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The Archer House

( Originally Published 1932 )



The Archer House was built in 1815 by Edward Cunningham, an Irish gentleman. It was designed by Robert Mills, and stood at the corner of Sixth and Franklin Streets, occupying a quarter of a block. A few years later Mr. Cunningham sold the property to Dr. George Watson, of Ionia, Louisa County, and it was occupied continuously by the same family for more than a hundred years. Mrs. Robert S. Archer, daughter of Dr. Watson, inherited the house, and her daughters sold the place in 1927 to make way for a modern building. General Robert E. Lee's family lived in a house in the block below the Archer house during the War Between the States, and the general visited his neighbors, the Watsons, when he came to Richmond to see his family. Together with our most beloved statesman many other famous men were visitors there -Chief Justice Marshall and Henry Clay; also William C. Rives and James Barbour, ambassadors to England and France. Sally and Caroline Watson married into the Rives and Barbour families. Daniel Webster dined there in 1847 when making his memorable visit to Richmond.

There was a small boy from Philadelphia who came on several visits to his Southern cousins here. He would often climb the big magnolia tree which stood in the center of the old walled garden, and from his perch on high delight his youthful companions on the ground below with wonderful fairy stories, the period perhaps when the imagination of this boy, Weir Mitchell, began to develop and who, in later years, became the distinguished author and physician. As an indication of customs in Richmond in 1833, Weir Mitchell's father wrote to his wife in Philadelphia, while on a visit to this house, that cards were introduced every evening after dinner, that all hands played from seven to eleven o'clock, but said that there was no gambling, as it was considered ill-bred and unfashionable.

It was a beautiful home, with an air of simplicity, calm severity and cool grace. The low, white porch opened directly on the street, and was supported by Ionic columns. The front door was a double one with a good fanlight above it. A black iron railing on each side of the porch and around the areas was ornamented with brass. These areas gave light to the basement rooms, and were planted with box ivy and periwinkle. The house was built of gray stucco, and had white trimmings and heavy, dark-green shutters. There was a long gallery or porch which ran across the back of the house, with steps leading into the garden which was surrounded by a high, brick wall. Here flourished huge magnolias, crepe myrtles, pecan and fig trees. In this garden was the last pit greenhouse in Richmond, where orange and japonica bloomed each winter.

The Archer House was used by Ellen Glasgow in one of her novels, and the late Thomas Nelson Page wrote of the lordly sycamore trees which grew in the brick pavement at the front and side of this house. These trees were planted there before this section of Richmond Town was laid out.

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