On October 5 at 1 P.M., the Poe Museum will receive the largest gift in its history, a house. The house just happens to be the oldest in Richmond, the Old Stone House. Though we are not exactly certain when it was built, dendrochronology (testing of the tree rings in wood) dates the floorboards to 1754. For over ninety years, the Poe Museum has occupied the house, which remains the property of Preservation Virginia, formerly known as the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, while the other three buildings in the Poe Museum complex belong to the Poe Foundation.
The history of the Old Stone House is a colorful one. From the 1740s until 1911, the property was owned by the Ege family, who were among the first residents of the city. In 1781, one of the residents, Elizabeth Ege Welsh, supposedly saw Benedict Arnold invade and set fire to Richmond from the house. By the 1840s, the house appears in guide books for visitors to the city. Around 1881, the house was rented to R. L. Potter, “The Wheelbarrow Man,” who used it to exhibit an assortment of unusual objects he had collected while pushing a wheelbarrow from New York to California and back. One account says he even displayed a live bear in one of the rooms. In 1894, the house was known as Washington’s Headquarters Antiquarium and Relic Museum, which published a guide book to perpetuate some tall tales about how the house had been built by Powhatan, used as a courthouse by Patrick Henry, and used as George Washington’s headquarters during the American Revolution (though Washington never actually set foot in the city during that war). Some old postcards show the house with a large “Washington’s Headquarters” sign hanging next to the front door.
In 1913, the Ege family lost the property, and Granville Valentine purchased the building to save it from destruction. Valentine, in turn, donated it to the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, who tried to find someone to rent it. A renter who had intended to use it as an antique store left because the property was being vandalized. Then Archer Jones, owner of the Duplex Envelope Company, approached the APVA with the idea of using the house as a museum of Colonial history. Jones and his wife soon met the Poe collector James Whitty, who wanted to reconstruct the recently demolished office of the Southern Literary Messenger in the junk yard behind the house. In 1921, that idea evolved into using the Messenger bricks and granite to make a Poe Memorial garden in the yard and using the locks, lumber, and hinges from the Messenger building to restore the Old Stone House. The House was then furnished with furniture from Richmond buildings in which Poe lived or worked. In the early years, the APVA charged the Poe Foundation rent for the property, but it eventually allowed the museum to use the house rent-free.
Ninety-one years after the Poe Museum opened, the Old Stone House is still visited by guests from around the world, and the exterior of the house remains virtually unchanged from its appearance recorded in nineteenth century photos. Thanks to Preservation Virginia, this beautiful remnant of Richmond’s Colonial past will finally become a true part of the Poe Museum. The museum has no plans for changes to the structure, which will be protected from significant alterations by an easement with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
To learn more about the Old Stone House, please visit the Poe Museum or read the forthcoming book about the house by Rosemarie Mitchell.