Agecroft Hall is a Tudor manor house that was originally erected in Lancashire in the 16th century – and is currently tucked away in leafy suburban development in Richmond, Virginia! On the brink of destruction in the mid-1920s, Agecroft was saved by its move to the States where it continued its tradition as a private residence for nearly fifty years before being converted into a popular museum that interprets life in a Tudor manor house (!). You read that right: you don’t need to venture across the ocean to experience Tudor history! I met the museum’s Executive Director, Anne Kenny-Urban, at TudorCon and I asked her the same questions that almost every visitor asks: “Why did someone move a whole house across an ocean? And how?” When I heard her answers, I begged her to write a post about that… Enjoy!
Over to Anne…
For years, both Warwick Priory in Warwick and Agecroft Hall in Salford (just outside Manchester) had stood vacant. By 1925, the Priory was quite dilapidated, and the once bucolic Agecroft had been overrun by toxic pollution from Manchester’s many factories and the coal mine operating just outside its gates. No buyers could be found for either estate, and in Agecroft’s case, even the local township had refused to take on the property when it was offered. Eventually, there was nothing left to do except auction off the houses’ architectural details as salvage before demolishing them. Given that the houses had no future in England, one might think that the British public would have been appreciative of the two Americans who were prepared to buy the houses and save them, albeit in a modified form.
However, the English public was livid. Interestingly, moving houses was actually not unheard of in England. Newly wealthy British families were doing that themselves. But exporting a country house from the gentility of the English countryside to the rough and tumble new world hit a nerve with the British public, and they did not appreciate what they perceived as a crass attempt on the part of the Americans to buy cultural heritage. The editor of The Architect summed up the sale of Warwick Priory by offering the opinion that, “The action shows greed on the part of the seller and vanity, ostentation, and bad breeding on the part of the purchaser.” Newspaper editorials across the country decried the transshipment of the houses as cultural vandalism and waxed poetic about the value of the houses to the local communities who had declined to be responsible for the houses when offered the opportunity.
Ultimately, the debate raged all the way down to the Parliament where legislation was introduced to prevent the export of country houses. For a few months, it was unclear whether the new owners would be able to take possession of their new properties, but the bill was ultimately defeated with pressure from the owners of similar houses who feared that legislative restrictions might prevent them from making future modifications to their private property as their families’ means, needs and tastes changed. As a result, in 1926 both Warwick Priory and Agecroft Hall found themselves being dismantled, crated, and shipped to America where they would be adaptively rebuilt side by side in a suburban development overlooking the James River, named for the first Stuart king.
But what led the Americans to propose such grand plans for two unwanted English houses in the first place? Like many of his class in 1920s Virginia, T.C. Williams Jr. was a great Anglophile – so much so that he based the design of his new suburban development on an English village and named it “Windsor Farms”. The marketing brochure described the new neighborhood as “Hauntingly Reminiscent of Old England”. Then he saved one of the prime lots for himself where he planned to build a Georgian style house. He then sold the plot next door to diplomat Alexander Weddell and his wife, Virginia. The Weddells and their architect, Henry Morse, took off for England in the fall of 1925 to get inspiration for the design of their new house. While there, they saw the advertisement for the demolition auction of Warwick Priory and made the bold decision to buy the entire house, dismantle it and adaptively rebuild the home in Richmond. A few months later while Morse was supervising the take down of the Warwick Priory, he saw a similar advertisement for Agecroft Hall. He immediately cabled Mr. Williams, and sight unseen, Mr. Williams decided to purchase the manor house for $19,000. Morse became the supervising architect for both building projects. The cost to disassemble, transport and adaptively reassemble Agecroft as an American country house was considerably more that its purchase price: $250,000 to be exact – which, in today’s dollars, would be about $3.4M.
Finally, by December of 1927, the Williamses opened their house with two nights of glittering house warming parties for the social elite of Richmond. Mr. Williams and his wife, Elizabeth, better known as Bessie, were thrilled with their house and surrounded their new home with beautiful gardens laid out by noted landscape architect, Charles Gillette. Sadly, Mr. Williams only enjoyed his manor house for 14 months before he passed away in February of 1929. Bessie, however, was 29 years younger and in good health. She married a second time a few years later and enjoyed many happy years at Agecroft. She was a noted hostess and often entertained friends and family. During World War II, she and her second husband even opened their home for troops recuperating from war. She continued living at Agecroft and tending to the gardens even after she found herself a widow for a second time. Finally, in 1967 at the age of 75, Bessie moved out. In his will, T.C. Williams had left instructions that when his wife no longer needed the house, it should be turned into an art museum for the benefit of the Richmond public. Consistent with his philanthropic outlook, he even left an endowment to help realize the vision. The decision was made to convert the house from a 20th century residence to a historic house museum that interprets life in a manor house in the Tudor and early Stuart period. In 1969, Agecroft opened its doors to the public, and the 23-acre estate quickly became one of Richmond’s most unique cultural attractions.
Ultimately, Agecroft Hall made a trip over the ocean and through the centuries to land in Richmond. It faced certain destruction in its homeland, but, like countless immigrants to this country, it has adapted and thrived. The day after the sale of Agecroft was made public, an article in the Manchester Guardian bemoaned the proposed move and then admitted the fact that the sale was “grim justice” for the neglect the house had suffered from its native land in recent years. This led the author to wish for a happy ending for Agecroft writing, “Let us hope the future of the old place will be happier. A house that has crossed the ocean is presumably an object of some reverence. If we may picture Agecroft Hall queening it once more in ample meadows, with bright sunshine to throw up the clean, gay pattern of its timbering, and with its rafters echoing again to the sounds of a home, the rebirth will have its compensations.” How happy that author would be to see Agecroft today.
– Anne Kenny-Urban
How cool is that? If, like me, you are dying to go, you should know that the house offers guided tours six days a week and a wide variety of programming on topics ranging from historical lectures to living history demonstrations and performances of Renaissance music and dance. In the summer, the house is host to the Richmond Shakespeare Festival. It is the only place in North America where one can see the Bard’s dramas performed in the courtyard of a house that stood in England in Shakespeare’s lifetime (swoon). Next door, the former Warwick Priory, now known as Virginia House, was willed by its owners to the Virginia Historical Society (now the Virginia Museum of History and Culture) for the benefit of the public. For many years, it was open for tours as well, but now it is primarily an event space for the museum though you can get a look-see at its exterior…..
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