Historic Sites and Buildings
In historical interest this fine mansion has few rivals among the James River plantations. It was the birthplace and lifelong home of Benjamin Harrison V (1726-91), signer of the Declaration of Independence and three-term Governor of Virginia, as well as the birthplace and boyhood residence of his son, William Henry (1773-1841), ninth President of the United States and grandfather of Benjamin (1833-1901), the 23d President.
Benjamin Harrison IV, the signer's father, built the structure in 1726. In 1773 it was the birthplace of William Henry. During his youth, in 1781 British troops under Benedict Arnold plundered the plantation, but did not seriously harm the mansion. When Benjamin V died in 1791, William Henry's oldest brother, Benjamin VI, inherited Berkeley. Sometime in the 1790's, one of the Harrisons, probably Benjamin VI, made some architectural alterations and redecorated the interior in the Adam style.
As a young man, following attendance at Hampden-Sydney College and a fling at medical education, William Henry emigrated to the Northwest Territory to seek his fortune and never again lived permanently at the plantation. He did, however, visit his family there, and in 1841 paid a last visit after his election to the Presidency. At that time, he apparently wrote his inaugural address in the room in which he had been born; he died only a month later in the White House and was interred in a private cemetery, present Harrison Tomb State Memorial, in North Bend, Ohio.
By the time of the Civil War, the plantation was known as Harrison's Landing. In 1862 it served as a supply base and camp for the Union Army of the Potomac following its retreat from Malvern Hill, Va., which ended the Peninsula Campaign. Gen. George B. McClellan utilized the mansion as his headquarters. While quartered nearby, Gen. Daniel Butterfield composed the famous bugle call "Taps."
By 1915 the early Georgian mansion was in poor condition. Subsequent owners have restored it to its 18th-century appearance. This included removal of a 19th-century porch on all four sides, replacement of the window sash and exterior door framings, and reconstruction of the center stairs. The exterior has been altered somewhat over the years, but retains much of the original structure and character.
The house is 2-1/2 stories high and has a dormered, gable roof with two tall interior ridge chimneys and distinctive pedimented gable ends, including modillioned cornices. The brick walls are laid in Flemish bond. Gauged brick is employed in the flat window arches, the belt course, and door pediments. The broad-piered central doors on the north and south elevations, with pediments in gauged brick, are reconstructions. Two detached, two-story, brick dependencies, set slightly south of the house on the river side, were built in the 1840's to replace similar structures that had been erected sometime before 1800.
The center hall plan has been slightly modified. The hall bisects the four rooms on the first floor into pairs. A small stairs in the northwestern corner was probably inserted about 1800. Most of the interior finish reflects the Adam alterations of the 1790's. The upper floors are used as a private residence, but the basement and first floor may be visited. The unmarked grave of signer of the Declaration Benjamin Harrison is in the family cemetery, a quarter of a mile southeast of the plantation.
Last Updated: 22-Jan-2004