Mount Airy, the distinguished ancestral home of the Tayloe family on the Rappahannock River, in Richmond County, is of interest because of its unusually beautiful situation and as a fine example of the house and surroundings of an early Virginia planter of the wealthiest class. This interest is further increased by the knowledge that the estate has never passed out of the direct male line of descent of the family which has owned it for more than two hundred and sixty years. The present owner is William H. Tayloe of Washington.
In 1670, William Tayloe of London, who had inherited the estate from his uncle, Colonel William Tayloe, of York County, Virginia, came to Virginia, and soon thereafter built the original mansion on the low grounds of the river valley. Colonel John Tayloe, second of the name, in 1747 selected the high land, one mile from the original house, for his permanent seat and named it Mount Airy. With incredible expenditure of labor and time, the crest was levelled over a space of six acres and five sets of terraces were constructed and walled. The central building, and its two large wings and connecting covered ways, were completed about 1758. In contrast with the usual brick of the period, the native brown sandstone of the neighborhood was quarried and used for the massive construction, with trim of fine white standstone from Acquia above Fredericksburg.
The mansion does not even suggest the American colonial, but rather seems like a great English baronial house in its own setting. There is a trace of Southern Europe in the marble flooring and stonework of the loggia. The house is, nevertheless, completely Georgian in all characteristics. The architect, by family tradition, was a friend of Colonel Tayloe stationed with the army in Virginia, Colonel Thornton of London, perhaps kinsman of that William Thornton whose name was later associated with the erection of the Capitol at Washing-ton, and who planned for Colonel John Tayloe III his town house, The Octagon, erected there 1798-1800.
For a judgment upon the charm of Mount Airy as it was in 1805, we have the authority of Dr. Samuel Ripley, once occupant of the Old Manse at Concord. As a young man he was tutor at the house, and writes back that “as far as his knowledge extends, New England can not boast its superior in any point of view.”
On December 22, 1844, the central building was gutted by fire. Most of the furnishings and portraits of the main floor were safely removed, but only tradition now remains of the mahogany wainscoting mounted in silver, and the chandelier of French-cut glass, which the government attempted to purchase for the restoration of the White House after the sack of 1814.
The formal setting and character of the house and the monumental scale of the gardens suggests a European de-signer. A charming entrance motif is supplied by the carved stone urns in the forecourt. But these gardens have now the attraction of picturesqueness rather than of their former rigid propriety; for in the desperate years that followed the Civil War they were sadly neglected, the parterre lapsed into a lawn, and the orangery became a ruin of fine old brick arches, draped with trumpet vine, half hidden by ancient box trees. The massive holly trees along the forecourt, the magnificent old tulip poplars guarding the house, the English yews that have for so many years topped the terraces, the splotches of color of the roses bordering the “bowling green,” the views across the lowlands to the distant Essex hills-these now constitute an unforgettable picture to the present day visitor.