Eyre Hall on Virginia’s Eastern Shore

Editorial Staff Furniture & Decorative Arts

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).

When Littleton Eyre died in 1768, he left his land, including the fifteen-hundred-acre Eyre Hall plantation, to his only son, Severn. As a teenager, Severn had been sent to a school in Abington, Virginia, run by William Yates, who would later become president of the College of William and Mary and rector of Bruton Parish Church, both in Williamsburg. Severn spent two years at William and Mary beginning in 1754. In 1760 he married Margaret Taylor (1739-1812) of Norfolk, the daughter of a prominent merchant. Like his father, Severn was a vestryman of Hungar’s Parish and a member of the House of Burgesses. On May 18, 1769, he signed the Virginia nonimportation resolutions along with fellow burgesses George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry. Traveling to New England in the company of his friend the Reverend Richard Hewitt the following year, Eyre met John Adams who recorded in his diary:

We all dined at Stedman’s and had a very agreable Day. The Virginia Gentlemen are very full, and zealous in the Cause of American Liberty. Coll. Ayers [Eyre] is an intimate Friend of Mr. Patrick Henry, the first Mover of the Virginia Resolves in 1765, and is himself a Gentleman of great fortune, and of great Figure and Influence in the House of Burgesses. Both He and Mr. Hewit[t] were bred at the Virginia Colledge, and appear to be Men of Genius and Learning. . . .These gentlemen are all Valetudinarians, and are taking the Northern Tour for their Health.7

In January 1773 the Virginia Gazette announced the death of Severn Eyre of a “pleuritick” disorder in Norfolk, noting that “He was a Gentleman of Abilities, a warm Friend to his Country, and greatly esteemed.”8

Only five years separate the detailed probate inventories of Littleton Eyre’s estate recorded in 1769 and Severn’s taken in 1774. It is apparent that Severn and Margaret Eyre had been active participants in the eighteenth-century consumer revolution, adding luxury goods to the household that expanded their ability to entertain in a genteel fashion. The 1774 inventory specifies two turkey carpets, “Queens china,” “two neat fowling pieces silver mounted,” “1 Violin Bow and Case,” and a three-hundred-volume library. To his father’s furnishings, which included “Forty five black Walnut, Cherry, and Megoggony Chairs” as well as twelve windsor chairs and “6 Leather Maple Chairs,” Severn added a fashionable mahogany sideboard table, a desk-and-bookcase, and a pair of card tables-these last possibly the ones produced in the Anthony Hay shop in Williamsburg that have descended through the family, one of which remains at Eyre Hall (see Fig. 7).9 The silver listed in Littleton Eyre’s probate inventory totaled 237 ounces. To the forms delineated, Severn added a “coffee pott,” a “tea pott,” a pair of silver candlesticks, a pair of “Silver Butter & Boats,” and two dozen “new Silver table Spoons.” Both inventories include “1 large silver Punch Bowl,” which, valued at thirty pounds, was the most expensive single article of silver included in 1774. This is almost certainly the so-called Morning Star punch bowl made in London by John Sutton in 1692 and a rare survival of seventeenth-century domestic silver with a Virginia provenance. Eyre family lore recalls that Morning Star, a family racehorse, quaffed champagne from the bowl after winning a race (see Fig. 7).

Severn Eyre’s death at thirty-seven left his widow to care for his business interests, plantation, and six children under the age of thirteen. The eldest son, Littleton (b. c. 1765), attended the College of William and Mary, where he was a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. The second son, Severn (b. 1769), was sent to London to pursue a course of medical study at Guy’s Hospital. In a series of weekly letters to Littleton in Virginia, Severn chronicled his studies and the diversions of London, including candid reports of his dalliances with prostitutes. In one letter he justified the beneficial effects of his nocturnal activities, observing, “speaking physically [I] think nature has clearly pointed out their advantages in clearing the head & stomach…for I declare positively that Dr. Saunders lecture is more easily comprehended after such an indiscression.”10 Severn died in London in 1786 and Littleton followed in 1789. At twenty-one, the third son, John, inherited Eyre Hall, over which he would preside for sixty-six years.

John Eyre married Ann Upshur of Warwick in Accomac County in 1800. She was nineteen, and like her thirty-two-year-old husband had a distinguished Eastern Shore ancestry going back to the seventeenth century. Ann and John Eyre made subtle but fashionable changes to the house, including replacing a simple bolection fireplace molding in the parlor with a neoclassical chimneypiece featuring a carved urn and anthemions (see Fig. 1). To a late eighteenth-century story-and-a-half extension, they added a full second story in 1807 and extended the whole to accommodate a dining room (see Figs. 12, 13), storeroom, and housekeeper’s room. A “porch room” with an architectural display cupboard connected this wing to the original house.

A barrel organ made in London by George Pike England in 1804 provided dance tunes, marches, and hymns for the merriment and edification of the musical household and its guests (see Fig. 5). A new and extensive dinner service of Chinese export porcelain in the neoclassical taste decorated with orange and brown swags and the cipher E guaranteed that the Eyres’ table would be the most fashionably set in Northampton County. The suite of Baltimore furniture in the classical taste dating from about 1818 to 1825 that is now in the passage was probably ordered for that space (see Fig. 6). With Baltimore’s emergence as the Chesapeake’s primary business and maritime hub, the city’s furniture manufacturers had a ready market in the more rural areas of the Chesapeake as well as Norfolk.

Reflecting the early nineteenth-century interest in the romantic and the exotic, as well as enthusiasm for botany and horticulture, the Eyres installed French scenic wallpaper depicting Turkish scenes along the Bosphorus (see Figs. 5, 6, 9). The wallpaper, which later became known as Rives du Bosphore, was designed before 1812 and advertised in the United States by 1817. Joseph Dufour et Compagnie, the manufacturer, suggested its usefulness for “history and geography lessons,” stating that the several kinds of “vegetation can themselves serve as an introduction to the history of plants.”11 It seems plausible that the paper was installed about the same time as the building of the orangery, most likely completed by 1818 when Ann Eyre wrote to John McHenry (1791-1822) of Baltimore asking for clippings from his orangery.12 John and Ann Eyre also enclosed the vast parterred boxwood garden sometime in the early nineteenth century, although the inclusion in the 1774 inventory of “1 Stone Roller, Spades, Rakes etc.” as well as “1 pair Gardener’s Shears and 2 Water Potts” suggests that there was an ornamental garden on the property during Severn Eyre’s lifetime.13

In 1855 John Eyre’s great-nephew Severn Eyre III (1831-1914) inherited Eyre Hall and saw the property safely through the Civil War and into the twentieth century. A Princeton graduate with a Harvard law degree, he never practiced and considered himself a planter. At his death Eyre Hall was inherited by his granddaughter, the present owner’s mother, Margaret Eyre Taylor Baldwin (1898-1979), whose affection and respect for her ancestral home were equaled only by her generosity in sharing it with others. Following a sympathetic restoration and modernization by the architectural firm of Victorine and Samuel Homsey of Wilmington, Delaware, and Boston in the 1930s, Eyre Hall has been open for April’s annual Garden Week in Virginia every year of the Eastern Shore tour since 1941.

It is the totality of Eyre Hall, its collections, its historic landscape, and its history of stewardship over many generations, that distinguishes this Eastern Shore landmark. In the simple brick- and picket-walled cemetery adjacent to the garden and in the shadows of the orangery ruins (see Fig. 15) are buried all but one of the owners of Eyre Hall, the exception being the first Severn Eyre, who died in Norfolk and is buried there. The one nonfamily grave, marked by a simply shaped headstone, is of one James Marshall, “a Georgian by birth, who many years resided here, a sort of dependent friend, who presided over the destinies of all the musical instruments about the establishment.”14 On a still autumn evening in this intact landscape surrounded by the contributions of all who have called Eyre Hall home, it is quite possible to recall Mr. Marshall, “the thrilling sounds of whose violin [are] almost audible now in that wide hall, light feet and lighter hearts keeping time to its music.”15

1 Fanny Fielding, “Southern Homesteads,” Land We Love, vol. 3, no. 6 (October 1867), pp. 504-511.  2 Mills Wehner and Ralph Harvard, Paneled Walls, Paneled Furniture (Eastern Shore of Virginia Historical Society, Onancock, Va., 2002), p. 7. For Eastern Shore architecture and furniture, see Henry Chandlee Forman, The Virginia Eastern Shore and Its British Origins:  History, Gardens and Antiquities (Eastern Shore Publishers’ Associates, Easton, Md., 1975); Ralph T. Whitelaw, Virginia’s Eastern Shore: A History of Northampton and Accomack Counties (Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, 1951); and James R. Melchor, N. Gordon Lohr, and Marilyn S. Melchor, Eastern Shore, Virginia, Raised-panel Furniture, 1730-1830  (Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, Va., 1982).  3 Michael O. Bourne and Marilyn Harper, Eyre Hall, National Register Nomination, July 7, 2009, copy provided by Bourne.  4  Ibid.  5 William Waller Hening, The Statutes at Large; Being A Collection Of All the Laws Of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619, vol. 5 (Richmond, 1815), pp. 364-365.  6 “An Inventory of the estate of Colonel Littleton Eyre deceased,” 1769, Northampton County Wills and Inventories, vol. 24, 1766-1772, pp. 224-226, Northampton County Courthouse, Eastville, Virginia (microfilm available at the Library of Virginia, Richmond).  7 Entry for August 22, 1770, diary 15, Diaries of John Adams, Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive, Massachusetts Historical Society, www.masshist.org/digitaladams.  8 Virginia Gazette [Purdie and Dixon], January 28 1773.  9 “An Inventory and Appraisement for the Estate of Severn Eyre Esq. deceased taken 27th February 1774,” Northampton County Wills and Inventories, vol. 25, 1772-1777, pp. 390-400,  Northampton County Courthouse (available on microfilm at the Library of Virginia).  10 Entry for September 5, 1785, Severn Eyre diary, Virginia Historical Society, as quoted in Lorri Glover, “‘Let Us Manufacture Men’: Educating Elite Boys in the Early National South,” in Southern Manhood: Perspectives on Masculinity in the Old South, ed. Craig Thompson Friend and Lorri Glover (University of Georgia Press, Athens, 2004), pp. 33.  11 Quoted in Catherine Lynn, Wallpaper in America from the Seventeenth Century to World War I (W. W. Norton, New York, 1980), p. 202.  12 Ann Eyre to John McHenry, 1818, letter in the collection at Eyre Hall.  13 Severn Eyre inventory.  14 Fielding, “Southern Homesteads,” pp. 508-509.  15  Ibid.

J. THOMAS SAVAGE, a native of Virginia’s Eastern Shore, is the director of museum affairs at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware.