Early voyagers down the Ohio River were bewitched by what many thought was a mirage near the northern tip of this large island. John Bernard, who passed by in 1800 and recorded his observations in Retrospections of America, likened it to “a Persian pavilion.” Thomas Ashe, an English visitor, drifted by in 1806 and published his recollections in Travels in America. He first saw the immense curtilage: “one hundred acres of the best pasture, interspersed with flowering shrubs and clumps of trees,” and began to “wish that such a lawn had a mansion.” Just then a house “snow white; three stories high, and furnished with wings” came into view. Needless to say, he disembarked, and his British heart beat faster when his host and hostess served tea “with a propriety and elegance which [he had] never witnessed out of Britain.” Actually, the mansion, designed by a master builder from nearby Marietta, Ohio, was two stories, not three, and its style was Palladian, not Persian.
Rumors about the builder and his bride were rampant. Most thought they were English, but Bernard, an Englishman himself, was told that “the owner was a European recluse who had arrived in these regions about the period of the French Revolution, and, after purchasing the island, lived on it in seclusion, devoting himself to its adornment.” As far-fetched as the rumors were, the truth was just as bizarre. Harmon and Margaret Blennerhassett were well-to-do Irish emigrés who had fled scandal rather than revolution. Margaret was Harmon's niece, and they had married in Ireland when Blennerhassett was thirty-one and she was eighteen. It was partly to elude the ostracism of their family and neighbors, who considered their union incestuous, that they started life anew in America, obviously bringing lots of money to establish their new home on the frontier.
Fortescue Cuming, who described the house in his Sketches of a Tour to the Western Country (1810), provided a fine sense of its elegance just before its destruction by fire in 1811, though he was incorrect in some of its dimensions:
The house occupies a square of about fifty-four feet each side, is two stories high, and in just proportion. On the ground floor is a dining room of twenty-seven feet by twenty, with a door at each end communicating with two small parlours, in the rear of each of which is another room, one of which was appropriated by Mr. B. for holding a chymical [sic] apparatus, and as a dispensary for drugs and medicines.
The stair case is spacious and easy, and leads to a very handsome drawing room over the dining room, of the same dimensions. It is half arched round the cornices and the ceiling is finished in stucco. The hangings above the chair rail are green with gilt border, and below a reddish grey.
The body of the house is connected with two wings, by a semi-circular portico or corridor running from each front corner. In one wing is the kitchen and scullery, and in the other was the library, now used as a lumber room.
The Blennerhassetts had little time to enjoy their island Eden, thanks to Aaron Burr, who partook of their famed hospitality in 1805 and forever linked his name with theirs. Burr intended to launch a western empire from Blennerhassett Island, but his conspiracy, as it came to be called, was quashed, and he was tried for treason in Richmond. Although acquitted, he was ruined. Blennerhassett, of whom it was said at the trial that he “had every sense but common sense,” ultimately moved to England. The mansion burned in March 1811. By the time Benjamin L. C. Wailes from Mississippi passed by on his way upstream in 1829, “all vestiges of [Blennerhassett's] former inhabitants [had] passed away.”
From 1886 to 1912 a commercial park operated on and around the mansion site. The DuPont Company purchased the island in 1965 and subsequently leased it to the state of West Virginia. In 1973–1974 state archaeologists uncovered the stone foundations and decided that the remains, coupled with the many accounts that described the mansion in its heyday, provided sufficient information to justify a reasonably accurate reconstruction. The reconstruction was undertaken in 1984–1991 with state appropriations, along with a great deal of acrimony from those who thought the undertaking was a waste of public funds. TAG Architects of Charleston, with David S. Burson as supervisor, designed the reconstruction. According to another member of the firm, the result “is a meshing together of how a lot of people saw the house.” The replica occupies the exact site of the original, but to guard against inundation during floods, the land surface was raised several feet above the original grade.
The reconstructed mansion is a five-part Palladian composition: a two-story central block with curved colonnades connected to one-story offices. The five-bay central block has a hipped roof, with a pediment over the three central bays. Offices have pedimented gables echoing that on the main block. Inside, a number of original furnishings have been returned and provide a more convincing impression than many of the architectural details. Unfortunately, twentieth-century materials and techniques were often employed in the rebuilding, and if one looks behind the scenes, concrete block and mechanical equipment are all too evident. Still, as an earnest effort to recreate something of the grandeur the Blennerhassetts knew, the reconstruction, which has become a popular tourist destination, succeeds well enough. Ironically, because this stretch of the Ohio Valley has become so industrial, the first sight of the mansion awes contemporary visitors every bit as much as the original impressed those who saw it when the pristine wilderness surrounded it.