Menokin is located near Warsaw, in Richmond County, on Cat Point Creek (sometimes Rappahannock Creek), about five miles from the Rappahannock River. John Tayloe II carved 1,000 acres from his estate, Mount Airy, and financed the new house’s construction, which began about 1769. It was a wedding gift to his daughter, Rebecca Plater Tayloe, and her new husband, Francis Lightfoot Lee.
Because the original architectural drawings were unsigned, historians can only speculate as to who designed the house. Many have suggested it could have been William Buckland, an English builder and craftsman who worked on Mount Airy, as well as on George Mason’s Gunston Hall, in Fairfax County. If he did not supervise the entire project, then Buckland may have contributed to designs and the woodworking or have overseen some of the work. Construction was completed in 1771, when Buckland moved to Annapolis, Maryland.
The two-story main house, which no longer stands, was made of iron-infused sandstone taken from a nearby quarry and featured a square hip roof, or one in which all sides slope downward to the walls. The building’s exterior was stuccoed with stone quoins—decorative masonry blocks at the corners—and band courses, or decorative horizontal brickwork. The house also featured neo-Palladian, or classically symmetrical, outbuildings, one on either side. According to the architectural historian Rosamond Randall Beirne, writing in 1958, when the house was still mostly intact, “The interior woodwork has a character all its own and presents an architectural puzzle. The stair has square newels”— central supporting pillars—”and only at upper levels are there easings and ramps of the style of more sophisticated houses of Virginia. In its simple, almost Tudor quality it suggests an earlier date.” She goes on to raise the possibility that the structure was renovated in 1769 rather than built anew. Documentary evidence for this does not appear to exist, however.
Ownership and Occupation
The Lees first occupied the house in 1771, living there until they moved in 1775 to Philadelphia, where Francis Lightfoot Lee represented Virginia in the Second Continental Congress until 1779. The couple lived on and off at Menokin during the American Revolution (1775–1783) and again full-time from 1782 until their deaths at the house in January 1797.
The Lees had no children, and in 1799 John Tayloe III, Rebecca Tayloe Lee’s brother, inherited the property. He lived at Mount Airy and sometimes at the Octagon House, in Washington, D.C., which he had built between 1799 and 1801. At the same time he operated Menokin and nine other farms along the Rappahannock, growing mostly wheat and corn. A total of as many as 300 to 400 enslaved laborers lived on these properties at any given time. John Tayloe Lomax lived at Menokin from 1809 until 1819, prior to becoming the first law professor at the University of Virginia. Four years later, John Tayloe III sold the property to Benjamin Boughton, who had worked for him as an overseer and later a property manager.
In 1836, Boughton sold Menokin to Richard Henry Harwood, whose estate, in turn, sold it in 1872 to John L. Irgens, who lost it after defaulting on a loan. It next passed into the Belfield family and in 1935, according to the will of Alfred H. Belfield, was deeded to E. Stuart Omohundro. By this time, the house had begun to fall into disrepair and was abandoned in the 1940s. In 1968, the Omohundro family removed paneling and woodwork from the house’s interior to protect it from being damaged or stolen; by the end of the decade the roof had collapsed. In 1995, T. Edgar Omohundro transferred title of the house and 500 of the original 1,000 acres to the Menokin Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Warsaw and dedicated to preserving the property.
A historical highway marker was placed at the Menokin site in 1928, and twelve years later documentation by the Historic American Building Survey was completed. The house was placed on the Virginia Landmarks Register in 1968, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969, and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1971. Fourteen years later the site had fallen into further disrepair, prompting an archaeological investigation to evaluate whether it should remain a National Historic Landmark. This work confirmed the continued importance of the property, and included testing of the kitchen, a probable tenant house site, and a site with artifacts that dated to the Late Woodland Period (AD 900–1650). In 1998, students from the University of Mary Washington conducted surface collection surveys in the plowed fields to identify various historic sites associated with the property. They also conducted test excavations around the house in preparation for the installation of a protective roof structure in 2000.
The plantation takes its name, Menokin, from the Rappahannock Indians who lived in the area prior to English colonization. (Scholars have suggested that the word “Menokin” may have been used by the Rappahannock Indians to mean “He gives it to me.”) Evidence of occupation of the site during the Middle Woodland (400 BC–AD 900) and Late Woodland periods has been found around the manor house, where intact early layers were sealed by eighteenth-century construction debris and later fill. Additional work has involved the careful documentation and removal of collapsed wood, stone, and brick architectural elements from the house, and the recovery of small artifacts dating from the late eighteenth century through the 1940s.
An archaeological survey and test excavation was undertaken to the northeast of the manor house in preparation for the construction of the museum and education complex in 2003. This work identified a late eighteenth- to early nineteenth-century slave quarter. Additional survey work in 2008 refined and expanded the boundaries of numerous sites surrounding the house, shedding more light on the planned landscape that included substantial terracing south and west of the house, as well as slave quarters and other work areas directly north of the house. In total, fifteen archaeological sites have been identified, representing a range of occupations from small Virginia Indian habitations during the Middle and Late Woodland periods to historic sites spanning the late eighteenth through the early twentieth centuries. These sites preserve a record of the various activity areas and buildings associated with Menokin as it changed over two centuries.
In 1964, Polly Montague Tayloe, the owner with her husband of Mount Airy, discovered in that house the original, unsigned pen-and-ink architectural drawings for Menokin, dating to 1769. This information, combined with previous and subsequent scholarly research, provided the foundatio for a preservation effort led by the Menokin Foundation. In 2004, the group dedicated a vistors center, where much of the house’s original woodwork is displayed and preservation workshops are held, using the site as a teaching laboratory. In the meantime, the foundation has pursued a plan to stabilize the building’s remains and protect it from further deterioration by reinstalling the woodwork and replacing the missing walls and roof with glass and steel. The two outbuildings will be recreated.