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Violet Bank

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1815. 303 Virginia Ave.
  • (HABS)

When Thomas Shore's 1796 residence was destroyed by fire, his widow, Jane Gray Wall, and her second husband, Benjamin Haxall, rebuilt this Federal house on the site overlooking the Appomattox River and the bustling town of Petersburg. The elaborate new house was unlike any other in the region until Oak Hill (CS6) was erected a decade later. Both are one-story center-passage frame houses with octagonal ends and an inset entrance. The eighty-two-foot rear wing at Violet Bank was removed in the early twentieth century. The inspiration for the house's unusual octagonal form is a matter of speculation. Architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe mentioned in his Journal that he visited Violet Bank in April 1796 while Shore was constructing his house. Later, the Haxalls may have consulted Latrobe before building this house or they may have been inspired by one or more of the octagonal-end houses in Richmond designed by Latrobe. Violet Bank, unlike Latrobe's two-story brick houses or the octagonal-end Point of Honor (BD53) in Lynchburg, is a one-story frame structure. Perhaps the Haxalls were influenced by Thomas Jefferson's preference for one-story buildings.

At Violet Bank, steps lead up to a three-bay entrance portico supported by slender Doric columns and crowned with a parapet. The house's intricate interiors have some of Virginia's finest Adamesque decoration. Its elaborately ornamented plasterwork ceilings are based on designs in Asher Benjamin's American Builder's Companion of 1806. In the front garden is a giant cucumber tree, a deciduous native Magnolia acuminata that is reputed to be more than two centuries old. Violets growing on the hillside may be the origin of the plantation's name, or it may be derived from a Shakespearean phrase, “bank of violets,” from Twelfth Night (Act I, Scene 1). During the Siege of Petersburg in the summer of 1864, General Robert E. Lee had his headquarters here and wrote to his brother Charles Carter Lee, “You will be delighted I am Sure at the name of the place—‘Violet Bank’. Is it not attractive?” (letter from Camp 12, August 12, 1864, in possession of Mildred Lee Finney, Annapolis, Maryland). The house is now a museum of local history.

Writing Credits

Anne Carter Lee

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