staircase with christmas garlands draped over side and traditional historic door in background

The Historic Essex Inn: Christmas Edition

Nestled among centuries-old boxwoods and crepe myrtles in Tappahannock, Virginia is a towering white house that you can’t help but look up and admire: the Essex Inn. The house was first built in 1851 (on the same site as an older house torn down to make room for this one). It has withstood some unbelievable stories from before the Civil War to becoming a bed and breakfast.

White Exterior

Greg and Jennifer Huff are the current owners and recently purchased the property in April 2021. Greg is a self-admitted history lover and knows more about the Civil War than most. He loves living in such a cool historical house.

The house usually has black shutters accompanying each window, but due to repairwork of a nearby church steeple in Tappahannock, bats recently took up residence behind the black shutters. The shutters had to be removed as a result. (As someone who’s dealt with bats behind shutters at my own farmhouse, I empathize with how it’s easier to remove the shutters and wait for the bats to rehome themselves. The trick then becomes hanging the shutters back up without the bats moving back in!)

House with Shutters:

Below is an old photo likely from the mid-late twentieth century where you can see the crisp black shutters and the sharp contrast they provide to the white facade.

white traditional house with black shutters and gray roof

Front Door

Today the front door is painted a cheerful red, and totally decked out for Christmas!

white steps leading to front portico with red door and christmas wreath

I love the symmetry of the front portico. The wide steps, simple white columns, beautiful molding details… I love all of it. It is beautifully classic (and obviously historic!). In the photo below for example, note the wainscoting panels above and surrounding the front door transom window. It’s the woodwork like this that makes these old houses so charming to me.

red door with christmas garland surrounding transom windows

Main Hallway

The central hallway is wide and grand with amazingly tall ceilings. As you can imagine, when this house was constructed it was quite a showstopper. Well, it still is a showstopper. It seems that when Dr. Lawrence Roane built it he was not trying to pinch pennies.

decorated staircase with christmas garlands around railing

Brief History of the Essex Inn

Dr. Roane was an affluent man but met with great tragedy. One of his daughters passed away in infancy. While the house was under construction, his wife Sarah Ann Jones Roane passed away. Shortly after he and his children moved in, his other daughter passed away. During the Civil War, one of his sons was stationed with a unit across the Rappahannock River but for whatever reason his paperwork was insufficient to let him cross the river so he attempted to swim across and drowned. Another son survived the war but was injured in such a way that left him unable to have any children.

staircase mid-renovation with lathe and plaster walls exposed
DURING RENOVATION IN 2000: exposed lathe and plaster walls

To make matters worse for Dr. Roane, the Union captured the house not once but twice during the Civil War. The first time, the local Virginians living around the house climbed to the top of the roof and strung up a white bedsheet announcing their surrender. The Union troops quickly replaced the white bedsheet with a Union flag. As part of the surrender agreement, the Union officers agreed not to burn down the house or surrounding area as long as no man took down the Union flag. To adhere to that agreement, the chivalrous yet desperate Virginians tried to find a woman to climb up on the roof to take the flag down, but no woman would. They found a twelve year old boy and convinced him to climb up and remove it, adhering to the “no man” agreement.

view looking at the front hallway toward front door of historic house

The second time the Union captured the house, Dr. Roane, a slaveholder, fled with only a portrait of his wife. The Union soldiers looted the house. Accounts from that time describe the troops traipsing around wearing his deceased wife’s clothing. There are no direct descendants of Dr. Roane but various different owners have loved the house ever since.

Over the course of the house’s history, it has needed of course many repairs.

old house front door hallway with wood floor
DURING RENOVATION IN 2000

Blue Living Rooms Side By Side

There are twelve large rooms in the house, each with its own fireplace.

pale blue walls in living room with christmas decorations and tree in corner

One side of the house has two blue living rooms tangential to one another with a big opening between them. The rooms have huge windows with ornate cornices. The overall effect: spectacular. I love how the Christmas decorations pick up on the blue from the paint and the gold from the cornices.

close up view of christmas tree in corner of pale blue living room

The entire house is beautifully decorated for Christmas now of course, but even with the Christmas trees blocking the windows in some places, a lot of light comes through.

view of christmas tree in corner of living room with pale blue walls

Antique Organ

There used to be an old vaudeville theater in Tappahannock. Years and years ago, someone moved the organ  out and brought it to the Essex Inn just for storage. The owners of the theater forgot about it, and the house that is now the Essex Inn changed ownership but the organ stayed with each transfer. As of 2021, Greg realized where this organ must have come from and reached out to the current owners of the old theater. They are working on restoring the theater and once the restorations are done, it will go back to its home.

antique vaudeville wood organ

Antique Furniture

Homeowners around Tappahannock are enchanted with the Essex Inn’s commitment to antique time period furniture. A few have reached out to Greg and Jennifer offering some family heirlooms consistent with the 1851 time frame. This spectacular coffee table is one of those pieces and it is perfect in this space.

coffee table burl wood with marble top and silver coasters with cream couch

Two extra wide doors separate the two blue living rooms from the central hallway. Those doors used to actually separate the two living rooms from one another where there is now just a big opening in the wall. I love how the doors are original to the house. When the big wide doors were no longer needed between those rooms, whoever was in charge of the renovation brilliantly relocated them.

doorway from formal living room with wide antique white door

Isn’t this room lovely?

christmas tree in front of baby grand piano in formal living room

There is an ornament of the Essex Inn that calls it the “Roane-Wright-Trible House.” (The Wright family and Trible family owned it at some point in the 1900s.)

view of essex inn ornament in christmas tree

I should also mention the original heart pine flooring throughout the first floor. The boards are varying widths and they shine with the Christmas lights illuminating them!

christmas tree next to antique wood desk in formal living room

Elegant Dining Room

Across the grand hallway from the blue living rooms is a dining room that is large enough for two dining tables now, perfect for the house’s purpose of being an inn.

formal dining room with beige walls and christmas decorations

I love the simple and obviously antique mantlepieces throughout. They are not particularly fancy, but certainly elegant.

formal dining room mantle with christmas garlands over fireplace

This chandelier was first madeas a gas light fixture. It was converted to electricity in 1926, according to a receipt Greg Huff found when going through some of the paperwork from previous renovations and projects.

gas chandelier converted to electric hanging from ceiling of formal room

I love the below painting of the house that hangs proudly on the dining room wall. As you may remember, the house currently has a gray roof. Perhaps in the not-so-distant past, the roof was brown or red?

view of painting of white house above antique sideboard next to antique wood chair

Beverage Room

Behind the dining room is a fun room for enjoying wine or coffee. It’s currently decorated in a whimsical gingerbread house theme for Christmas.

formal dining room decorated with christmas gingerbread decorations

One slight detail worth noting: there are stains on the floorboards in the photo below. There  is no proof, but rumor has it those are leftover {blood} remnants from the Civil War’s occupation time. Yikes.

stained hardwood floorboards in room with radiator and white christmas tree

This room has something I’ve never seen before. It reminds me of the dumbwaiter area at Monticello. To the left of the fireplace mantle is a built-in pie safe! With the beautiful metal covering! How cool is that?

built in pie safe next to historic house dining room fireplace

One-of-a-Kind Chandelier

This room also boasts a plaster chandelier. This ornate chandelier is truly priceless: when they bought the house, the previous owner told Greg and Jennifer it was from an old cruise ship that rivaled the Titanic. They mentioned that to a guest who was interested in it. The guest snapped a photo and showed it to her son, who happened to be a naval architect historian, who confirmed that it was in fact from an old German cruise ship that had the record for the fastest Atlantic crossing in the early 1900s. At the onset of World War I, the U.S. captured the cruise ship when it was docked at an American port and set to work dismantling it and reusing its parts. This chandelier is one of a handful of surviving artifacts from the ship.

whimsical dining room decorated for christmas

Upper Hallway & Staircase

Moving upstairs, the staircase itself is so beautiful. One interesting detail I noticed is that the railings are tall– way, way taller than our 1892 farmhouse staircase’s railings. Greg agrees that they are unusually tall for an 1851 staircase. He doesn’t know if they were 1) built taller originally or 2) replaced with ones that are up to code. The quality wood workmanship is beautiful, like how staircases were built “in the olden days,” so it really is hard to know.

decorated staircase with christmas garlands and christmas tree at top of landing

I love the beautiful details underneath the risers and around the opening.

woodwork alongside upper staircase landing

Molding On Top of Molding

Here’s something I’ve also never seen before: crown molding affixed to the wall where it meets the ceiling, THEN on top of that, more crown molding jutting out but only attached to the ceiling. This is only in the downstairs hallway. Greg consulted with a few architectural historians who don’t know why someone did this other than for extra panache and “wow factor.” (I would have never looked for it but Greg pointed it out from the staircase. Now I’m going to look closely at the crown moldings in all future houses I visit to see if this was a fad!)

crown molding built into ceiling unattached from wall above crown molding attached to wall

The staircase landing is beautiful.

christmas decorated stair landing of historic home with tall ceilings

These heart pine floor boards upstairs are 22 feet long and go all the way across the hallway. You can’t find that nowadays!

long pine floor boards of historic house with white walls

Upstairs are four large bedrooms coming out of the hallway, each with their own fireplace.

christmas tree with gold ribbons and cream interior door in background

Charming Upstairs Bedrooms

Each bedroom has its own color theme.

four poster bed with white covers in beige bedroom with fireplace

Beautiful garlands sit on top of each fireplace for the Christmas season.

close up view of side of fireplace mantle next to window

I especially love the original bathrooms in the bedrooms. Look at that pink and green tilework! And sink! Love it, love it. I am so glad this is original and not replaced in favor of something “modern.” It’s timeless.

antique sink in bathroom of historic house with green and pink tiles

This blue bedroom is semi-famous for hosting Reba McEntire when she was on a television show about discovering where her ancestors came from.

four poster bed in bedroom with blue walls

I appreciate the old doors, as always.

blue wing chair in bedroom in front of cream closet door

Another bedroom is a dark red with gold accents and feels so luxurious.

four poster bed in bedroom with bright red walls

fancy red chair in front of radiator in room with bright red walls and gold dupioni silk drapes

This room’s bathroom has a curious design I’ve attempted to capture in the below photograph. When you enter the bathroom, to the right is what appears to be a small shower– but upon further inspection, it’s actually a whole tub. Walls cover the back half of the tub. Greg and Jennifer can’t claim credit for this unusual design since previous owners did that renovation. It sure adds character, doesn’t it?

bathtub exposed to bathroom and also partially covered up by walls

Visiting the Property

I highly enjoyed my visit to the Essex Inn. The house itself is beautiful, plus there are lots of outdoor spaces to explore both inside and out.

red exterior door behind gray mat on porch floor that says essex inn

In the back of the property are the original kitchen and enslaved peoples’ quarters. These are now part of the bed and breakfast as well. They were built before the house itself. For a time in the 1940s-1960s, the former owner of the house rented these out as apartment units to newlyweds around town.

two conjoined white houses with black shutters

There is always such camaraderie among historic house lovers; meeting Greg and Jennifer and seeing their love for this beautiful house was delightful for me. If you’re the same way, I guarantee you’d love visiting the Essex Inn to see this enchanting place for yourself. 🙂

1 thought on “The Historic Essex Inn: Christmas Edition”

  1. This home is so gorgeous and the story that goes along with the Civil War days is fascinating. Their Christmas decorations are just exquisite !!!!! The prettiest decorated Christmas tree I have ever seen, What a treasure!

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