Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, hero of the American Revolution, ninth Governor of Virginia, and father of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, purchased several lots on North Washington Street in Alexandria soon after the War for Independence. He later sold the lot at the corner of Oronoco Street to his cousin Philip Richard Fendall, who built this wood frame house in 1785. From 1785 until 1903, the house served as the home to thirty-seven members of the Lee family. This period of residency was interrupted during the Civil War when, in 1863, the Union Army seized the property for use as a hospital for its wounded soldiers.
History did not come to a halt upon the departure of the last member of the Lee family in 1903. Robert Downham, a prominent Alexandria haberdasher and liquor purveyor, resided with his family in this house for the next 31 years. In 1937, Downham conveyed the house to John L. Lewis. As the president of the United Mine Workers and the founder of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, Lewis is considered one of the most powerful and controversial labor leaders in American history. He lived in this house during the height of his power, and until his death in 1969.
The house is interpreted as a Lee family home during the Victorian era, presenting an intimate study of mid-19th century family life. Furnishings on display include a splendid collection of Lee family heirlooms and period pieces produced by local and regional craftsmen. Historical records, including inventories of the house from 1850-1870, continue to guide the museum’s continuing restoration and furnishing efforts.
The Lee-Fendall House Museum exhibits Lee family items such as portraits, jewelry, documents, letters, and books. The collection also features beautiful decorative pieces handcrafted by Lee ladies. The Lee-Fendall House Museum is pleased to exhibit the largest public collection of furniture manufactured the Green Furniture Company. The Green Family of cabinetmakers operated the largest furniture factory in Alexandria during the 19th century.
When Phillip R. Fendall had the mansion built, the property needed to support all the functions of his large household. According to the 1796 fire assurance policy, Mr. Fendall filled up the half-acre yard with stables, laundries, a rabbit house, a pigeon house, a two-story wooden dwelling, a warehouse, and his office. Kitchen and ornamental gardens were included, but were less important to the overall activity of the site than the other buildings. Although charming in their own way, the gardens would have done little to improve the appearance of the site.
By the time Lewis and Harriotte Cazenove purchased Lee-Fendall House in 1850, the needs of city dwellers were a bit different than in the Fendalls’ day. The Industrial Revolution had removed the need for extensive on-site production of foodstuffs or dry goods. The lawn could be turned to more ornamental purposes. It had been long suspected that the Cazenoves complemented their 1850-52 renovation of the mansion with a full renovation of the yard. In 2010, an archaeological excavation funded by the Save America’s Treasures grant program was conducted by the Louis Berger Group of Washington, DC. Several other organizations and private donors all provided funds for the project. The project revealed that not only did the Cazenoves completely overhaul the Lee-Fendall House landscape landscape, but that it was the most complete 19th century urban landscape uncovered to date in Alexandria. The full garden report may be read here:
Today, a beautiful award-winning half-acre garden complements the Lee-Fendall House. Development of the garden began in 1974 as a labor of love by the Alexandria Council of Garden Clubs. The council established an endowment fund which continues to support a portion of the garden’s ongoing maintenance and restoration costs. A rose garden grows many varieties of heritage roses spanning the years 1842-1893. An herb garden recalls the days when herbs were used for medicine, insect repellents and fragrances as well as flavoring agents. Many of the English boxwoods lining the brick path were nurtured from tiny sprigs saved from traditional boxwood Christmas wreaths. Squirrels, the symbol of the Lee family, scamper across the lawn.
Trees of particular interest in the garden are a black walnut and a ginkgo—one of the oldest species in the plant kingdom—as well as a magnificent magnolia grandiflora, which was planted circa 1852. Peer beneath the magnolia for a glimpse of the tombstone of Eleanor Fendall (1708-1759), mother of Philip R. Fendall — no, there isn’t a grave, the stone was saved from destruction and brought to the property in her memory.
Once charged with saving the house from demolition, today the VTHP is committed to implementing an aggressive preservation strategy that will reverse centuries of deferred maintenance and environmental damage. The organization’s goal is to improve access to the building and the overall visitor experience, while preserving and documenting the structure’s important and unique historic features.
The VTHP concentrated its initial efforts on a major structural restoration in 2005. The main structural beam and two sills were replaced. The replacement of a third sill will complete the structural restoration phase. These efforts have been made possible by the grant funding from the federal government, the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the City of Alexandria, as well as contributions from numerous private foundations and individuals. The continued support of these groups, and of others, will be necessary to restore the Lee-Fendall House to its 1850s grandeur and elegance.
The Lee-Fendall House Museum & Garden embarked on a phased interior restoration project in July 2011. This initiative focuses on replacing the current interiors with wallpaper, paint, and window hangings appropriate to the 1850-1870 period. With generous support from the Historic Alexandria Foundation and the International Furnishings and Design Association, the first stage of the project will restore the dining room to its 1850s appearance.
Future projects include external restoration of the siding, paint and decorative elements. The kitchen chimney is also in need of stabilization and repair.
To contribute to this restoration effort, please contact us at 703-548-1789.