Grace Under Pressure

Battersea in Petersburg is one of Virginia’s few surviving 18th-century Anglo-Palladian villas.

Today, Petersburg seems an unlikely spot for a five-part Anglo-Palladian villa.

But in 1768, it wasn’t.

Perched on a sloping bluff overlooking the Appomattox River, Battersea straddles the site of an Indian fishing village dating from 6,000-8,000 B.C. Prehistoric tools and arrowheads abound, according to Sandy Graham, chairman of the board and president of the Battersea Foundation.

Photography by Lincoln Barbour

The Chinese Chippendale stair railing is original to John Banister’s 1768 design and possibly was copied from William Haypenny’s pattern book.

Since the foundation purchased the villa and 37 acres from the City of Petersburg in 2011, it’s stabilized and restored the home built by Colonel John Banister III. Banister was a member of the House of Burgesses in the 1760s and ’70s, a signer of the Articles of Confederation, and a delegate to the Second Continental Congress from 1776-80.

Along the way, he befriended Thomas Jefferson, no stranger to Andrea Palladio’s 16th-century architecture—and its 18th-century tweaks by the British. “Jefferson had a vision of Virginia planters living in Palladian-style villas,” says Calder Loth, retired senior architectural historian of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. “He designed buildings for his friends. Several of those who worked for him continued to design and build in the Jeffersonian-Palladian idiom.”

Battersea may be connected to Jefferson’s vision, but his direct participation in the design can’t be documented. Still, says Loth, “The house would not look like it does had not Jefferson popularized the Palladian style in Virginia. It’s possible that one of Jefferson’s workmen had a hand in Battersea’s design.”

Banister built Battersea near Petersburg for a number of reasons. His grandfather had arrived in Virginia in the late 1600s with a Dinwiddie County land grant and established a plantation at Hatcher’s Run, eight miles southwest of Battersea. His mother, a member of the Peter Jones family who are credited with founding Petersburg, owned the Battersea property—at least 500 acres at the time. The family established gristmills there in 1732, east and 1,500 feet downriver from where Banister built his home.

But Banister was motivated far beyond his mills. “He wanted to be closer to downtown Petersburg—he was a professional politician and one of the wealthiest men in the region for years,” Graham says. “He wanted to entertain and impress his guests.”

And its name pays homage to Banister’s British roots. The London district of Battersea is in the borough of Wandsworth on the south bank of the River Thames. “As a planter, he might have thought it was a good name for it,” Loth says. 

Along with Battersea and other properties, Banister owned 46 adult slaves, another 42 who were underage, plus 126 head of cattle and 28 horses. He grew tobacco at Hatcher’s Run, but at Battersea, horticulture was the enterprise du jour. “He was raising trees, plants, bushes and flowers there, not tobacco,” Graham says. “He had long lists of native trees and plants that he sent to Jefferson in France—40 or 50 different seedlings and saplings.”

Then there was the horse racing. Within two miles of Battersea were four professional-grade racetracks, and Banister was actively breeding and heavily betting on his equine stock. “George Washington bought a horse from the Banisters,” Graham says.

Besides, Petersburg at the time was the center of the universe. It was a busy port city in Virginia, which burgeoned first as a colony and then as a state. The city eventually became renowned as a commercial center for processing cotton, tobacco, and metal, then shipping products out of the region. It quickly became an important industrial center in a mostly agricultural state with few major cities. “It was more important than Richmond for a long time,” says Travis McDonald, retired director of architectural restoration at Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest. 

McDonald has served on Battersea’s technical panel for years, offering opinions when asked. He views the villa as important because it’s one of the few surviving examples of Anglo-Palladian architecture in Virginia. “My favorite part is the Chinese Chippendale staircase inside, a pretty rare occurrence,” he says of Battersea’s intricately carved railing. “It came out of a pattern book—possibly the British architect William Haypenny’s.”

Banister was elected Petersburg’s first mayor in 1785. He died on Sept. 30, 1788, and is believed to be buried at Hatcher’s Run. In 1823, John Fitzhugh May, a friend and Virginia Supreme Court justice, who was involved with settling Banister’s estate, acquired the villa and initiated extensive refinements, including the construction of an orangerie. 

May added Palladian windows to Battersea’s pavilions, a triple-hung window in the east wing, three-part windows in the hyphens connecting pavilions to the main house, plus Doric porches on each end. The brick exterior was stuccoed, then scored to imitate ashlar blocks. Inside, May added Federal-style woodwork in the principal rooms, and marble mantels.   

May died in 1856. Battersea remained in private hands until the City of Petersburg purchased it in 1985, then sold it to the Battersea Foundation for $175,000 in 2011. “They were successful over the long haul in preserving it,” Loth says. 

Its preservation was no walk in the park, since most of Battersea’s exterior walls were bowing out at its base.

“We spent the first five years investigating and resolving foundation-related issues,” Graham says. “We didn’t want it to fall down before we did the interiors.”

Those interiors have been substantially completed in the last two years. The preservation has benefitted from private funds and grants from the Cabell Foundation, the Mary Morton Parsons Foundation, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, and Petersburg’s Cameron Foundation. About $2.3 million has been spent since the foundation took title.

Battersea is now a cultural arts mecca for Petersburg and Central Virginia, with concerts, nature tours, oyster roasts, symposia, lectures, meetings, plein air painting, opera performances, and archeology for students. In 2026, it will commemorate the 250th anniversary of the beginning of the American Revolution by reenacting 1781’s Battle of Petersburg, and host other events. 

Inside, it is being prepped for weddings, dinner parties, and other celebrations; outside, it will host more weddings, plus art and antiques shows.

Then there are the free open houses from 1:00–4:00 p.m. on Saturdays from March through November annually. “More people need to come out to see it—it’s a real hidden gem,” says Elizabeth Kostelny, CEO of Preservation Virginia. “I’m always a little surprised and in awe when we pull up.”

That’s partly because the path to Battersea winds through an urban grid of warehouses and industrial sites. But those who persevere are in for a treat. What awaits them is an 18th-century vision of symmetry and grace.

The Banisters

John Banister III’s grandfather was the noted naturalist and reverend John Banister, whose knowledge of the natural plant world in North America was internationally recognized and who included the use of American plants in English gardens. 

Early in his career, he wrote to colleagues in England that some of the plants he saw were “so strange and monstrous that I am affraide that they may be thought chameras to be found no where but in his braine that drew them. [SIC]” The first university-trained specialist to send specimens, drawings, and descriptive Latin catalogs of plants, insects, spiders, and mollusks to leading naturalists in England, Banister’s excellent observations provide a glimpse of 18th-century flora and fauna of Virginia. 

The Oxford-educated Banister landed in Virginia in the midst of Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, He immediately set to work documenting his observations—the internal anatomy of a snail, the function of halteres (balancers) of flies, and the virtues of the Virginia bluebell. He intended to publish his findings, but his accidental death in 1687 at 37, in a “botanizing” incident on the Roanoke River, quashed those plans. In the ensuing centuries, Banister’s name faded into relative obscurity, but had his catalogs been published during his lifetime, they would have fundamentally changed the course of American botany, entomology, and malacology. 

Upon his death, Reverend Banister’s extensive library of botanical and religious books became part of the Byrd’s library at Westover in Charles City. Banister’s grandson, Banister III, lived for a time there and no doubt became familiar with the many volumes it contained on the natural world. And it was from his grandfather whom Banister III acquired the Battersea property on which he built his five-part Palladian house. 

Banister III was a contemporary of Jefferson and Washington’s, the latter holding him in especially high regard. Correspondence among the three includes references to seeds and plant stock. Jefferson was also a fan, writing to Banister III from France in 1787 requesting that he send him an extensive list of North American plants, which suggests his confidence in Banister III’s knowledge of horticulture. 

While there is scant knowledge of the specifics of Battersea’s landscape in Banister’s time, there was a kitchen garden, and perhaps orchards, since Banister III was a close friend of St. George Tucker from Williamsburg, whose enthusiasm and knowledge of fruit and fruit orchards is well documented. There are records of subsequent owners through the years establishing pleasure gardens, as well as vegetable and cutting gardens. 

“Developing the gardens and grounds at Battersea is one of our goals,” says Battersea Foundation board chairman Sandy Graham. “Our first priority was to stabilize the house, but now we can look toward other projects to enhance the property and the visitor experience.” 

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