Presidential Frame

Sherwood Forest, the longest frame house in America, was owned by the country’s 10th president. Today, the former president’s grandson Harrison Tyler and his wife, Payne, live in the house, having meticulously restored it to its 19th-century glory. 

Harrison Tyler is still a genial host, even after welcoming thousands of visitors to his Charles City County home. For more than 30 years, Harrison and his wife, Payne, have been enthusiastic stewards of Sherwood Forest—the former home of John Tyler, 10th President of the United States and Harrison’s grandfather. Sherwood Forest is the only historic presidential home owned and occupied continuously by the president’s descendants.

     Although Harrison doesn’t make much of it, the fact that he is John Tyler’s grandson is a bit of a marvel. President Tyler was born in 1790, when George Washington was serving his first term. He was 63 when he fathered Harrison’s father, Lyon Gardiner Tyler, in 1853. Lyon was 75 when Harrison was born in 1928. Lyon, like his father, was a widower who wed a younger woman.

      Even if few remember much about the election of William Henry Harrison and John Tyler in 1840, their campaign slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” has been for decades a catchy highlight of presidential history. Harrison’s presidency was abbreviated: He contracted pneumonia after making a lengthy inaugural address in the pouring rain and died a month later. Tyler became the first sitting vice president elevated to the top job and, in the process, established the precedent for presidential succession.

      Tyler’s administration was stymied by the toxic political climate of the times and the mounting tension between slave and free states. Populist demagoguery was rife. Tyler, a conservative supporter of states’ rights, drew howls of outrage as he upended the Whig Party’s populist agenda. All but one member of the cabinet he inherited from Harrison resigned in protest, and the Whig Party expelled President Tyler—surely a first. Tyler’s greatest accomplishment in the Oval Office was the annexation of Texas.

      Personal tragedy marked Tyler’s second year in the White House. In 1842, his beloved wife, Letitia, mother of their eight children, died after a long illness. A few months later, Tyler purchased a 1,600-acre James River plantation after deciding he didn’t want to return to the Williamsburg home he had shared with Letitia. As a wry acknowledgement of his outlaw status with the Whigs, he decided to change the name of the property from Walnut Grove to Sherwood Forest. Almost at once, he began remodeling and enlarging the main house.

      Two years after Letitia’s death, the 54-year-old Tyler married a 24-year-old New York belle and daughter of a U.S. Senator. Julia Gardiner came from a wealthy, well-connected family that has owned Gardiners Island at the eastern end of Long Island since 1639. She would leave a lasting mark on Sherwood Forest.

Julia took Washington by storm. An effervescent and energetic First Lady, she brought new elegance and style to the White House. The tradition of playing “Hail to the Chief” to announce the President at public appearances was her idea. Julia didn’t let the miserly White House budget limit her penchant for planning lavish events. The Tylers, like other occupants of the executive mansion at the time, had to use their own funds for entertaining. She also bought furnishings for the White House with her own money, later moving them to Sherwood Forest.

      When Tyler’s single term ended, Julia threw herself into his project of enlarging and modernizing their new home at Sherwood Forest. The three-story frame house was lengthened into a symmetrical seven-part dwelling, one room deep and 300 feet long. Sherwood Forest is the longest frame house in America. Tyler thrilled his sociable bride by making the connector between his office and the house into a 68-foot-long ballroom so that she could dance the Virginia reel.

      As with other Virginia planters, money was a chronic concern for John Tyler. His agricultural income was seasonal, and his law practice was frequently interrupted by service in the Virginia General Assembly, Congress and the Senate as well as to the governor of Virginia. The overhead to operate his farm and maintain 70 slaves was staggering, and Julia never developed the habit of pinching pennies. Tyler often asked his brother-in-law to arrange bank loans, which he repaid promptly. Julia financed some luxuries such as Villa Margaret, their summerhouse on the Hampton River near Old Point Comfort.

      John Tyler and his second family—Julia bore seven children—lived happily at Sherwood Forest until momentous national events upended their lives. Upon Virginia’s secession from the Union in 1861, Tyler went to Richmond for the first meeting of the Confederate Congress. He was in Richmond a year later when he died of a heart attack at age 72.

      Julia remained at Sherwood Forest for the first half of the Civil War, but, under threat of Union occupation, she fled with the five children still at home. She shepherded her family aboard a blockade-runner in Wilmington, N.C., and sailed to Bermuda. From there, Julia was able to get passage to New York and the safety of her mother’s home.

      The house at Sherwood Forest survived the Civil War, but its contents were plundered, livestock stolen and laborers dispersed. After the war, Julia’s oldest son and Harrison Tyler’s uncle, David Gardiner Tyler, known as Gardie, moved back to the devastated farm to follow in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps as a planter and a lawyer, later becoming a circuit court judge. Julia, nearly impoverished from heavy investment in Confederate bonds, successfully lobbied for a pension after learning that Congress had awarded one to President Lincoln’s widow. Julia spent her last years in Richmond. In 1889, she was buried beside her husband in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery, with the gold fountain pen used by the late president to sign the Texas annexation treaty on a chain around her neck.

In 1975, Harrison Tyler and his wife, Payne, bought Sherwood Forest from the estate of Gardie’s son Alfred Tyler. In those days, Harrison, a chemical engineer, concentrated on building ChemTreat, his Richmond-based company specializing in industrial water treatment. Meanwhile, Payne took up the extensive restoration of the house where Harrison’s father had been born and reared. “Payne was dying to restore an old house. That was a big motivation for buying Sherwood Forest,” Harrison explains. Their family also spent a lot of time at Lyon’s Den, John Tyler’s riverfront hunting lodge, which Harrison’s father had bought and expanded into a year-round home. “He added a room a year,” Harrison jokes.

      When Lyon Gardiner Tyler died in 1935, Harrison was only six years old. He and his older brother grew up at Lyon’s Den with their mother, Sue Ruffin, whose family lived at nearby Evelynton Plantation. “We were isolated there on the river, a couple of miles from the nearest neighbor. Since my mother didn’t drive, I was home-schooled until I was old enough to go away to St. Christopher’s in Richmond.”

      It was a given that Harrison would attend William and Mary. His great-grandfather and grandfather were graduates, and his father would have been if the college had not closed for several years after the Civil War. He went to the University of Virginia instead, but more than made up for that blot on his resume by serving as president of the college from 1888 to 1919.

      When Lyon Tyler took the helm, William and Mary was an impoverished, moribund institution with only six faculty members and not many more students. He spearheaded successful efforts to make it a public institution, build up the endowment and establish a program for women. To honor his father’s contribution, Harrison and Payne gave the school $5 million to endow the Lyon Gardiner Tyler Department of History. The Tyler Family Garden at William and Mary has bronze busts of three members of an extraordinary family: Harrison’s great-grandfather, the 18th governor of Virginia; Harrison’s grandfather, the 10th U.S. president; and Harrison’s father.

      Payne’s education and background equipped her for the daunting task of restoring Sherwood Forest. Armed with a post-graduate degree from the New York School of Interior Design and a lifelong interest in American decorative arts, Payne knew firsthand the challenges of maintaining a historic home, having grown up at Mulberry Hill Plantation in Edgefield County, South Carolina. She sums up her restoration experience by quoting a friend: “Every old house has three sections: restored, needing restoration and falling down … an endless cycle.”

      When Payne commenced her work at Sherwood Forest, the house still showed its Civil War damage. Trees grew through the ruined roof of the kitchen wing, where goats frolicked. Undergrowth not only obliterated all signs of Julia Tyler’s extensive gardens but also provided cover for unwelcome tenants. Payne kept a tally of the snakes killed—39. By cutting back the jungle surrounding the house, she found the bones of Julia’s formal gardens and discovered the six-seater presidential privy. “If I’d had any clue how much work was involved, I’m not sure I’d have taken it on,” Payne admits with a rueful laugh. “I knew enough to resign from almost every organization before I started here. I devoted three years to the initial restoration of Sherwood and had two shifts of workers reporting every day. Actually, I’m still working on it.”

In her efforts to bring the house back to its antebellum appearance, Payne was aided by the boxes and boxes of letters stored at Lyon’s Den. Lyon Gardiner Tyler, a well-known historian, had recognized their importance. The trove, later donated to the College of William and Mary, included correspondence to Julia from her mother concerning furnishings Julia had requested along with invoices from New York merchants. Payne also researched the Gardiner family letters at Yale University’s library, the Virginia Historical Society and Rensselaer Institute.

      Payne credits Calder Loth, senior architectural historian with Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources, as an essential resource. “I had no architect to guide me. If I had a question, I called Calder.” Loth’s assistance in the meticulous restoration was invaluable. He recognized that Sherwood Forest’s architectural detailing came straight from the pages of The Beauties of Modern Architecture, an 1839 pattern book by Minard Lafever, the American architect credited with popularizing Greek Revival as America’s first truly national style. Photocopies of the relevant pages were Payne’s guide in identifying errant bits of millwork gathering dust in the basement.

      Replacing the original deteriorated dining room wallpaper was Loth’s idea. He convinced the Birge wallpaper company of Buffalo, N.Y., to reproduce it as part of a bicentennial series. The design is a wonderfully personal reminder of Julia Tyler—roses and sailboats were dear to her.

      The majority of the furnishings owned by John and Julia Tyler have been dispersed among their numerous descendants, but Payne luckily had more than enough of her own family furniture to fill Sherwood Forest’s many rooms. She and Harrison have acquired several pieces original to the house directly from his cousins or at auction. One great purchase was a charming portrait of Julia and her younger sister Margaret as little girls on Gardiners Island.

      Harrison and Payne say that they and their three children have had wonderful years at Sherwood Forest. As their son, William, puts it, “We’ve always had dual citizenship in Richmond and Charles City County. Now that my parents are at Sherwood full time, my wife, Kay, and I bring the children on weekends to visit them and enjoy a taste of country life.”

      Payne is an expert horsewoman who has always loved polo and riding to hounds. At her invitation, the Princess Anne Hunt has its kennels at Sherwood Forest and frequently meets there. Harrison’s retirement in 2000 has allowed him more time to operate his backhoe, hunt and read history. He insists he’s just getting started on the history. “I haven’t looked into much past 1650,” he says with a sly grin that belies his detailed knowledge of Virginia history. Because he was a direct descendant of Pocahontas and John Rolfe, he began reading about Jamestown, located only a few miles downriver from Sherwood Forest.

      While colonial history remains his greatest interest, Harrison has also learned a great deal about the Civil War. Several years ago, a researcher asked for Harrison’s help in locating a Civil War fort at Wilson’s Wharf, the closest deep-water landing to Sherwood Forest. The long-forgotten earthen fort was still visible although largely hidden by undergrowth. In the spring of 1864, U.S. Colored Troops under the command of Union Brigadier General Edward Wild repulsed an attack on Fort Pocahontas by a much larger Confederate force led by Robert E. Lee’s nephew, Major General Fitzhugh Lee. Harrison purchased the property in 1996, cleared the brush and now opens it to re-enactors each May and to tour groups by appointment.

      If their schedule permits, Harrison and Payne welcome tours of Sherwood Forest as well. They understand the obligation that goes along with owning a piece of American history. The two of them have given considerable thought to Sherwood Forest’s future and have established a trust to ensure its preservation. William and Kay have agreed to assume the responsibility when Harrison and Payne choose to hand it over. Sherwood Forest will stay in the Tyler family, and another generation will welcome visitors to the historic presidential home.

Advance reservations for house tours of Sherwood Forest can be made by calling (804) 829-5377. To arrange a visit to Fort Pocahontas, call (804) 829-9722.

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