Stratford Hall’s Visitor Center in the Stetson Building was originally built in 1971 in honor of Eugene Stetson, who was instrumental in the purchase of the Stratford Hall property by the Robert E. Lee Memorial Foundation during the organization’s early years. The building was constructed to provide visitors an orientation to the Lee family and its historical legacies. From 2000-2002, exhibit areas were expanded and modified to make use of audiovisual components, making it possible for visitors to spend as much–or as little–time as they chose in the museum areas.
In the main lobby, visitors discover the variety of activities they can experience at Stratford, from hiking the nature trails and strolling through the restored gardens to guided architectural and decorative arts tours. There are many activities of interest throughout the 1900-acre plantation for visitors of all ages.
Lees of Stratford Gallery
The exhibit area focuses on Lee family history at Stratford. Visitors are initiated to the Lees with a diorama depicting Robert E. Lee in his tent during the Battle of Fredericksburg. A timeline guides the viewer through generations of Lee history, and objects owned by members of the Lee family are on display. The gallery features three life-size mannequins–one of Richard Henry Lee and two of Robert E. Lee. Visitors can activate videos on Architecture, the famous Band of Brothers, and Stratford during the Civil War.
The permanent exhibit in this gallery has incorporated new interpretive information and objects which are sure to please both new and returning visitors. Among the new object displays are fragments of artifacts from a rat’s nest found in the Great House attic, the original Hall chandelier hook, Arthur Lee’s writing box, a ceramic birdhouse once mounted in the eaves of an outbuilding c.1908, and other memorabilia from the Storke and Stuart ownership periods. Fun factoids on object labels provide entertaining information to enlighten visitors on the lives of the four generations of Lees and their servants and slaves who called Stratford home. The collections staff has added more secure object mounts and screens to reduce light levels on sensitive objects, while conservators treated some of the objects before installation. A big thank you to donors who helped fund this project: David H. Walker, Mr. and Mrs. Peter Irving Channing Knowles II, and Ann Bellah Copeland.
An interactive video on plantation life lets the visitor experience the daily activities of various members of the plantation community, including the planter himself, an indentured coachman, an itinerant music teacher, an enslaved carpenter and an enslaved manservant.
This gallery highlights archaeology at Stratford, from the early excavations in the 1930s to the more sophisticated Clifts Plantation dig in the 1970s. Discoveries made by the archaeological Field School sponsored by Stratford Hall in partnership with the University of Mary Washington are also featured.
One changing exhibit case focuses on the Miocene Era fossils that can be found on the property. A diverse array of fossils gives us clues to marine life in this area around 10 million years ago, from delicate scallop shells, stingray plates and sharks teeth of various sizes to the large snout (rostrum) and vertebrae of a baleen whale. A featured fossil is the tooth of a Megalodon shark that grew up to 50 feet long. Many of these terrific finds are on loan from public and private collections.
Another exhibit case focuses on the mythical Queen Caroline story–that she gave Thomas Lee money from her privy purse to build Stratford after his Machodoc home was burned. The story is a fabrication that has lingered since Ethel Armes published it in her Stratford Hall: The Great House of the Lees in 1936. However, during World War II, Stratford’s Board took advantage of the story and sent money to Britain (to aid the war effort) in the guise of returning the money that had been given to Stratford’s builder. The real story is much more fascinating than the made-up one!
Visitors to Stratford Hall now have the opportunity to learn about the purchase and preservation of Stratford by the Robert E. Lee Memorial Association. Eight display panels highlight preservation activities since 1929. Around the perimeter of the gallery are architectural artifacts that were removed from the Great House and outbuildings during the restoration by Fiske Kimball in the 1930s.
The Directors’ Bridge
The wood and steel bridge linking the Visitor Center with the historic area was built in honor of former Stratford Board members. The deep ravine below the bridge is typical of the topography of the plantation.