I’m hardly the only one whose personal geography has shrunk dramatically since Covid-related social distancing began back in March, nor am I the only scholar who has found it hard to concentrate on researching and writing amidst the pandemic and the social unrest and political affairs and economic whatever-this-is. While I haven’t yet figured out how to effectively address my distractibility, one outcome of my restlessness has been a lot of walks around my neighborhood. I live in a suburban development in which most of the houses date from the mid-1980s to the early ‘90s, and were constructed by a pair of builders. The result is some notable architectural consistency, but with 35 years of differentiation among what used to be very similar homes (our house-doppelganger, for instance, inverted our color scheme, added a 2-car garage, and takes landscape design really seriously).
But there is one definite anomaly in the midst of all this, a stretch of frontage with an old wooden fence, a line of mature oaks and magnolias mostly blocking the view of the house from the street, and several signs adamant that there shall be “NO TRESPASSING” onto the property. A gravel drive runs up to a portico, which is pretty much all that’s visible to passers-by. The structure sits well back from the road in the middle of a “block,” and is surrounded by newer homes. I’ve known the house was there for years, but never had the time/energy to devote to much sleuthing–a disinclination that has eroded over the past couple of months. So, I set about being nosy.
I started with a search on the real estate website Zillow, which let me identify the parcel, and which fortunately provided a short description noting that the property was listed on the National Register of Historic Places by the time of its last sale. I had a lead. Finding it in the Register took a bit of work, since I didn’t know the name it would be listed under, and in fact the address currently attached to the property is not actually the address under which it’s listed in the Register. Still, once I’d located the listings for Spotsylvania County in the Single Property Listings Finding Aid, I could start reviewing a limited number of results and I found the property: Fairview, or alternatively, Breezeland. Registered in 1993, described as historically significant from 1837-1859, classified as Federal architecture, and designed/built by Samuel Alsop, Jr., a name I recognized from around town. And I now had a reference number. We were in business.
I grabbed the paperwork used to register the site in ‘93, and quickly confirmed what I’d long wondered, and suspected since I saw the 1837-59 dates: this neighborhood was part of a fairly extensive plantation. Alsop built a number of houses in Spotsylvania and Fredericksburg, especially in the Federal and Greek Revival styles popular at the time–Fairview was built in the Federal style, with lots of Greek Revival details added during a remodel (the report includes a ton of detail, but I have no context for them so won’t summarize them here). He owned real estate in both locales, as well as Caroline and Culpeper Counties; he also owned and operated a tavern, grist mill, and plaster and lumber companies. At Fairview, enslaved people grew rye, oats, corn, and wheat. Upon his death, an inventory of Alsop’s estate included over 100 enslaved people, though it isn’t clear to me just how many lived on the 1200-acre Fairview plantation, or where their quarters would have been (several outbuildings remain, but they’re significantly more recent than the main house). Alsop died in 1859, and his family moved south to Georgia during the Civil War before returning later in the 1860s and beginning to subdivide the land, selling off parcels until only five acres remained surrounding the home by 1975.
So, anyway, I’ve at least partly satisfied my curiosity on that front, though there’s certainly more to learn about the property and where it fits into local historical context, as well plenty to think about in terms of the implications of living on such land. And maybe I’ll jump the fence and sneak a look at the house some day (kidding…mostly).