Nicholas Redding will conclude two years of service as Executive Director of Long Branch Plantation today, and will begin a new chapter in his career as the new Executive Director of Preservation Maryland.
Redding, a native of Buffalo, New York, began his career in history and preservation as an interpretive park ranger with the National Park Service, serving at the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in Williamsport and at Gettysburg National Military Park. A widely published Civil War historian, Redding has also contributed to many publications and magazines and remains active in leading tours of battlefields throughout the region.
During his tenure at Long Branch, Redding oversaw a period of dramatic transformation that included implementing a far-reaching five-year strategic plan, curating several ambitious exhibits and planning many historically-themed events and programs. While overseeing the 400-acre farm and 200-year old home, Redding also coordinated many important capital improvements to the site, including the restoration of historic porticoes, rehabilitating a mid-19th century belvedere, installation of modern HVAC systems, repairing historic plaster and a myriad of painting projects.
Prior to his work at Long Branch, Redding served at the Civil War Trust, America’s largest battlefield preservation organization. While serving as its Deputy Director for Advocacy among other duties, he oversaw the fight that defeated the proposal to build a casino on the Gettysburg battlefield.
Later this September Redding will join the team at Preservation Maryland to carry out another bold and ambitious Strategic Plan. Founded in 1931 as the Society for the Preservation of Maryland Antiquities, Preservation Maryland is dedicated to preserving Maryland’s historic buildings, neighborhoods, landscapes, and archaeological sites through outreach, funding, and advocacy.
Plans to replace Redding and begin a search for a new executive director are underway and will be announced soon by the Long Branch Board of Directors.
You don’t have to look far these days for controversy surrounding American history and the presence of the past.
The latest controversy came in a most unusual way (as they often do) when singer/songwriter and noted feminist Ani DiFranco was compelled to cancel a planned retreat at a plantation because according to opponents of the event,
Holding an event on the site of the genocide of black people is no way to show inclusion and intersectionality, both of which are important tenets of feminism.
Writing as the executive director of a historic plantation, I disagree with the simplicity of that argument. Simply holding an event at site, such as a plantation, is not in itself the problem.
The Power of History
Historic sites are powerful places – and harnessing their stories for good (and the betterment of the human condition) is part of our jobs as stewards of these places.
So, it’s not so much that the plantation is the problem – but what are they doing with that history . . . and that word?
Unfortunately for Nottoway Plantation (where Ani scheduled her event), it seems they’ve not harnessed the power of history well.
Based numerous entries on their website, they seem to have tragically misinterpreted the unvarnished terror of slavery. In one glaring example, the website refers to the master as one who provided “additional compensation and rewards” to his slaves, including a hog on New Year’s Day.
The above statement should tell you all you need to know about Nottoway and their understanding of the past. Hogs on New Year’s Day are not synonymous with compensation or reward. A basic understanding of slave life or perusal of any history of the institution would immediately tell you that.
And, so, it’s understandable that Ani’s fans would react negatively to this kind of interpretation of the past.
A Place for the Past?
But what of other plantations and historic sites? Are we all equally unfit for an event that celebrates inclusion and diversity?
Here at Long Branch Plantation, we’ve worked hard over the past year to open up our story and honestly discuss our past – good, bad and ugly. Plantation is not the dirty word; forgetting is our dirty word.
In short, we’d rather tell you the whole story and use that story as an opportunity to explore our past and perhaps provide some insight into our future.
Glorification of slavery or an oversimplification of its cruelty is not acceptable. But tossing out all sites that work hard to tell that story in an inclusive and diverse way is equally unacceptable.
Fortunately, Ani seems to get it, too. In her statement on the issue she noted,
I believe that people must go to those places with awareness and with compassionate energy and meditate on what has happened and absorb some of the reverberating pain with their attention and their awareness.
Our Open Invitation to Ani
That’s why we’re inviting Ani to Long Branch Plantation – where we address our history head on. You’re welcome anytime as a guest, or if you’d like to hold your event, we’ve got plenty of room for that, too.
Perhaps you’ll join us for our “Created Equal Series” sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities when we’ll honor Dr. King with a screening of a documentary on Freedom Riders. Or later when we host a documentary on abolition and then interracial marriage.
Or, maybe you’d like to join us in the spring when the community is invited to help us plant a recreated slave and kitchen garden to help tell those important stories.
Or, maybe you’d just like to come and reflect and meditate about life on a plantation. You can do that here, too.
So, Ani . . . please be our guest. That goes for the rest of you, too.
Executive Director, Long Branch Plantation
Since we began our large-scale refurnishing effort, we’ve heard a wide range of opinions and thoughts from visitors to the home. Some miss the old furnishings, but the vast majority of visitors are excited to watch the progress and see the historic home take shape.
Not surprisingly, the wide-plank hardwood floors that span nearly every space in the gracious mansion impress many visitors. What surprises many visitors is the fact that these beautiful floors will eventually be covered by a reproduction, 19th century carpet.
Ingrain-carpeting in the 19th century was highly popular and seen as a mark of distinction for homes both common and grand. The rise in popularity of the carpeting can be seen as a component of the “refinement of America” which is well covered in Richard Bushman’s The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities.
In homes of Long Branch’s stature, large, stately rooms like our dining room and parlor would have seem bare and uncompleted without a covering of fine carpeting.
Beyond circumstantial evidence, we also know from a probate inventory completed in 1866 that most of the home’s floors were covered in some form of carpet or floorcloth. Specifically, we know that our parlor and dining room each had approximately 40 yards of ingrain carpeting – meaning each room was covered wall-to-wall. The entry (or lower) hall was also covered in a wall-to-wall floorcloth (documented in the same 1866 inventory), which will also eventually be reproduced, but that’s a topic for another blog post.
The fact that 19th century Americans not only covered hardwoods, but also covered them wall-to-wall is a real shock for many visitors. It’s almost as shocking as seeing Mount Vernon’s neon green dining room – but Washington’s dining room and our covered floors are similar in that they challenge common misconceptions about the past and provoke visitors to reflect on how style has changed.
Today, bare floors are in vogue – a real change from the 1860s. Today, in subdivisions and track homes across America, muted “eggshell” white is a paint that pleases most palettes, yet in 1790s Virginia, vibrant greens and blues were just as popular and spoke to the owner’s ability to afford such a fine finish. These were status items. Perhaps not to our liking, but status items of that era.
So, what are we doing to our floors? With history as our guide, we are transforming several of our rooms to their mid-19th century appearance which means the installation of custom-loomed ingrain carpets, amongst many other new objects and furnishings.
To learn more about ingrains, and check out the site of a great American manufacturer of these historic carpets, check out: www.familyheirloomweavers.com
To keep up with the latest on our refurnishing efforts, stay tuned to this blog over the coming months.
1986 – Present
For the last 25 years the home remained a time capsule from the late 1980s. It was then that the last owner, Harry Z. Isaacs, oversaw a massive updating of the home for use as his personal residence. Isaacs furnished the home in what would be described as a classic colonial revival pattern. Simple and sleek Federal-era furniture was gracefully mixed with heavy Victorian oriental rugs alongside Georgian candle stands. A beautiful cacophony of styles and eras.
For Isaacs, this made perfect sense. It was his style and he was comfortable in the lavishly furnished home. Regrettably, Isaacs was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died before moving to the home as a permanent residence. After his passing Isaacs left the home and a portion of his estate to a foundation he created to keep Long Branch open to the public, as a benefit to the local community.
The charge of the Foundation, as is often the case with new house museums, was somewhat vague. Keeping Long Branch open was clearly important, but as what?
From the early 1990s until 2012 the house and adjoining farm of 400 acres was used for a variety of purposes. Weddings, garden parties, and regionally famous large-scale “mega” events became the norm. It was during this period that Long Branch became synonymous with hot air balloons more than anything else.
Lost in this shuffle was the house itself.
A time capsule of the Isaacs era – the furnishings spoke nothing of the preceding 200 years or the multitude of families that had tread its well worn floors before.
What of the Burwells, Nelsons, Hewitts and Hicks? What room told their tale? What space spoke to their lives?
2012 and Beyond
In early 2013 the decision was made to refocus the mission of the organization. In part, that meant reducing the number and scale of events and more importantly treating the home and landscape as a true historic site.
But what history? What year? Why?
Eventually the decision was made to interpret the home over a large span of time and explore how one house evolved over 200 years.
Logistically speaking that translates into a house with various eras depicted.
1850s – 1860s: We Were In The Money!
The entry hall, formal parlor, dining room and master bedroom are all being transformed to their appearance in the 1850s-1860s. The decision to refurnish to this period was made for several important reasons: 1) The casework, columns, windows and general “feel” of the rooms are still evocative of that era. 2) For Long Branch, this was the era of greatest financial success and an era of tremendous change and drama – an era worth exploring. 3) Historically, we enjoy the greatest primary source documentation on the appearance of the home and the lives of its inhabitants from this era.
In addition, the “service hallway” and staircase will depict its appearance in the mid-19th century. Sparse and utilitarian, it will become a space useful for the discussion of the role of slavery on the plantation and in the home.
1890s – 1920s: The Long Goodbye
This “late Victorian” period was an important era in the history of the home and will be reflected in one large guest room upstairs. The late 19th and early 20th century saw the decline of the plantation and the rise of the sharecropper. With that, it was also during this era that Long Branch slipped into financial distress as the latest generation grasped onto a dying economic model. Due to that financial insecurity, although the decorative style is technically from the late 19th/early 20th centuries, at Long Branch this style pervaded well into the 1950s due to a lack of disposable income available for new furniture. Thus, this room will allow for an expanded discussion of multiple eras.
1950s: Post-War Family Home
The servant bedroom from the late 1950s/early 1960s will be refurnished to its appearance to that recent era. Physically connected to the servant’s staircase, the room will serve as an interpretive bridge to the story of service – separated by 100 years. It was in this room that the last paid, live-in nannie resided and where old Long Branch was carried away by modernity. This room will provide a backdrop to transition to the 20th century and the challenges it wrought on the property.
1980s: Isaacs Chic
Harry’s classic “Hunt Room” will remain largely as he designed it – augmented by his collection of racing trophies and paintings featuring his most successful horses. The final planned stop for tours – Harry’s room completes the story. And, is perhaps one of the first ca. 1980s period rooms on display in the nation.
Beyond the “Period Rooms”
Long Branch’s immense size also allowed for the creation of new multifunctional space. In the new plan, a large (severely altered) wing will take on a new role as gallery/event/lecture/exhibit space. The color palette of its walls and ceiling speaks to its heritage, but the space will feature modern lighting and amenities useful for galleries. A matching wing, erected by Isaacs in the 1980s, will also serve as multifunctional space and has been painted to match the other wing providing a visual trigger that this is “non-historic” space. In total, these two wings cover over 1,200 sq. ft. of valuable multifunctional space.
Next stop exhibit planning, curating and design as well as the acquisition of all new furnishings . . .