The Christmas morning that Tom Boyd opened his gift from his two children and found an antiquarian book of Andrew Jackson Downing’s “Victorian Cottage Residences”, he saw the story of Burgh Westra come full circle. Within the book’s pages lay its origin and its rebirth.
Not the oldest or largest estate to grace Gloucester County’s side of the North River, nevertheless this handsome and inviting pointed gothic cottage on forty acres is said to be the oldest house in the region still owned by its original family. Tom Boyd, the current owner, is the great-grandnephew of Dr. Philip Alexander Taliaferro, who had the home built in 1850. Burgh Westra, or “Village of the West” in Scottish, gets its name from a country home that played a central role in Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley series Vol. 3 “The Pirate”; a fiery novel whose irony would have far-reaching implications.
The home was built by Warner Throckmorton Taliaferro for his son, Philip, who was clearly the driving force behind Burgh Westra’s inception, having discovered Downing’s landmark novel while attending medical schools in Edinburgh and Dublin following completion of his preliminary medical studies in Virginia.
Edinburgh was the premiere internal medicine center of the world at that time, and Philip received his medical degree from the University of Dublin. He later worked in hospitals in London and Paris. While in Edinburgh, he discovered Downing’s book and having fallen in love with Scottish architectural styles, Dr. Taliaferro sent the book home to his father with instructions to build Design III, “A Cottage in the Pointed or Tudor Style” albeit with a reverse floor plan.
Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852), the first great American landscape architect, horticulturist, and writer was a prominent advocate of the Gothic Revival style in America. He collaborated with Alexander Jackson Davis, a successful and influential architect, to produce “Victorian Cottage Residences”, a much regarded pattern book of houses that blended romantic architecture with sensible layouts that included plans for well-appointed gardens and ancillary buildings.
Taliaferro’s discovery of the book while in Scotland was no surprise. The book was widely read and consulted, becoming the driving force behind much of the architecture of Victorian builders not only in America but the United Kingdom as well. Before sending the book home to his father, Dr. Taliaferro filled the book’s flyleaves and margins with sketches and notes for house plans, construction, and appointments.
Downing had suggested that this particular plan was best suited for a situation on the bank of a bold river. The North River was ideally suited to meet this requirement and the land on which Burgh Westra would sit was purchased by Warner Taliaferro from Elmington Plantation just up river. Extending from the river to what is now Routes 3 and 14 and encompassing 2200 acres, the property’s boundaries were marked by planting oak trees, many of which are still standing and now well over one hundred and fifty years old.
Upon completion, Burgh Westra was the essence of a Scottish country cottage with peaked arches above the upstairs windows, balconies on lane and river sides, and topped by two distinctive sets of triple chimneys that added elegant symmetry. By 1852, Dr. Taliaferro was back in America and practicing medicine in his home. When the Civil War erupted, he became aide-de-camp to his step-brother, Confederate Brigadier General William Booth Taliaferro. When the General was wounded at the Battle of Groveton in 1862, Dr. Taliaferro accompanied him to Richmond to oversee his recuperation.
Learning that Gloucester County, in the hands of Union troops, was without a doctor, Dr. Taliaferro returned to Gloucester and Burgh Westra became, for a time, a hospital where casualties from both sides were treated. Several dead were buried on its grounds in unmarked graves.
Following the war, both brothers set about reviving their farms, Philip at Burgh Westra and William at his home, Dunham Massey. The brothers were very close, even constructing a wooden bridge over the creek to link both properties. Cedar pilings from that bridge can still be seen. When Dr. Taliaferro died in 1901, having no children, Burgh Westra passed to his sister and then to her daughter, Susan Seddon Taliaferro Wellford Marshall.
The Boyd family moved to Burgh Westra in 1954 when Tom was seven. Following the death of his grandfather in 1933, the house had largely sat unoccupied for more than twenty one years. When his grandmother died, she left the house to Tom’s parents, Mildred Warner Wellford Marshall Boyd and Laurel Barnett “Pete” Boyd.
When Tom’s family arrived, the house was covered in vines and required extensive restoration. While Mr. Boyd labored on weekends and after work to make the house livable, the family rented a home in Ware Neck near Schley Post Office. “It’s really amazing,” says Tom incredulously. “The house sat empty for all those years with all the furnishings, all the antiques because the house had become a repository for family ‘stuff’, and no one ever broke in. The boy scouts used to camp out in the front yard but they never entered the house. This couldn’t happen today.”
Tom remembers life in 1950s Gloucester as slow and somewhat isolated, although he had enough friends and cousins living nearby to field a baseball and touch football team on Burgh Westra’s lawns. He graduated from Gloucester High School in 1964, went to college at The Virginia Military Institute, and in 1971 graduated from law school at the University of Virginia, eventually settling in Alexandria to practice law in Washington DC. Tom, his wife Carol, and his two children continued to spend weekends with family at Burgh Westra, enjoying its solitude. Then, in 1983 tragedy struck.
While his parents were vacationing away and their house sitter was at work, a fire broke out in the laundry area and Burgh Westra burned to the ground. All that remained were the two-foot thick brick walls, the twin chimneys, and a small portion of the interior. Included in the loss was Dr. Taliaferro’s treasured annotated copy of Downing’s “Victorian Cottage Residences”.
“The house sitter had left a load of laundry in the dryer when he left for work,” Tom recalls. “A short in the dryer electrical outlet started a smolder that apparently festered all day long before it burst into flames. The pressure from the fire built until it blew out the windows and fire quickly consumed the interior. My mother called that night and said, first of all they were alright, which is never a good start to a conversation, but Burgh Westra is gone.” It was a devastating blow for the entire family.
There was never any doubt that Burgh Westra would be rebuilt. Tom’s father supervised the first reconstruction in 1985 but the interior was quite different from the original. When Tom and Carol became the sole owners in 2005, they set about restoring the home to Dr. Taliaferro’s original design.
Despite the loss of most of the family’s possessions, when Burgh Westra was designated a historical property on the National Register of Historic Places in 1968, extensive inventories and photographs, including the pertinent pages of Downing’s book and much of the home’s original construction records, were taken as part of the nomination process. These became the blueprint for rebuilding.
Tom and Carol selected Robert Ottarson of Ottarson Construction in Ware Neck to restore Burgh Westra so that it would be virtually identical to the original structure, with only minor modifications. “This was the first restoration Robert had ever done and he did a fantastic job,” Tom says, pointing out the quality millwork and the unusual eight-panel doors evident throughout the house, which were reproduced from some original doors discovered stored in an outbuilding.
“When the house was finally completed in January 2008 and we spent our first night here, we felt right at home, says Tom. The following fall, when the Virginia Garden Club held its board meeting here, several architects were in attendance and one architectural historian commented that it was the finest restoration of a livable house he had ever seen.”
To control costs, the house was rebuilt using two by fours inside the brick walls and foundation of the original structure, thereby making it approximately 600 square feet smaller than the original. “Every room is slightly smaller,” Carol adds. “It was the equivalent of losing one large room. The skills of the craftsmen here in Gloucester County were just incredible.”
Using photographs of the original house, Tom and Carol shopped tirelessly at architectural salvage stores throughout the Washington area, thrilled to find Victorian fireplace surrounds and chandeliers for the sitting and dining rooms nearly identical to those that had originally graced the house.
A few pieces of antique furnishings and papers from Burgh Westra had fortunately escaped the fire having been at the Boyd’s home in Alexandria. These pieces became the foundation for refurnishing Burgh Westra with period pieces. Lost family portraits were recreated by taking the photos of the originals and having them professionally enlarged, colorized, and transferred to canvas. The final result is a home that has been reborn and will continue to be enjoyed by Dr. Taliaferro’s descendants.
Ironically, fire would also claim the life of Andrew Downing. In 1852 while traveling with his wife on the steamship Henry Clay, a boiler explosion quickly spread flames throughout the wooden hull and Downing was killed along with eighty others. A few ashen remains and his clothes were recovered a few days later.
His legacy continues today in his writings and drawings that have been faithfully republished, and in a lovingly restored home on one of our boldest rivers.