There was a time, not that long ago, when mansions dotted the landscape around Alexandria. To name a few, there was Abingdon to the north (National Airport), Mount Eagle (Huntington) to the south, and Vaucluse (Seminary Hill) to the west.
All those and many others are gone. Fortunately, a few remain, including Oak Hill near Annandale. It is privately owned, but thanks to an easement deal brokered in 2004, its doors swing open to the public once a year when the county holds its annual Oak Hill History Day.
The 2013 version was held yesterday. The event featured re-enactors and tours of the historic home sitting on a camouflaged spot just off Wakefield Chapel Road.
Going back to the 1700s, the Fitzhugh’s owned Ravensworth, a 22,000 acres spread that was the single largest land grant in Northern Virginia. If you live between Annandale and Fairfax, and Braddock Road and Little River Turnpike, you live on or close to land once owned by the family. Six generations of Fitzhugh’s and their enslaved humans planted and picked tobacco, which was stuffed into hogsheads and sold at Alexandria for shipment to England. When the crops ruined the soil, wheat became the cash crop.
The Fitzhugh’s built two other plantation homes near Oak Hill - Ossian Hall and Ravensworth. The sole survivor is Oak Hill. Richard Fitzhugh built the plantation home (located about two miles west of Annandale) in 1790 in the late Georgian-style. While he was President, Thomas Jefferson made four trips there. In the 1930’s, a renowned architect restored and remodeled the historic home in the Colonial Revival style. The mansion is one of a few in the county remaining from the 18th Century.
This history day not only focused on Oak Hill and the Fitzhugh's, but Mount Vernon as well. Thirty years after the passing of George and Martha, Washington’s great-grand nephew John Augustine Washington III owned the Palladian-style mansion. Financial difficulties prevented him from socking money into the plantation home. Mount Vernon fell into a sad state of disrepair.
Fortunately, Ann Pamela Cunningham, a pioneer in historic preservation, helped saved it. In 1853 she formed the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. They raised the money, purchased the estate from Washington and restored it.
In 1860, Cunningham had to return to her native South Carolina. In stepped Sarah Tracy of New York. As if the task of repair was not enough, she had to deal with soldiers looking for camp sites and supplies. As the Mount Vernon site notes,
Sarah Tracy faced serious obstacles in her quest to keep Mount Vernon safe from harm. Fortunately, she wrote about many of her adventures in regular letters she loyally penned to keep the Association informed of events. Details of her crossing army lines and convincing officers to let her pass or escort her to the next company of soldiers are inspiring. It is because of Tracy and Herbert that George Washington’s house remained unscathed, keeping the spirit of George Washington alive, even during the darkest of hours.
After growing up at Oak Hill, this Fitzhugh earned some fame as a naval officer. During the Mexican-American, he captained the steamer Mississippi.
Played by historical interpreter Jon Vrana, Fitzhugh spoke about the year 1861. Federal troops arrested him.
When asked about the cruel treatment of slaves, Fitzhugh seemed to get defensive, and stated the slaves were property as deemed by law.
All in all, a great day at Oak Hill. We thank those who saved and keep it, and those who bring us Oak Hill History Day. In particular, a debt of gratitude is owed to the current homeowners, and Chairman Sharon Bulova whose leadership led to the creation of "A Look Back at Braddock" website.
Note: In 2010, Oak Hill History Day provided a look at African-Americans in and around Annandale.