English Homes in America

Living in Richmond, I didn’t realize how unusual it is to have authentic English manor homes in your backyard. We have two of these amazing homes here, and by touring them, you can imagine yourself in Elizabethan England without a passport!


History 

As anyone who has watched Downton Abbey knows, the grand manor homes of England are expensive to maintain. When you add to that the exorbitant taxes imposed by the British government in the early-to-mid 20th century, particularly with “death duties” rising to over 65% during World War II, it’s no wonder that many of these families couldn’t keep the homes. 

This is where rich Americans step in. At the turn of the 20th century, many wealthy American debutantes married into the British aristocracy. It was considered a business deal – he got her money to keep his ancestral home afloat while she got the social status that her family lacked. The fictional Lord and Lady Grantham from Downton Abbey are good examples of where this arrangement actually led to love. Churchill’s parents, on the other hand, show a more realistic view of the marriages, one of convenience that led to much heartbreak. Check out this great article about the trend.

When the money ran out, the homes were either opened to the public for tours or torn down, estimated at one every five days! However a few were demolished and basically “sold for parts” to homes and museums in America, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art. You can still see these elements at the museum today, from a carved oak panel to an entire dining room.

In rare cases, entire homes were dismantled and brought to America. From my research, I can only find two examples but there may be more. As it so happens, both of these examples are located beside each other in a neighborhood appropriately called Windsor Farms in Richmond, Virginia. 

Agecroft Hall is a 16th century grand home that is now a house museum. It is an atmospheric Tudor-style home that was originally built in Lancashire, England and moved to America piece-by-piece in 1925 by Mr. Thomas C. Williams, Jr., a wealthy businessman. It is a stunning example of late medieval architecture!

Virginia House, Agecroft’s next door neighbor, is a smaller yet no less impressive home. Now owned by the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, it was originally built in the mid-16th century on the land of the former Warwick priory and was even visited by Queen Elizabeth I! Ambassador Alexander Weddell and his wife, Virginia (the house’s namesake), brought the house to America in 1925, living in it until their untimely death in a 1948 train accident upon which the house became part of the museum. It is only open for special events.

In both cases, the houses we see today aren’t replicas of how they appeared in England. When the buildings were reassembled in Virginia, the owners added modern conveniences (like bathrooms and closets!) and repurposed the materials into a more welcoming family home. However this doesn’t take away from the grandeur and the history found in the very bones of the homes!


Visit

Agecroft Hall is open to visitors and is a wonderful tour for families with older elementary-aged children. It has many fun family days throughout the year and even hosts a Shakespeare festival in the summer! Check out my review here and plan your visit! 

Virginia House is open for special events through the Virginia Museum of History and Culture. We visited it recently at its fall open house – check here for any events while you’re in Richmond.  

The home is located in the gorgeous Windsor Farms neighborhood, overlooking the James River. As you walk up, you’ll be impressed by its imposing stone facade. 

Don’t miss the tree planted in honor of Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee.

You’ll enter the Great Hall with its impressive timbered arch ceiling and the intricate 18th century Mexican choir stall. 

To the left is the intimate dining room with its amazing leather wall hunting scene artwork. This room was used in the television show, Turn. Look up at the elaborate plaster ceiling!

Step into the withdrawing room next, my favorite room in the house. The ceiling and the wood paneling around the fireplace are gorgeous. The fireplace surround dates to 1561, and you can just sense the smoky conversations about the Elizabethan religious wars or about the upstart colonial rebellion in this wood! 

Head up the stairs to the cozy library, which contained over 10,000 books at one point! This room is set up as the Weddels used it, a family room/library/office. Note the mid-century radio and Virginia map. I could have spent hours here, reading all of the spines of the books!

Head back downstairs and out the exit nook – don’t miss the African brazier and the knight in shining armor! Kids will love seeing a real suit of armor!

The gardens of Virginia House (and Agecroft) were designed by Charles Gillette, a prominent 20th century landscape architect. The gardens were especially beautiful with the fall backdrop, and I can’t imagine how lovely they would be in the spring. The lawn is the perfect place for kids to run and romp, getting their wiggles out after the interior tour!

Mark your calendars for Sunday, December 11th when both Agecroft and Virginia House will host a free holiday open house. I can’t wait to see them in their holiday splendor! And for members of the museum, the annual Garden Party in the spring is not-to-be-missed. 

Homes like Agecroft and Virginia House are wonderful ways to see the grand manor homes of England without stepping foot on a plane. Not only are the homes historic, but the way they came to America is also a fascinating story. Make plans to visit them on your next trip to Richmond!


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