Council of Independent Colleges Historic Campus Architecture Project

 

 
Sweet Briar House

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Institution Name: Sweet Briar College
Original/Historic Place Name: Locust Ridge
Location on Campus: 838 Elijah Rd.
Date(s) of Construction:
1790original construction Crews, Joseph
1851-1852renovations and additions
Designer: Jospeh Crews
Type of Place: Individual building
Style: Italianate (Glossary)
Significance: architecture, history
Narrative: see below
References: see below
Materials:
Foundation: brick
Walls: brick
Roof: hip, standing seam copper
 
Function:
ca. 1790-1901private residence (farmhouse)
ca. 1906-1925administration
ca. 1906-present (2006)president's house
 

Narrative:
Situated on a tract of "wild land" granted to George Carrington by the Crown in 1770, the Sweet Briar House was originally built as a six-room T-shaped farmhouse by Joseph Crews (or Crouse) about 1790. The oldest section of Sweet Briar House, built in 1790, was a typical Piedmont Federal style brick farmhouse with a hip roof, a two-level pedimented portico and exterior chimneys on each end. Although the oldest section of the house has a single pile plan, it has a central two-story rear ell which may be original.

The plantation home of the Crews family was known as "Locust Ridge." "Locust Ridge, 1825" is the inscription on the back of a watercolor sketch owned by Mrs. Samuel Hucke, of Fayetteville, Arkansas. She and her mother Mrs. Leland Bryan are descendents of Thomas Crews (1774-1858), who owned and lived at Locust Ridge until it was sold at public auction in 1830. Mrs. Bryan discovered the sketch folded among the leaves of an old family Bible, and the sketch is the earliest known illustration of the farmhouse.

Elijah Fletcher, a school teacher from Vermont who had come to Virginia in 1810, bought the farmhouse and its surrounding areas in December of 1830. In 1813 Elijah had married Maria Antoinette Crawford of "Tusculum" near the present village of Clifford. In a letter dated March, 1831, to his brother Calvin Fletcher of Indianapolis Elijah wrote: "I have lately bought me a Plantation which Maria talks of settling and spending her summers at. You may perhaps remember it. It lies this side of Amherst Court House about 12 miles from here with a large brick house on it, containing about 1000 acres of pretty good land. It cost about $7000. It is paid for as well as all the rest of my property." According to legend, it was Maria who named the place "Sweebriar," for the wild roses which grew there in abundance.

Elijah Fletcher was owner and publisher of "The Virginian," a Whig newspaper in Lynchburg, and served as mayor of the city, as well as a leader in many civic movements. He was also enthusiastic about farming, and spent several days a week at Sweet Briar supervising the farm work. When he sold his newspaper in 1841, he turned his attention to his plantation. In his letters to his brother, he told of various improvements he was making, such as building a large new barn and purchasing a "reaper that goes by horses...and cost $100." He reported on the progress of various crops and the prices they brought on the market and about planting trees and other matters pertinent to his farming operations.

In 1846, he moved permanently with his family to Sweet Briar, writing, "It is an interesting place to me and I have no wandering notions and never shall be induced to leave it." Beginning in the spring of 1851, the house was renovated extensively in an attempt to transform it into an Italianate villa-style country home. The original portico was removed and replaced by a two-level arcaded portico with a one-story veranda across the facade. The plain molded cornice was replaced by a simple modillion cornice. Two three-story Italianate towers of unequal height and form were constructed at the east and west ends of the house. Both towers, topped with shallow hip roofs, feature three-part windows on the upper levels and ornamental wrought iron balconies. Eighteen months later Elijah told Calvin that the work was almost completed, and that the furnishings purchased in New York and Philadelphia by Maria and her two daughters, Indiana and Elizabeth, were being put in place.

After Elijah's death in 1858, Indiana became mistress of Sweet Briar, where she lived for the remainder of her life. In 1865 she married an Episcopal clergyman, James Henry Williams, and two years later their only child Daisy was born. When Daisy died in 1884, her parents began to make plans to found a school for young girls and women in her memory. In accordance with provisions of Mrs. Indiana Williams's will, Sweet Briar Institute received its charter from the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1901. The first students entered in 1906, and four years later the first five graduates received Bachelor of Arts degrees.

From 1906 to 1925, Sweet Briar House served as the college administration building as well as the president's home. The dining room, to the right of the entrance hall, was the reception room for the president's office. The house is still furnished with much of the Fletcher and Williams furniture, including the great pier glasses and over-the-mantel mirrors in the parlors and some of the old chandeliers and side-lights, portraits, lamps and other furnishings. Most of the interior trim of the original section of the house survives, although some of the original mantels appear to have been replaced with Victorian mantels. Because many Fletcher pieces remain in the house, it is an important example of mid-nineteenth-century decoration.

The house is set in a spacious informal park featuring ornamental trees and numerous large boxwoods. Boxwoods in front of the house that originally lined a circular driveway have grown to great height. In the rear of the house is an early slave cabin that belonged to the original Fletcher Plantation.
 

References:

Harnsberger, Douglas. Historic Structures Report. Sweet Briar, VA: Sweet Briar College, 1995.

Henry, Geoffrey B. Sweet Briar College Historic District. National Register of Historic Places designation report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Interior/National Park Service, 1995.

O'Neal, William B. Architecture in Virginia: An Official Guide to Four Centuries of Building in the Old Dominion. New York: Walker, 1968.

Sasaki Associates Inc. Master plan. [Watertown, MA: Sasaki Associates Inc.], 1997.

 

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Last update: November 2006