The mansion at Bremo was built by General John Hartwell Cocke during a period of several years, ending in 1819, under conditions which made possible its exceptional design and execution. The Bremo estate was part of a land grant to Richard Cocke in the latter part of the seventeenth century, and consisted of a very large tract extending along the hills and fertile lowlands bordering on the James River in what are now Fluvanna and Buckingham Counties.
The original building on this estate was a small, stone hunting lodge (1725) , afterwards amplified into the Lower Bremo residence with its charming Tudor gables and multiple chimneys. General Cocke made his home at Lower Bremo and at Recess while planning and building the more formal residence at Bremo, which he undertook in the grand manner on his marriage to Anne Blaws Barraud.
The sketches and studies for the mansion show the elaborate consideration which was given the classic design, and account for certain of the most effective details, notably the counter-sunk panels in the north elevation of the wings. The credit for the superb outline and proportion of the structure must, however, be given to Thomas Jefferson, whose original plans for Bremo were, during the present generation, seen at the University by students of Jefferson’s architecture. These original drawings have been lost or were destroyed in the fire in 1894; but there has never been any doubt of Jefferson’s responsibility. There has been an impression that the general’s descendants desired to ascribe to General Cocke himself the credit for the design. This is erroneous. That the plans were, in the main, the work of Jefferson, has been a matter of unbroken tradition and acknowledgment in the family.
In executing the work, General Cocke proceeded with the utmost pains to do justice to the conception. The brick was molded in copper and hardwood molds by hand. The care with which the brick were laid is attested by the fact that the fine-drawn mortar joints still bear the original tool marks and that, with the exception of the flattened roof over the peristyle connecting the wings with the main house, the entire structure stands intact today in all of the magnificence of its classic perfection in 1819.
The mansion consists of a central mass, with tall columns perfectly proportioned, supporting the front with pedestal and with slenderer columns supporting the porticos on each side. From each of these porticos a gallery, flanked by columns on the south side, and on the north by the brick wall retaining the main lawn, extends to a wing. The wings are parallel with the main axis, simple and impressive in design. Their north ends are relieved by a graceful, single panel, and on the south, overlooking the lovely low grounds along the James and the Buckingham hills in the distance, the wings end in porticos supported by simple, brick arches. The massive dignity of the central unit is relieved and idealized by the perfection of its balance, and thrown into charming relief by the broad moulding at the cornice, with a balustrade around the entire roof above.
The huge barn, in the near distance, flanking the old canal, would be an outstanding structure in its own right were its glory not so overwhelmed by the mansion on the hill. We have here, also, the stately columns, the vast doors with wrought-iron straps ten feet long, the clock tower, in which the sweet-toned convent bell, presented by Lafayette, once reckoned time for the plantation.
One of the problems interesting the present owners is the restoration of Temperance Spring, a replica in miniature of one of the classic temples near Rome. The uniquely beautiful winding stone stairs to the flat roof of the temple, supported by columns and pilasters of Italian marble, leave little to be done to restore the monument to its original loveliness; but the passage of more than a century and the surrender of the canal, on whose banks it stood, to the railroad, has made desirable the removal of this little gem of the Bremo estate to a location over another spring under the great trees at the foot of the lawn.
A well-known New York architect writes that he considers Bremo “the most magnificent conception of a house” that he has seen in America. Another says:
“It is hard to say which is the more notable, the extreme, classic monumentality of the house itself, the superb, unified general disposition, the completeness of the establishment in every detail of its plantation buildings, or the remarkable and beautiful character of these outbuildings themselves.
“Jefferson’s manuscript design, which was preserved in my memory, and seen by those who have described it to me, was, I think, the finest of all his works in classic architecture, in its unity and beauty. I do not even except Monticello, for that, as we have it, was the fruit of his remodellings of 1796 to 1809, and drafted on his first design of 1769, and thus does not possess quite the artistic unity of Bremo. While rendering his due to Jefferson, I do not forget what it meant to him to have at Bremo such a client as General Cocke, with the courage to carry out the scheme in all its magnificence, and an independent knowledge and skill in architecture to which no doubt must be referred not only the execution of Jefferson’s design, but the design of the superb series of outbuildings.”