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Prato Rio (Hopewell, The Hut)

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Hopewell, The Hut
Various dates, beginning in 1742. West side of Jefferson County 1 in Leetown

Prato Rio is one of the most historic houses in West Virginia—and one of the most eccentric. Apparently, pioneer settler Jacob Hite built the log section, now the first story of a clapboarded rear ell. General Charles Lee, soldier of fortune, purchased the property in 1775 at the urging of General Horatio Gates, who had bought nearby Traveller's Rest ( JE18) two years earlier. During the first four years of his sevenyear ownership, Lee served in the Continental Army. He became second in command to General George Washington, but his military career was cut short following the Battle of Monmouth in 1778. The disastrous retreat he ordered resulted in an American defeat, and—at Washington's instigation—he was court martialed.

At some time during his ownership, Lee found time to add a three-bay stone block, faced in coursed rubble limestone, in front of the log house. He also changed the name from Hopewell to Prato Rio, Spanish for “stream through the meadow,” although he often referred to his home as The Hut. Here he retired with an Italian valet, several slaves, and a pack of dogs.

Lee's new addition lacked interior partitions, an omission that all visitors wanted to ascertain. Even after his death, the unique arrangement was remembered. James Taylor, who saw Prato Rio in 1864, was disappointed when he entered “a plastered and papered room 22 × 22 feet in size with all the comfortable appointments characteristic of a plain Virginia farmer's parlor.” He was appeased, however, when his host “ actually pointed out … the exact location of the chalk lines dividing parlor, bedroom, library, and dining room, and repeated Lee's sarcastic allusion thereto: ‘These chalk marks are an improvement on the walls.’” Taylor then waxed eloquent on the original arrangement: “Vanished all were the ragged walls, the rude puncheon floor, the slovenly man amid mould, dirt, books, and dogs, and the chalked-off neutral line with the great bowl placed thereo'er from which master and hounds impartially fed—Lee averring ‘that their breath was as sweet as man's.’”

Lee supposedly named his three favorite hounds Father, Son, and Holy Ghost to express his distaste for religion. His irascibility went far beyond chalk lines and sacrilegious canine names, however. Learning that Washington, visiting at nearby Harewood and hoping for a reconciliation after the Revolution, planned to call on him, Lee pinned a note to the door: “No dinner cooked here to-day.” He left his rural retreat in 1782 for Philadelphia. There he fell suddenly ill and died on October 2. His oftquoted will proves he intended to remain as eccentric in death as he had been in life: “I desire that my body shall not be interred in any church or church yard or within a mile of any Presbyterian or Anabaptist Church, for I have kept so much bad company while living, I do not choose to continue it when dead.”

Later owners enlarged Prato Rio in the first quarter of the nineteenth century with an additional stone section to the north. By the time Taylor drew the house in 1864, a second log story, now clapboarded, had been added to the rear ell. Also postdating Lee's ownership was a mammoth barn (1810; destroyed 1972) built of coursed rubble limestone and vertical frame siding. Gabled end walls extended beyond the first floor to brace a cantilevered forebay at the loft level, reached by an earthen ramp between stone retaining walls. It was one of the state's best examples of a Pennsylvania German bank barn. Fortunately, a HABS team recorded it in 1936–1937 with ten sheets of measured drawings and six photographs. A lightning strike caused a fire that destroyed it in 1972.

In 1973 Prato Rio was named West Virginia's fourth National Historic Landmark, commemorating its most distinguished, and most difficult, inhabitant.

Writing Credits

Author: 
S. Allen Chambers Jr.
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Citation

S. Allen Chambers Jr., "Prato Rio (Hopewell, The Hut)", [Kearneysville, West Virginia], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—, http://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/WV-01-JE17.

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