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COMMENTARY: At a crossroads: To preserve Idlewild, sell it

Idlewild’s brick walls have been stabilized with steel braces since the fire 10 years ago that gutted the battlefield landmark.

THERE ARE two houses in Fredericksburg where we know, through irrefutable documentation, that Robert E. Lee stayed. One is Braehead, an antebellum mansion between Lee Drive and the industrial park. Lee had breakfast there on the morning of Dec. 13, 1862. The Central Virginia Battlefields Trust bought that property, placed a preservation easement on it and sold it. The new owners have restored it to be their home.

The second house associated with Lee is Idlewild. On May 4, after the Second Battle of Fredericksburg, Lee made his headquarters there. We are approaching two anniversaries for Idlewild.

The first is the 150th anniversary of the battle in which Idlewild became a battlefield landmark. The second is the 10th anniversary of the fire that gutted the building the day before the city of Fredericksburg was going to install a security fence, to prevent damage to the antebellum mansion.

The city has stabilized the brick walls with steel braces and gotten the house listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which will allow tax credits to be used in any restoration. The city also tried to sell the mansion and some of the property, but without success. The city must try again to sell this historic house. It should recognize that whoever buys it will need to spend a huge amount of money to restore it and set the price low enough to attract someone.

How many towns have two houses where Robert E. Lee stayed? How many would allow such a place to be lost to neglect?

Idlewild is now at a crossroads. Either someone comes forward to take on the task of restoring this wonderful mansion to its former glory or we continue to watch its rapid demolition by neglect. Quite a lot of its fabric is still in place, but each day brings it closer to total loss. How sad and unforgivable it would be for the city to lose this important site.

It is a long and involved process to list a property on the National Register of Historic Places. Many feel that this recognition “protects” a property for future generations. Sadly, this is not true. Many structures have been removed from this same register due to fire, neglect, inappropriate renovations, etc.

I urge the city and the preservation community to work together to save this important site—not only for ourselves but for the nation. Time is not on our side.

* * *

Donna Chasen lives in Fredericksburg and is a member of the Fredericksburg Architectural Review Board.


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