September 2009 | Photography by Langdon Clay |
"Eyre Hall...all through its venerable existence but another name for everything elegant, graceful and delightful in Old Virginia life."
Fanny Fielding's nostalgic reminiscence of Eyre Hall during the ownership of John Eyre depicts a place we would recognize today.1 Still to be found are "the timely-clipped hedges of box and dwarf-cedar," "the antique India china, with its burnished ‘E' on each piece," and the "immense organ which plays forty tunes." Gone, of course, are John Eyre, "devoted to purposes of usefulness and benevolence," his wife Ann Upshur Eyre (1780-1829), "highly educated, witty, fluent in conversation...an exquisite musician," and their enslaved butler, "Uncle Nat, who dons the courtly manners of his master, and calls all the young people ‘my dear.'" The author knew the place well, for Fanny Fielding was a pseudonym for the poet and author Mary J. S. Upshur (1828-1907), a relative of Ann Eyre. Her sketch of Eyre Hall appeared in the Land We Love, a magazine founded by former Confederate General Daniel H. Hill that featured articles in a genre whose sentimental idealizations have come to be known as literature of the "Lost Cause." Almost a century and a half after Fielding's reminiscence was published, Eyre Hall's fate is anything but lost. The current owner, the eighth generation on the property and the eleventh generation on Virginia's Eastern Shore, has devoted considerable energy to the documentation and conservation of the house, its contents, gardens, outbuildings, and landscape setting, ensuring the preservation of this historic Virginia property for generations to come.
The Eastern Shore of Virginia developed both architectural and furniture-making traditions distinctive from those of the mainland. Made up of two counties, Northampton to the south and Accomack, an American Indian word meaning "on the other side," to the north, the peninsula is separated from the Virginia mainland by the Chesapeake Bay. Bounded by marshland inlets and barrier islands on the Atlantic Ocean "seaside" and navigable necks and creeks on the Chesapeake "bayside," its geographic containment fostered independent traditions. At the same time, being within easy reach by water to style centers such as Norfolk and later Baltimore guaranteed that the gentry had access to fashionable imported goods, modish designs, and skilled craftsmen. As Mills Wehner and Ralph Harvard have noted, "this select isolation resulted in the engaging combination of sophistication and rusticity that characterizes so much of the early Shore furniture and architecture."2
Stylistically Eyre Hall represents a conscious combination of architectural sophistication and regional preference (see Figs. 2, 3). Houses of wood frame construction with gambrel roofs were popular locally and throughout the Chesa peake, but rarely for the richest of the gentry, who tended to build in brick. It could be hypothesized that Littleton Eyre (1710-1768), for whom the original house was built, wished to erect a structure in keeping with the traditions of his neighbors but of a scale and level of finish that spoke to his position and aspirations. Investigation and research by the architectural historian Michael O. Bourne, including dendrochronology, scientific dating based on the analysis of tree-ring growth patterns, determined that the main section was constructed with timber felling datable to the winters of 1756 to 1757 and 1758 to 1759. A large cast-iron fireback in the principal second-floor chamber is signed and dated "B. Grymes Nov. 5, 1758," reconfirming a completion date of about 1759 for the main section.3
Littleton Eyre was a member of the fourth generation of the family to inhabit Northampton County. Their presence on the Eastern Shore goes back to 1623 when the immigrant Thomas Eyre I (d. 1657) settled on land at the southernmost portion of the county. Through land patents and strategic marriages, each generation amassed land, wealth, and power. Littleton Eyre's marriage in 1734 to Bridget Harmanson (d. 1768), a great-great-granddaughter of Sir George Yeardley (c. 1580-1627), three-time colonial governor of Virginia, continued to ally the Eyres with other wealthy and powerful landed Virginia families; and by 1754, the year Eyre bought the property on which the house stands, he could boast ownership of over three thousand acres and 106 slaves.4
Like many of the emerging landholders of eighteenth-century Tidewater Virginia, Eyre was both a merchant and a planter. By the mid-eighteenth century he had diversified, adding grain to the lucrative tobacco crop and investing in a gristmill and a tannery. With his neighbor John Bowdoin and later with Isaac Smith, he formed a partnership to purchase tobacco and grain from neighbors for export and to import manufactured and consumer goods for sale. In February 1745 the House of Burgesses had granted Eyre the franchise for a ferry connecting the Eastern Shore to the western. The enactment specified the prices for travel between "York, Hampton or Norfolk towns" and "the land of Littleton Eyre, Hungar's River, in Northampton county...for a man passing singly, twenty shillings, and for a horse the same; for a man and a horse, or if there be more, for each fifteen shillings."5
In colonial Virginia's credit economy "ready money" was scarce, making the ferry monopoly a valuable source of cash. In addition to serving his county as lieutenant commander of the local militia, sheriff, and a justice of the court, Eyre was a vestryman of Hungar's Parish and Northampton County's elected representative in the House of Burgesses for almost twenty years, from 1742 to 1761.
If the exterior of Littleton Eyre's new house spoke to the familiar architectural vernacular, the interior expressed familiarity with Georgian classicism and proportion. The impressive passage is divided into two distinct areas with the fully paneled entry the most highly finished space in the house (see Fig. 5). The tapering fluted pilasters, five-part Ionic cornice, and heavy fluted keystone over the south, or entrance, door are architectural refinements suggestive of an enlightened patron. An exceptional standard of finish is also found in less obvious fine points of construction, including the doweled and blind nailed flooring throughout this section of the house and the blind mounted brass hinges with which the eight-panel doors are hung (see Figs. 11, 14). A wide elliptical arch divides the passage from the stair hall, which is less finely finished, with plaster above the dado. Included in Littleton Eyre's estate inventory is a "parcel of stamped paper for hanging,"6 perhaps a remnant of fashionable wallpaper installed in the stair hall after construction. The hierarchies of the passage are mirrored in the two rooms of the main block. While the parlor is fully paneled with pairs of fluted classical pilasters flanking the fireplace (see Fig. 1), the smaller room now used as a library is finished with a simple paneled chimney breast and plaster above the dado (see Fig. 11).