairs, the next room is perhaps my favorite (if that’s possible to choose a favorite in this incredible house!): the dining room.

Diane painstakingly took apart the walnut paneling facade and laid it on her dining room table when they moved in so she could remove the white paint covering up the beautiful woodwork.

She used a toothbrush and it took her months but she restored the original wood to its glory:

Can you imagine the patience she must have had to do this? The result is just beautiful.

On a similar vein, she found this below china cabinet when it was painted orange and restored it to a natural wood as well.

The effort Diane put into this room paid off: it is truly, truly exceptional.

When Diane and AB were stationed in Fort Lewis, she came across the below antique cabinet at an antique store and loved it. It was out of AB’s price range at the time. He saved up for three years while they were there, thinking there was no way the cabinet was still at the antique store. He called the store and sure enough they had just closed down a few months prior, with the former owner of the store planning to move to retire in Florida the very next day. For some crazy reason, the only large piece of furniture that hadn’t sold when the store closed down was this piece. The store owner said if AB could get to his house before the moving truck came the next day, he would sell AB the piece at a huge discount. AB left work early, took all the seats out of his van, picked it up, and stored it in a friend’s basement for months until Christmas morning. Diane was truly surprised.

I asked AB if Lansdowne had any ghosts or crazy stories like old houses can have, and he said they did have bones hiding behind the dining room place. He told me the bones were behind a panel held in place with a wooden square nail. I was honestly kind of spooked when he walked over to take out the nail and show me.

Behold, the bones of Lansdowne everyone!

New Addition: the Kitchen

Beyond the dining room is the 2002 addition AB and Diane built. It starts with a butler’s pantry that connects a large kitchen to the historic dining room.

Diane collected oyster plates (if you live off the Rappahannock River, this is probably a must!) and displayed them all here… absolutely beautiful.

AB had the wood mantlepiece built using an old beam from the original attic. (Remember those huge solid beams up there?) It fits perfectly above this brick fireplace.

Winslow, the pup, is so comfortable in front of the cozy fire.

 

The kitchen has soaring ceilings and gorgeous cabinets. It is both warm and airy, a perfect combination resulting in a space you just don’t want to leave.

 

As you can probably tell, I could go on about this house and everything that goes with it for days. There’s so much to treasure. But this house is so, so much more than the stuff inside or the historic construction; what makes this house a treasure is the love that Diane and AB shared and how that love overflows into every nook and cranny of this beautiful home. I can’t imagine a more beautiful house than one filled with their kind of love. It’s the kind of love that isn’t tangible, but the way their love has permeated into this home is so obvious. It’s a beautiful thing to witness, especially for Christmas.

7 thoughts on “In Love with Lansdowne at Christmastime”

    1. Eunice F. Yesker

      The owner of Lansdsdowne was John Upton when I was a child. His mother lived in there until she died. As children, my cousins and I used to visit her, as she always gave us a few cents to spend. She was known to have paper money pinned to her curtains and other places. My cousins’ wife and her grandfather lived in there for many years as he was a superintendent at Lord Motts. It remained vacant for many years until the Forcum’s owned it and only used it as a 2nd home until they sold it to the Gravits
      My father was a good friend of Mr. Upton who had a business in Maryland, as so my father. I own the home next door, sometimes referred to as the Marble House, that I only use as a 2nd home.

  1. We spent many hours in this lovely wonderful Lansdowne and treasure everyone of them and our time with Diane and AB. And Christmas oh yes it is so beautiful at Christmas especially when it snowed 💞

  2. Hi AB. Love seeing the pictures. I can see how much loved it is. Love the kitchen love the refrigerator freezer. Remember you relating stories about all the Ins and outs of putting in a new one in. The man did do a beautiful job. I know why you waited for him to do it, beautiful. See you at work. Eileen

  3. Diane and AB’s love for each other and for this home are evident throughout the delightful post. Their Christmas decorations are especially meaningful, and it is so nice that the family decorates year after year, in honor of Diane. She must have been an extraordinary lady!!!!! Stories of her life would be interesting to everyone who has enjoyed this post. Thank you, Lynne, for adding to my Christmas memories for 2021. Will be pulling it up every year from now forward…..

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