Monday, August 6, 2018

Richmond’s Version of the Anne Hathaway Cottage: A Little-known Companion to Virginia House and Agecroft in Windsor Farms.

In the early 1900s, America was in the ascendency and captains of industry like the DuPonts, the Astors, and the Rockefellers celebrated by emulating the tastes and customs of British aristocracy.  Richmond was no exception to this trend, and by the late 1920s a solidly Anglophile culture was drawn to a development west of Richmond named Windsor Farms. 

In contrast to the grand homes being built around the turn of the century, these wealthy Richmonders felt the Colonial Revival and Tudor revival styles so popular on Monument Avenue were only poor imitations the genuine architecture of the past.  They wanted something even more true to the English ideal, something real.

Ambassador Alexander Wedell and his next-door neighbor, Thomas C. Williams, Jr. took authenticity to its utmost expression in Windsor Farms.  It was termed Richmond’s first planned community and the first that acknowledged the ascendency of automobile culture in the design of the subdivision.  Windsor Farms, with its village green, brick sidewalks, and bucolic vistas was designed as an English town, beefed up to American standards but still evocative of village life as seen through the rosy lenses of its residents. 

An illustration of the original Anne Hathaway cottage in England, from the Windsor Farms magazine, “The Black Swan,” February 1928.

Not content with modern houses made of modern materials, Wedell and Williams both went to England and bought entire buildings constructed hundreds of years before, and from these materials created the Weddells’ Virginia House and Williams’ Agecroft Hall.  Large sections of centuries-old English homes were reassembled within sight of each other on Sulgrave Road to create these estates, and each house stood in a Charles Gillette-designed formal garden. 

Gillette (1886-1969), termed the father of the “Virginia Garden,” drew on the same nostalgia for Britain that fueled the expense and style of the two reconstructed English manor houses in Windsor Farms.  With his palate of brick and slate hardscapes punctuated by well-chosen plantings, Gillette was the perfect landscape architect to design the English-ish setting for these two unusual homes.

A 1928 article in Windsor Farms’ neighborhood magazine, the “Black Swan,” noted the architect for the reconstruction of what became Virginia House and Agecroft was Henry Morse (1884-1934).  Morse, it was said, “thought it would be a pity not to have a fine type of English cottage in an English village.”  The architype English cottage chosen was the house that was famous as the home of William Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway.  The original house in England was built in 1463 and Hathaway was born there in 1556.  According to the Black Swan article, architect Morse liked the idea but had no documentation of the original building, so produced a design of the house from a picture post card of the Anne Hathaway cottage.

A vintage picture postcard of the Anne Hathaway cottage in England.  Architect William Morse is said to have taken a similar postcard and from it designed the house in Richmond.

Richmond’s version of the Anne Hathaway cottage, on Tonbridge Road in Windsor Farms.  Its lush landscaping has grown since 1928 to add to the desired impression of a house hundreds of years old.

The house Morse designed in 1928 still stands today at 106 Tonbridge Road and has been owned by the same family for more than fifty years.  A 1967 newspaper article about this cottage notes that as a concession to Richmond weather, the house in Windsor Farms does not have a thatched roof but one constructed of especially steamed cedar shingles, formed and bent to give the proper flow and appearance of thatch.  The passage of ninety years since it was built have softened the landscape of Richmond’s Anne Hathaway Cottage, and the wall along the street is today lush with deep green moss.  What was an empty subdivision lot when Henry Morse pinned that postcard to the top of his drawing board is now graced with huge oaks, all contributing to the illusion of being, like the original, in Olde Warwickshire, England.

Henry Morse’s architectural patrons, Wedell and Williams, spent vast sums trying to get their little slices of England correct in design and effect.  Taking a subtler but still quite deliberate path, during construction of the Anne Hathaway cottage, beams were intentionally installed slightly unevenly.  Windows were not evenly spaced, and doorways were built slightly off-center to create the impression of a hand-hewn framework and the construction imperfections that might be found in a fifteenth-century house.

The roof of Richmond’s Anne Hathaway cottage has been designed to mimic straw thatching, but with the concession of modern shingles.

The Hathaway cottage, or the idea of it, spread around the world and each instance is an attempt, as was seen in Windsor Farms, to evoke that same authenticity of England past. Such is the appearance of the Anne Hathaway cottage, with its charming appearance and mythic associations, it has become the epitome of English cottage life and all that implies.  The cottage is evocative of an earlier time, an idealized state when yeomen Englishmen lived simple and honorable lives and nearby, Shakespeare forged the most iconic of English literature.  The denizens of Windsor Farms were not unique in summoning an idealized past, as embodied in the walls of an English cottage.  Versions of Anne Hathaway’s cottage, with greater or lesser accuracy, appear all over the world, each attempting to draw on the history and charm of the English original.

 Virginia’s second Anne Hathaway cottage, located in Staunton.

There is a version of the building constructed relatively recently in Staunton, Virginia.  Built in 2007, the Anne Hathaway Cottage Tea Room serves English high teas in its appropriately decorated rooms, often in connection with the nearby American Shakespeare Center. 

The Australian version of the Anne Hathaway cottage.

In Bedfordshire, Western Australia, stands another version of Anne Hathaway’s house.  Consistent with Henry Morse’s notion of “a fine type of English cottage in an English village,” this house was built by an English engineer named Leo Fowler in the 1970s as part of an entire Elizabethan village.  Fowler’s version is unusual in that it was apparently made from measured drawings of the original house in England, permission having been obtained from the trust that owns the real Anne Hathaway cottage.

A “half-Hathaway” in South Dakota. Here, only part of Anne Hathaway’s cottage is needed to suggest the charm of Old World England.

So strong is the of history and charm of the Anne Hathaway cottage, in one case only half the house is needed to evoke Shakespearian England.  Described as “the only structure with a thatched roof in South Dakota,” the Anne Hathaway Cottage in Wessington Springs is a copy of only the two-story half of the original.  It was built in 1932 by a Professor Shay and his wife, Emma, who were impressed by their travels around England in the 1920s.  Interestingly, this version of the Anne Hathaway house is also cited as having been designed from a postcard picture of the original.  The website for the South Dakota house says the house is “said to be an excellent likeness of the left half.”

The Anne Hathaway cottage in Odessa, Texas.

A thousand miles to the south stands another variation of Anne Hathaway’s home, this time in Odessa, Texas.  Built in 1988, this version of the cottage is an adjunct building to a reproduction of Shakespeare’s Globe theater, together comprising an institution grandly known as The Globe of the Great Southwest. 

This version of the Anne Hathaway cottage once stood in Victoria, British Columbia.  It was torn down in 2017.

There was a copy of the Anne Hathaway cottage that stood as part of a complex called “English Inn & Resort” in Victoria, British Columbia.  A photo taken before the house was demolished shows the roof forlornly covered with plastic sheeting – cool and wet British Columbia being perhaps even less friendly to thatched roofs than Richmond.  Expansion of the resort, combined with high maintenance costs resulted in the loss of this building. 

Each instance of Anne Hathaway’s home was built for deliberate effect, whether to evoke the memory of Shakespeare himself in connection with a theater, or as a contributing building to an inn or garden, or as a residence.  In every case, the intention was to summon up the charm and solid architecture of an idealized version of English history.  Each design is a variation on the theme, but each also draws on that romantic name and story of Anne Hathaway and her famous playwright husband. 

In 1928 “The Black Swan” gushed that Morse’s Anne Hathaway cottage “…makes one feel that a real portion of old England has been transported to the English village on the banks of the James River...”  Although it was far less grand and far less expensive than the nearby reconstructed manor houses, Morse’s vision of Anne Hathaway’s English cottage still reflects the same faith in mythic Anglo-American roots, the design and societal values of a very specific time, and the unique context of suburban Richmond in the 1920s.

- Selden Richardson. 

1 comment:

Leemur said...

A new post and a very interesting one! Thank you.