Research by Kenneth Cook published in the News & Record
Halifax County has over the decades been more fortunate than numerous other Virginia localities in that very few of our important old homes have been destroyed by fire. Among those lost in this century have been Maybrooke, the Brookes home; Brown Hill and Rue Villa, of the Edmunds-Barksdale families; the Wilson-Waddell place, Cedar View; and, most recently, in 1967, Giant Poplar, the seat of the Barksdales and Watkinses in Halifax.
Our great architectural treasure, Berry Hill, has had several close calls in its two hundred year history, the last in the early 1950's, soon after Mr. Fred Watkins acquired it. Fortunately, though, it still stands.
From an historical standpoint, perhaps the most tragic fire of all occurred April 1, 1924. On that All Fools Day, 47 years ago, Banister Lodge, the plantation seat of the Clark family, recalled as the most hospitable of all the old county homes, burst into flames. It was all over so quickly. No help was available, and in a matter of minutes the great brick mansion was completely gutted.
Frontage of nearly two miles along the banks of the Banister River gave the 3000-acre plantation and its mansion-house their name of Banister Lodge. William Howson Clark inherited the land from his father, John Clark, who in his will, dated 10 March, 1827, said:
John Clark died in May of 1827, and William was married a year later, May, 1828. It is thought by family members that the building of the mansion commenced sometime within this year, as it was ready for occupancy in mid-1830.
The construction of Banister Lodge was carried out by the slaves under Mr. Clark's supervision, but a trained plasterer was hired to execute the decorative "frescoed" ceilings. Most of the materials used came from the plantation - the timbers, the shingles for the roof, the hand-made bricks for the thick walls. The bricks used to "face" the mansion were oversized and of very fine quality, and definitely were brought - from Richmond or elsewhere.
The plan of the mansion was simple yet commodious, much like many others of that day. Nearby Bellevue, for instance, is similar in many ways to Banister Lodge. Now the home of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Edmunds, Jr., it was built by Robert Stevens about the same time. Mr. Clark probably drew the plans for Banister Lodge himself.
The rooms were arranged two on either side of a broad hall on both the first and second floors, with a two-room dining room wing extending, in a "tee" at the back, for a total of ten. Underneath was a full English basement containing the various service and storage rooms. Its walls rose nearly five feet above ground level, giving the mansion an unusually high foundation. The attic was one large room used for storage.
The interior finish of Banister Lodge was exceptionally fine. The large, high-pitched rooms were graced by marble mantels and ornamental plaster ceilings. Woodwork was of hand-carved pine and walnut. The folding doors between the parlor and library, the crystal chandeliers and the silver hardware all were both a hitherto unseen luxury and a novelty in this part of the state, and people came from miles around just to see them.
The furnishings were equally fine, many of the pieces being custom made to Mr. Clark's specifications in walnut and mahogany. Notable were the high tester beds and a dining table that would seat 25 in comfort. Oriental carpets, gilt mirrors and a profusion of silver added to the richness of the scene.
Mr. Clark's library was considered to have been the finest ever assembled in Southside Virginia after that of John Randolph of Roanoke. Over 3000 beautifully bound volumes covered nearly every topic a country gentleman's family would have interest in. Mr. Clark kept his library up to date through regular purchases.
The grounds around Banister Lodge - the immediate and service yards, gardens, orchards and meadows - comprised nearly a hundred acres. The front yard, laid out in formal plan, was shaded by a grove of mighty oaks and dotted with boxwoods and flower beds. The wide, semi-circular driveway was edged in box, mimosa trees and arbor vitae. A hedge of towering tree box on either side of the front porch extended out to the sides of the lawn to separate the front from the back.
The formal gardens, covering several acres, were designed by Mrs. Clark and laid out under her careful eye. The major portion was composed of nine large squares, each 100 feet square. Of the nine, three were devoted to flowers and, odd as it sounds when speaking of a formal garden, the other six to vegetables. This, though, was the accepted practice then.
Each of the nine squares was bordered with purple and white lilacs, and the entire garden, except at the front, was hedged with fruit trees. Boxwoods and flowering shrubs alternated across the front. On either side of the garden gate a huge oak overgrown with ivy stood watch.
In the flower beds in the garden and around the grounds were to be found many types of annuals - jonquils, narcissus, hyacinths, violets, tulips, iris and daisies among them. The shrubs included snowballs, forsythia, japonica, althea,spiraea, pomegranates, Japan apples, crepe myrtles, lilacs, and others.
William Howson Clark, the builder of Banister Lodge, was born 23 January, 1805, at Chester, Halifax County, the son of John and Priscilla Sims Clark. He was educated at home by private tutor and at Hampden-Sydney College and the University of Virginia.
He was married 8 May, 1828, to Elvira Ann Henry, the daughter and only child of Elvira Cabell and Patrick Henry,Jr., son of the famed orator. She was born 27 September, 1804, at Union Hill, the Nelson County home of her mother, just five days after death of her father.
Her schooling was at home under private tutors, but because of her family's high political and social position her life was not as sheltered as that of most of her contemporaries. From her earliest days she was surrounded by famous people and great wealth. Her mother's second husband, whom she married in 1819, was James Bruce, head of a prominent Virginia family and America's first agricultural millionaire.
An accomplished harpist, Miss Henry, at age 16, while visiting in the Washington home of her cousin, William Wirt, James Monroe's attorney-general, played at the request of the President at several White House functions.
The marriage of William H. Clark and Elvira Ann Henry took place at Woodbourne, the Halifax County home of her mother and stepfather. Described as a glittering affair, the ceremony was attended by many prominent Virginians and by members of the Cabell, Henry, Bruce and Clark families, foremost among them all Mrs. Dorothea Dandridge Henry, the aging widow of Patrick Henry.
Exactly where the Clarke lived between the time of their marriage and moving into Banister Lodge is not known. It is likely, however, that because Mr. Clark was running his large farm as well as supervising the construction of his mansion, and Mrs. Clark overseeing the laying out of the grounds, they lived on the plantation, perhaps in the house, destroyed about 1871-72, in which their eldest son John later lived.
Mr. Clark, a man of great intellect, represented Halifax County in the Virginia legislature for several years. He raised fine blooded horses, collected the finest wines for his cellar, and managed his plantation, all with equal dedication and success.
Just how successful he was as a planter is evidenced by a report he made to the "Farmer's Register" in 1860. In response to a survey Mr. Clark stated that in the preceding year the Banister Lodge lands produced an average of 1500 pounds of tobacco per hand, for a total of over 300,000 pounds.
The mistress of the mansion was said by a contemporary to have been "one of the purest and noblest of women." Her talents were many and varied. An accomplished harpist and pianist, she composed music for both.
The Clarks had issue of nine children, all born at Banister Lodge. All were well educated; the boys, like their father, attended U. Va. and the Virginia Military Institute as well. Several of the children were sent to Europe for a finishing course.
Of the children, William, the youngest, died in infancy. Patrick Henry, a soldier in the Confederate army, died in 1862 of camp fever. Elvira Cabell married David A. Claiborne of Prince Edward County; Martha May married J. Lyle Clarke of Gloucester; Eliza Callaway married Alfred W. Shields of Richmond; Ellen Bruce also married a Richmonder, George Lee; John married Elizabeth Sims Coleman of Springfield, Halifax County; Anne Carrington married Thomas Bruce of Berry Hill, Halifax County; and Rosa married William Wyche Wilkins of Brunswick County.
The latter two men were related in that Thomas Bruce's mother, Eliza Wilkins Bruce, wife of James Coles Bruce of Berry Hill, was the aunt of William Wilkins, Rosa's husband. His father was Dr. William Webb Wilkins, brother of Mrs. Bruce.
Life at Banister Lodge before the Civil War was typical of that on most Virginia plantations. Daily farm and household routines, family gatherings in the evening for reading or music, church on Sunday--the Clarks were staunch Episcopalians--and visits to and from friends and relatives.
Among the close friends who visited often with the Clarks were Generals Joseph E. Johnston and Robert E. Lee and the illustrious John Randolph of Roanoke. The latter was on intimate terms with the family and was a frequent overnight guest. He and the Clarks exchanged books, and many of those in the Banister Lodge library bore his autograph on the front endpaper.
The late Dr. Philip Alexander Bruce, recalling the prewar days at Banister Lodge, wrote:
"Well do I remember as a boy of eight or nine years of age passing several months at my aunt's, Mrs. William Clark's, at Banister Lodge. That was a very interesting home, full of charming women and seat of the most attractive social culture. I have seen in my day a good deal of this great world, and of its varied societies, and I do not believe there has ever existed any homes or any society superior in refinement and spiritual beauty to those to be found in Virginia in those remote times. I say remote, for the period before 1861 is now practically as distant as the period before the Revolution. No county had a larger number of these homes or a greater share of this cultured society than Halifax."
The Civil War reached Banister Lodge in several ways. Both the Clark sons joined the Confederate armies in the early days of the conflict. John served throughout, attaining the rank of Captain, but his brother, Patrick Henry, as was mentioned above, died in 1862 in a Richmond hospital of a camp disease. He was brought back to be buried in the family cemetery.
Bishop John Johns and Mrs. Johns were refugees at Banister Lodge for a year. They were given a small house in the grounds and all the comforts of life, including servants and a horse and carriage.
When Union raiders passed through the county during the closing months of the war they paid a visit to the Clarks, who happened to be at home at the time. According to a family source the men managed to break into the wine cellar and, as a result of their several trips to it, became completely drunk.
Full of "spirits" so to speak, they repaired to the front door of the mansion and demanded the presence of the young ladies of the family. Mr. Clark, then a white haired old man, stood in the door and boldly exclaimed, 'You will enter over my dead body.' Matilda, a loyal maid of the house, quickly stepped forward and admonished the men to 'hug me an de young ladies alone.' This they proceeded to do in all good humor until interrupted by one of their officers, who berated them and ordered them off.
Within a few days the raiders were gone, and with them no fewer than 25 of Mr. Clark's finest horses.
Elvira Anne Henry Clark died 24 June, 1870, at Banister Lodge, and was buried in the family cemetery. Her husband never quite recovered from the lose, and on 20 October, 1873, he, too, died in his chamber; he was buried beside his beloved wife. In his will, a long and detailed one, Mr. Clark made provisions for all his children and grandchildren. The mansion was given to his only surviving son, John. He directed his executors to make no inventory or appraisement of the household furniture, library, silver, paintings or portraits. These he directed his friends James A. Seddon and Charles Bruce (the brother-in-law and half-brother of his late wife) to divide as equally as possible among his children living at that time.
In October of 1873, a young Albemarle County girl, Anne Nelson Page, came to Halifax County to be tutor to the children of John Clark. She arrived by train in Scottsburg on 13 October, the day of William H. Clark's funeral. She kept a diary during 1873, recording in it the daily doings of herself and those around her. Several quotes from it, used by permission of her granddaughter, Miss Anne Page Brydon of Charlottesville, are of interest:
13 October--". . . Mr. Clark's carriage was at the depot with a kind note from Mrs. C. saying his father was to buried that day and she was sorry none of them could meet me. It is a long way from the depot . . . but at last we came to Banister Lodge. The hall and parlor were packed with people as the service had commenced . . . after the funeral was over I saw Mr. & Mrs. Clark . . . Banister Lodge is a very pretty . . . place. I am quite charmed with my new home . . . the piano is pretty good and they have a fine library.
13 November--"Mr. & Mrs. Clark went to Banister Lodge today to help divide the things . . .
14 November--"Well, we have moved at last, have been pretty unsettled all day. We were packing all the morning, china, glass, clothes, etc., and hauled nearly everything over by evening when we came. It is bitter cold today, particularly so as we were running about all day arranging things; came over this evening in the carriage and buggy. This is a very large house, ten rooms besides garret and cellar. Mrs. Clark won't use the parlor this winter. The library is a mighty sweet room, and the dining room, too. I think this must have been a splendid establishment in 'old times'. . ."
After the deaths of John Clark and his wife Elizabeth, Banister Lodge, along with 139 3/4 acres of land, was sold, in 1919, to Mr. George 'E. Allen. He and his family were living in the mansion when the first fire occurred in 1924. Following it they moved to the Fork area where they lived for about a year while the interior was being rebuilt.
The Allens moved back into Banister Lodge in 1926 and remained there until 1935, when they left so that it could be occupied by an Owen family who were to work the farm. The second fire, in 1937, took place in the night. The Owens suffered a tragic loss in that one of their children perished in the flames.
Following the second fire Banister Lodge was not rebuilt. It's gaunt walls stood to the side of route 729 (now 304) until 1941, when they were purchased by Mr. Hugh Garland Edmunds of Halifax, who had them dismantled. Quite literally, more than a hundred thousand bricks were salvaged from the walls, nearly three feet thick on the outside.
Many thousands of the handmade bricks from the inner walls of the mansion were sold to Dr. L. V. Ragland., who used them in building his office on Ferry Street, across from the J. P. Taylor factory.
The rock-walled family cemetery at Banister Lodge, though not excluded from the sale of the property, is cared for by some of the Clark descendants through a trust fund which they established with a Danville bank. Funds from the trust are paid annually to the Allens, who clean the graveyard and otherwise keep it in good order.
Concerning the cemetery, there were no tombstones there prior to 1925. William H. Clark, the builder, disliked monuments, and never erected any. For many years after his death, each time another death occurred, they continued to be omitted. Then in 1925 the remaining family members decided to put some up while they still knew who was buried where. Several stones were erected, but in keeping with his desires none were ordered for William H. or his wife; their graves still are marked with simple fieldstones.
About the same time the tombstones were erected, the harp which had belonged to Elvira Henry Clark was given to the people of Virginia through the Virginia Historical Society. This was done by the sisters and nieces of Mrs. Ethel Clark Williams, daughter of John Clark and granddaughter of the William H. Clarks, as a memorial to Mrs. Williams. Two folders of music composed by Clark was also given.
The only visible remains of Banister Lodge to be seen today are several of the original outbuildings, among them the smoke house, a scattering of bricks, a row of box trees, and some aged oaks.
President Calvin Coolidge once said that a nation which forgets its past soon will be forgotten itself. Banister Lodge and the families associated with it have been an integral part of our Halifax County history for over a century and a half. As long as there are those who revere our past its doubtful if they'll be forgotten.
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