The Birdwood Manor


The first thing one sees at Birdwood, after coming down the long driveway through the wrought-iron gates, is the stately plantation house with its imposing columns and portico. The Library of Congress records its likely construction date as between 1817 and 1834 by the Garth family, a prominent local family in Albemarle County, although other sources point to a construction date of between 1828 and 1830.

Before the main manor was built, the lands of the estate had been part of a grant of land from the Crown, going back to 1759. The land was originally granted to a man named David Lewis, who sold part of his land, including Birdwood, to a man named John Dabney in 1759. In 1773, the land was again sold to a Mr. James Kerr, who sold it to Hore Browse Trist in 1802. Hore Browse Trist was an associate of Thomas Jefferson’s, and it is he who apparently gave the property its name, “Birdwood,” after Reverend John Birdwood of England.

Finally, Trist sold it to Thomas Garth, Jr. around the year 1810, who then sold it to his son, Jesse Garth. Jesse moved to Alabama in 1817 and sold the Birdwood lands to his brother, William Garth. It was William Garth who built the main manor house and its outbuildings. The original structure was a brick double-pile house, meaning that the interior contained an entryway and two front rooms to either side. Another set of rooms upstairs mirrored those below. The evidence for these rooms still exists in places, although later renovations of the house removed the dividing walls on the first floor, turning four rooms into two large rooms.

After the Civil War, the major owner of the house died. The Garth family heirs held an auction of the house’s assets in 1875, and two more owners held the house in quick succession. By the early 20th century, the house had passed into the hands of another prominent local family, the Rineharts. These new owners were wealthy from ties to the railroad business, and Mr. Hollis Rinehart extensively renovated the house.

The manor was over a century old by that point. Mr. Rinehart decided to expand the house and add modern conveniences. Expansions included a breezeway, also called the traverse room, which ran the width of the house and held two doors at either end in order to maximize the movement of air through the building, as well as a dining room, which was added behind the breezeway. The dining room contained an elevator and doors leading to a covered, glassed-in rear porch. The upstairs portion of the house, too, grew with the additions, with added rooms and four new bathrooms. These added bathrooms would be remodeled again in the 1960s-1970s. It was during this period that Holsinger Photography documented the manor as it looked during Rinehart's ownership, in 1919.

The era of the Rineharts did not last long, and in 1921 Rinehart sold the property to Henry Fonda, who used Birdwood to rear cattle and show horses. The manor passed through the hands of two more owners, who continued to raise cattle on the land, until the University of Virginia bought the manor in 1967, with the intention of turning it into additional student housing. When this plan did not materialize, the property suited a number of purposes, including as a conference center and as use for parties for UVA faculty and students. Its current purpose serves as a golf course run by the University of Virginia Foundation.

Some attempts were made to documents its history, notably by the UVA professors Edward K. Lay and David Skinner. Thanks to the efforts of Professor Andrew Johnston, director of the Program in Historic Preservation in the School of Architecture, efforts have been made in the past few years to begin more thorough documentation of the site. In summer classes taught from the years 2016-2018, work has been done through various techniques such as documentary research, field study, laser-scanning, 3D modelling, and ground-penetrating radar to figure out the life of Birdwood Manor.


The Work We’ve Done

While work through the 2016 and 2017 summers focused mainly on the outbuildings surrounding Birdwood, the summer class of 2018 took some time to study parts of the Main House, as well as studying the site’s Ice House. There were three main components to this research: archival research, laser-scanning and 360-degree camerawork, and a guided observation of the site with the prominent Virginian architectural historian Calder Loth.

Archival research is a vital aspect of most architectural historical projects. Looking through the records in the Albemarle County courthouse, the students of the 2018 class could begin to assemble a picture of the house’s history. One excellent source is the records from the auction held at Birdwood (1875), following the death of William Garth. Also in the records are family wills, which give us information on inheritance and provision for wives and dependents of the manor.

Another prominent record is the census manuscripts, which list not only the names of members of the household, but also a list of the enslaved individuals who resided in houses away from the main manor. The census record allows for some information on the enslaved individuals where other sources, such as the Garth family papers, leave out the names and details of such individuals.

Why do these records matter? Because they provide a crucial background to understanding Birdwood: the house itself can provide clues, but without the records to tie those clues together, then the puzzling mash of original structure and later additions and renovations are confusing. The records gives the house a history, which can be informed by study of the house’s architectural details.

Digital technologies provide a later confirmation which can also preserve the site. First of all, we met Shayne Brandon, who works with the University of Virginia Library, at the Birdwood Manor on a cloudy July morning. The 360-degree camera, as its name implies, can create a photograph of the entire surroundings -- its field of vision is 360 degrees, and it can capture every detail of a space in color. Shayne successfully scanned every room in Birdwood Manor, along with several exterior shots. These digital wonders will be linked to later on this page.

Laser-scanning is another new technology that we were excited to utilize. We met with Will Roarke, from the University of Virginia library, in order to create a computer simulation of the house’s interior. Originally, plans were made to scan the exterior of the Ice House and perhaps the main house. On a rainy Tuesday morning, when the wet weather prevented use of the expensive technical equipment outside, we met Roarke inside the main house. We set up the laser scanner inside instead, and captured the first three rooms of the house – the main entryway, and the rooms to either side, which had once been four rooms but later became two massive rooms known as the library and the drawing room.

The equipment works by shooting out a laser onto a mirror, which deflects the laser beam in all directions. This laser sends information back to the camera, which interprets each spot the laser hits as a dot; millions of dots are interpreted by each scan, and these dots can be combined to create a precise rendition of that space (down to the millimeter). It took seven scans to get a rough approximation of these three rooms.

With these seven scans, we fed the information into the computer, which created what is called a point cloud with the millions of dots from the laser. This point cloud gave us a rendition of the space, and allowed us to manipulate the rendition in Scene LT, its associated computer software; we could clip through floors or walls in order to create floorplans, compare wall thicknesses between rooms, and even examine the precise, inconsistent outlines of walls and doorways. This work would be impossible to replicate by hand, but technology allows for an incredibly close examination of architectural details that otherwise might go unnoticed.

Another informative aspect of research was our meeting with Calder Loth, the senior architectural historian for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Loth, from Richmond, met with us on a sweltering Wednesday morning in July. He is one of the earliest graduates of UVA’s architectural history program, and has spent more than forty years protecting and researching historic buildings around Virginia.

Loth took us through each room of the house, beginning on the front portico and working his way through the ground floor rooms, then the second story, the attic, and the basement. We stopped in each room, and he provided a wealth of information on the minute architectural details. As an avid scholar of the Classical tradition, he pointed out each inconsistency of the columns (which order did they belong in? Doric? Tuscan?), to the motifs on the mantelpieces. His expertise and insights provide much of the basis for the analysis on this page.


Further Information on the House

To better understand Birdwood’s importance, we might pick out a few architectural details to focus on. The portico, being the most noticeable feature as one drives up to the main house, is the logical place to start; and for the interior, a study of the mantelpieces provides us with a glimpse into the house’s changing styles over its turbulent history.

The portico is original to the Garth era, but seems to have been rebuilt at some point in the 20th century. The columns, which are the most noticeable aspect of this portico, are Tuscan (although the HABS report says Doric); but the entablature is neither. The entablature – the horizontal band between the columns and the triangular pediment – is not entirely true to the classical canon. For example: the architrave, which is part of the entablature, is much too skinny, as are the columns. An expert in classical design, such as Thomas Jefferson, would have noticed such inconsistencies as easily as Calder Loth did. A link to the 360-degree camerawork, mentioned in the earlier section, is below. This camerawork allows the viewer to see a view of the landscape from Birdwood's portico.

The brickwork of the front façade is 19th century: in the early 19th century, brickmaking improved rapidly. We know the house cannot be from the original 18th century owners, because brickmaking in the 18th century produced uneven, rough bricks. By the 19th century, bricks became much more precise, and included ribbon joints (the horizontal bands of mortar between bricks, which were flat like a ribbon) and slightly narrower vertical joints. Builders painted the bricks red with a material called redwash, which provided crude waterproofing. Then, as an aesthetic choice, the builders would paint in white ribbons to make the ribbon joints stand out again.

The front doorway, though, is clearly factory-manufactured, as evidenced by the fact that the style matches the identical doors on either side of the breezeway. The style points to 20th century design. The balcony overhead is held up by iron rods, which is an innovation by Thomas Jefferson, and there have been rumors that some of Jefferson’s builders worked at Birdwood. But there is no direct evidence to suggest that Jefferson’s builders ever came to Birdwood, and Jefferson’s innovations are found all around Albemarle County. While the balcony itself was rebuilt at some point, the doorway leading to it from the inside is clearly original, thanks to a name and date scratched into the glass windowpane: “Gabe Garth, 1844”.

What do all of these details point to? There is a mixture of 19th and 20th century styles. While the brickwork seems original to the 19th century, many of the other details – such as the doorway – suggest 20th century work.

The interior, too, shows this mixture of the 19th and 20th centuries. The mantelpieces above the fireplaces differ drastically from room to room. In the large, blue-painted front room to the right of the main doorway, there is a mantelpiece decorated with Classical motifs. The motif in the center of this mantelpiece represents an ancient Greek funerary urn, while laurel leaves spread in a garland to each corner. Ionian-style pilasters hold up the ledge of the mantelpiece; the slight, S-shaped dip in the volutes (the scrolls at the top of the pilasters) indicates that this style of pilaster is modeled on Greek columns. Roman-style columns did not contain that S-shaped dip in their capitals.

The pressed brick of the fireplace itself indicates 20th century brickwork. These bricks were factory-manufactured, unlike the 19th century variety. Pressed brick is very precise and hard, but it is soft on the inside.

One of the most impressive fireplaces on the main floor is the later addition built into the traverse room. This mantelpiece is painted a pale pink color, and a console (architectural support) holds up the lintel on either end. Otherwise, there are no classical motifs on this particular mantelpiece, and aesthetically, it fits with 20th century designs.

Upstairs, the fireplaces, doors, and floors appear to date to the original Garth era. The most decorated mantelpiece in the house is located in the red-painted room upstairs, where square Ionian pilasters hold up a more complex mantelpiece containing a cornice, frieze, and architrave, with triglyphs at each corner. Another Greek motif decorates the middle of the mantelpiece, this time a ceremonial dish. A link to the 360-degree camerawork done in the Red Room is below.

View the 360 degree panorama 

Another place to find out more about the manor’s later renovations is in the attic. Original metal roofing to the rear of the manor show where the Rinehart-era renovations added the breezeway and dining room. The original roofing was then preserved under the new roofing.

In addition, exposed wooden beams in the attic floor still show the Roman numerals carved into their sides, which would aid builders in putting the pieces together during construction. Faint marks in the wood grain show where the beam was cut by hand, with the use of the circular saw, or through the use of the vertical saws, which were powered by water. Much of the attic beams were cut with the use of the circular saw, which was popular after the 1840s. A link to the 360-degree view of the attic is below.

When examining an historic building, the interior and the exterior must both be considered for its architectural details. Everything, from the columns to the brickwork to the decoration on the mantelpiece, all reveal a picture of addition and change to the house over time. These details show us where the 19th century structure still remains, and where the 20th century has added its own signature to the house.