Stratford Hall was built about 1730, by Thomas Lee, president of the Council and acting governor of Virginia. It is of distinctive architecture, unlike any of the other famous colonial houses of the Old Dominion. The walls are in the out-line of a capital H, the wide wings meeting in a great central hall thirty feet square. Below is a half cellar with small windows; above are the family apartments, reached either by inside stairs or by a long flight of steps entering the central hall from the ground at the crossbar of the H. Over the whole of the main floor extends a vast attic through which a winding way leads to the roof, where once there was a gracious promenade fashioned between the two clusters of central chimneys.
For the pleasure of his daughters Philip Ludwell Lee is said to have kept a band of musicians who were accustomed to play on this promenade on summer nights.
Opposite each corner of the central house were service buildings, one of which was used as a kitchen. Its great fire-place, large enough to roast an ox, remains almost intact with some of the ancient fire-furnishings. To the left and front of the house, as one faces it, are the long, brick stables where once the mounts of the horse-loving Lee were groomed. The entire establishment, from mansion house to stables, is of a finely colored native Virginia brick. The woodwork of the mansion house, while not the most notable in Virginia, is admirable in design and finish, particularly in the central hall with its recessed bookcases. The panelled walls of this fine room were once hung with the family portraits of all the owners and their wives.
Thomas Lee, the builder of Stratford, was one of the most eminent Virginians of his day, though there is no foundation for the tradition that when an earlier, vaster Stratford was destroyed by fire, Queen Anne honored and aided him by a grant from her privy purse for the building of the present residence. The Stratford Hall known to history is the only structure that ever stood on the site as far as the records show. Within the present walls lived Thomas Lee until his death in 1750, and here were born at least four of his eight sons. Two of them, Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee, both signers of the Declaration of Independence, are said to have been born in the bedchamber at the right front end of the house as one faces it from the main approach. Here also Robert Edward Lee first saw the light.
Six sons of Thomas Lee attained to high distinction in Virginia: Philip Ludwell Lee, Thomas Ludwell Lee, William Lee and Arthur Lee, in addition to Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee.
Stratford was bequeathed by Thomas Lee to Philip Ludwell Lee, the oldest of his sons to reach manhood. Philip Ludwell Lee, who had studied law at the Inner Temple, London, married Elizabeth Steptoe of Westmoreland County. From him the mansion house and most of the surrounding estate passed to his daughter, Matilda, first wife of her cousin, Henry, bet-ter known as “Light Horse” Harry Lee. Her heir was her son, Henry Lee, sometimes called “Black Horse” Harry, to distinguish him from his father. The younger Harry Lee was half brother of Robert Edward Lee, for after the death of his wife, Matilda Lee, “Light Horse” Harry Lee married Anne Hill Carter, daughter of Charles Carter of Shirley. Robert Edward Lee was of the issue of this second marriage. “Light Horse” Harry Lee was guardian of Henry Lee, and remained at Stratford until three years after his son came of age in 1808. Then he removed to Alexandria. Robert E. Lee, therefore, lived at Stratford only from the time of his birth, January 19, 1807, until the family went to Alexandria in the winter of 1810-’11. In boyhood he probably visited Stratford frequently as the guest of his half brother Henry. Stratford finally passed from the hands of Henry Lee on foreclosure of mortgage, June 30, 1828.
Robert E. Lee always cherished the fondest memory of the ancestral home. “Your picture,” he wrote a young woman who sent him a photograph of a painting of Stratford in 1866, “recalls scenes of my earliest recollections and happiest days. Though unseen for years, every feature of the house is familiar to me.” In 1869, when preparing a new edition of his father’s Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department, he included in his preface a description of the grounds as he remembered them :
“The approach to the house is on the south, along the side of a lawn, several hundred acres in extent, adorned with cedars, oaks and forest poplars. On ascending a hill not far from the gate, the traveller comes in full view of the mansion, when the road turns to the right and leads straight to a grove of sugar maples, around which it sweeps to the house.”
The gardens probably were at the rear of Stratford Hall, whence there was a wooded walkway to a bluff overlooking a wide and glorious sweep of the gleaming Potomac. All that is now known of the gardens is contained in a brief reference by Lucinda Lee, about 1787, and in a later reference by Thomas Lee Shippen, a grandson of Thomas Lee, who visited Stratford Hall in 1790. Lucinda remarked that there were fig trees at Stratford; and Shippen, who was vastly interested in the family portraits, wrote his father: “It was with difficulty that my uncles * * * could persuade me to leave the hall to look at the gardens, vineyards, orangeries and lawns which surround the house.” That is all, but to women who know the tastes of the Lee family and the gardening methods of the day, there can be little difficulty in creating again a garden much like the one on whose walks Richard Henry Lee meditated of American liberties a generation before the toddling Robert Lee tried to catch butterflies there. The restoration of those gardens is a labor of love, worthy of the Garden Club of Virginia, which have to their credit so much of patriotic and aesthetic service.