Officials at Menokin, the 1769 home of Declaration of Independence signer Francis Lightfoot Lee, were thrilled to learn of a $500,000 grant awarded them by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Beyond all the important work those dollars can support, Menokin staffers hope that the NEH grant may help in another way.
“We think that this stamp of approval, the validation of the National Endowment of Humanities, would have to open doors for us,” said Leslie Rennolds, assistant director of the Menokin Foundation.
She added, “For the National Endowment for the Humanities to say with this grant that this is a worthy project, we hope it will lead to more people sitting up and taking notice. We think it adds levels of excitement and an energy boost to our program.”
Menokin Executive Director Sam McKelvey put it this way: “The NEH grant will have an extraordinary impact on our site and the region as we move this engaging and forward-thinking project into the national spotlight. Through research projects and visitors, Menokin will play an active role in local economic development.”
For those not familiar with Menokin, it is 500 acres of historic landscape in Richmond County that hold the remains of a former manor house that many consider to be one of Virginia’s best examples of Colonial architecture. It was the home of Francis Lightfoot and Rebecca Tayloe Lee.
The Menokin Foundation wants to eventually interpret what happened all over the plantation, but its initial focus has been to use what it calls “a historic ruin” to help visitors “contemplate and explore the building of America.”
Making the stabilization and interpretation of that structure unique is the way a steel armature and exterior glass panels will be used to fill in the missing pieces of the building, as a way to “re-establish the house in its original shape and volume.”
Rennolds said the $500,000 NEH grant requires a 3-to-1 match, meaning that Menokin will need to raise $1.5 million over the next four years.
The grant is slated for infrastructure and capacity building, and Menokin officials hope to use it to complete the last corner of the house.
“It has to be completely disassembled and completely reassembled to stabilize the corner, all the way down to the foundation, as we’ve already done for other corners,” she said. “And this one has the house sitting halfway up on both sides,” meaning that the work could well take two years to finish.
She added, “This is really the end of the stabilization of the foundation, which has to take place before steel armature goes in and glass will go on.”
Visitors are always invited to watch when work is being done on the house.
“What’s so fascinating is that the corner will be taken apart, piece by piece, all the plaster removed in such a way that it can be conserved,” said Rennolds. “If we want to put it back on, we’ll have it. Some of the interior pieces will go back in, the rest used for interpretation.”
The longtime staffer noted that being able to see the parts and pieces amidst the re-assembled house, where some of the “bones” will be left uncovered, is the point of the approach.
“You can go anywhere and find historic houses where you can go in and look at furniture in a room,” she said. “Here, you can look under the floorboards to the joists and beams, behind the plaster to the lathe and the horsehair.”
Beyond the structure, Menokin is targeting its programming towards telling the stories of people who lived on the historic plantation.
“We’re focusing on things that they made and how they made them,” she said, “whether we’re talking about the Native American people who lived on the property or the enslaved population who built the house.”
She noted that Menokin has created a brickyard with a “treading pit” where people walk and stomp clay and other ingredients to help create bricks.
Visitors can help stomp June 15 at an event called “Maker’s Day,” which celebrates the “innovation, ingenuity and creativity” of the folks who made what was needed at Menokin.
Other things happening that day include a demonstration of glassblowing, log cabin quilting, natural indigo dyeing, the creation of a panel of stained glass, the creation of sun prints and the building of bluebird houses.
She also noted that there are opportunities from May through October for families and individuals to learn to kayak and take advantage of paddling opportunities and basic instruction. Some are free and others cost money.
To find out about programs or other things happening at Menokin, go online to menokin.org.