The Stewart-Lee House

The History of the Stewart-Lee House

The Stewart-Lee House was built in 1844 by the Stewart family of Brook Hill in Henrico County. It was used by the prominent family on visits to the City of Richmond.

When General Lee arrived in Richmond in 1861, John Stewart offered him the use of the house at 707 East Franklin. The offer was accepted and the house was quickly converted into bachelor’s quarters for a party of young Confederate officers including Lee’s son General Custis Lee. In July of 1861, General Lee left Richmond for an extended tour in western Virginia. He returned in October of 1861, only to leave five days later for an extended trip to Savannah, Georgia.

With the loss of Arlington House, Mrs. Lee had no home to call her own. With her arrival in Richmond in June of 1862, Mrs. Lee stayed with friends at 11th and Clay until she rented a house on Leigh Street. In October of 1863, Mrs. Lee expressed a desire to move to 707 East Franklin. In January of 1864, the bachelor’s mess was broken up and Mrs. Lee moved in.

At the time of the evacuation fire of Richmond, when the Confederate government and many prominent citizens fled, Mrs. Lee and her daughters stubbornly chose to remain behind. The fire reached Eighth and Franklin Streets and the house next door to 707 caught fire, but Mrs. Lee could not be persuaded to leave. A Union officer came to the house eager to move the wife of the Confederate general to safety. Mrs. Lee refused to budge and ordered the enthusiastic soldier out. A Union guard was sent to protect the house and its occupants, and was not dismissed by Mrs. Lee.

Following Appomattox, General Lee made his way back to Richmond and to the peace and quiet of his family at the house on Franklin Street. Douglas Southall Freeman described the scene of Lee’s arrival at the Lee House, a truly historic moment of deep significance.

Arriving in front of the house, he turned his horse over to one of the men attending the wagons. The heartbroken civilians of Richmond, widows, old men, maidens, thronged him as the soldiers had at Appomattox. They wanted to speak to him and to shake his hand, and if that was impossible, at least to touch his uniform. He grasped as many outstretched palms as he could. In a moment, with his emotions strained almost to tears, he made his way to the iron gate, and up the granite steps. Bowing again to the crowd, he entered the house and closed the door. The cheers of the crowd died out, and began to scatter. His marching over and his battles done, Robert E. Lee unbelted his sword forward.

Visitors began to come to 707 East Franklin in a steady stream. Friends, relations, returning soldiers and officers of both armies called to see him. The General had to take his exercise at night in order not to be surrounded by admirers in the streets.

Lee daily received offers inviting him to move elsewhere, to head business enterprises at high salaries, and even to move to England to be the lifetime guest of a nobleman. He declined them all. “I am deeply grateful,” he wrote to the Britisher, “(but) I cannot desert my native state in the hour of her adversity. I must abide her fortunes and share her fate.”

He told his friends, “Virginia and every other state in the South needs us. We must try and, with as little delay as possible, go to work to build up their prosperity.”

The Photograph

When news of the surrender at Appomattox reached Mathew Brady in Petersburg, he and his assistant gathered together their equipment and drove about a hundred miles to the McLean House. In the room of the signing they found nothing to photograph. Souvenir hunters had taken all movable articles. Brady hurried to Richmond over the same route Lee had just taken; he went with the sole purpose of making portraits of the General.

There seemed to be a fair prospect of getting what he wanted, for after all, he had known Lee for many years. “It was supposed,” he told a war correspondent, “that it would be preposterous to ask him to sit, but I thought that there would be time for the historical picture.” Lee’s family politely turned Brady away. But Brady did not give up. He went to an intimate friend, General Robert Ould, Federal commissioner of prisoners, and Ould prevailed on Mrs. Lee to prevail in turn on the General. Brady was permitted to come to the house and was allowed one hour to photograph Lee on the lower back porch. Several photographs were taken outside the back door to the basement hall. This space facing South, but shaded by the floor of the porch above, was the perfect choice for capturing in gentle light the war weary general. There are two versions that are often reproduced. One is General Lee seated in a rococo revival arm chair with Rooney Lee standing on his right and Colonel Taylor standing on his left. The other is the general standing alone. The latter is a masterpiece in the history of photography. Brady positioned Lee’s head at the point where the four top panels in the door intersect – thereby placing his face in the center of a perfect cross. One can only wonder if Brady did it on purpose. In the lower right-hand panel of the door is a crack that runs the height of the panel. It was, of course, the late Dr. Harry Warthen who pointed this out to HRF with a request that the crack never be fully repaired. Today I warn workmen away. We have an average of a dozen or so visitors a month who ask to see the house. A majority of them know of the Brady photographs and like to be photographed in front of the door. Fortunately we have a rococo arm chair very much like the general’s that we let them use.

The Last Days for the Lee Family

The story has often been told that after the war when General Lee attempted to pay John Stewart the rent that was due, Stewart refused payment and Lee persisted. Stewart finally wrote that “the payment must be in Confederate currency, for which alone it was rented to your son.”

Late in the afternoon of the last week in June the Lees drove down to “The Basin”, a few blocks below the house, and took the packet boat up the James to Powhatan County before permanently settling in Lexington, Virginia. General Lee had closed the door of 707 East Franklin Street for the last time.

Beyond the Civil War Years

In 1893, the Stewart Family gave the house to the Virginia Historical Society. The society added a three story annex in the 1920′s at the rear of the house to replace the carriage house because it needed space for a book depository. When the society moved to new quarters, the house was transferred to the Museum of the Confederacy. The museum used the house for exhibit space for almost 20 years.

In 1980, the museum transferred the ownership of the house to the Historic Richmond Foundation. The foundation leased the rear annex and the basement of the house to Traveller’s Restaurant Corporation to operate a restaurant. The corporation spent more than $1 million renovating the basement and annex for its use. The first, second and third floors of the house were leased to several architectural firms for their office use. The restaurant closed in 1993 and the Historic Richmond Foundation moved its offices into the rear annex.

In 2000, the foundation moved to new offices in Richmond and began to search for a permanent steward for the Stewart-Lee House. At the same time, the Home Builders Association of Virginia, a 5,000 members statewide organization of home builders and firms that provide products and services to the home building industry, was searching for an historically significant building near the state capitol for their office needs and to reinforce the organizations commitment to historic preservation and inner-city revitalization as important parts of “Smart Growth”.

The two parties were introduced and consumated the sale in January of 2001. A significant component of the sale from Historic Richmond Foundation to the Home Builders Association of Virginia was an historic easement, that all parties agreed to, that was granted to the Virginia Historic Resources Commission. The easement insured that the interior and exterior of the house would be renovated and maintained in its historic form.

The Home Builders Association began their renovation of the house in June of 2001. The recently completed $400,000 renovations included much needed cosmetic repairs to the exterior and interior of the building, the installation of a new heating/air conditioning system, technological, electrical and plumbing upgrades, as well as some improvements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

HBAV offices occupy the second and third floors of the Stewart-Lee House. The first floor of the brick home is furnished with period furniture and is decorated to be indicative of the building’s 19th century construction period. The historically significant home will be available for selected tours and visitations by appointment through HBAV.

Please enjoy this short video produced by Bud Walker, great-great-great grandson of David Walker who came to Richmond in 1823 to go into the tobacco business with his Uncle Norman Stewart.