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Virginia's mansions

It is said that Virginia has more historic homes than all of the other states put together. This state boasts hundreds of authentic and romantic reminders of life styles from the country's earlier years. Just last month, James and Dolly Madison's Montpelier home, 20 miles northeast of Charlottesville, opened its doors to the public for the first time. Montpelier hosted the first national ceremony honoring the bicentennial of the Constitution.

Probably the most convenient way to see the homes is to concentrate on a group within a single region. For spring travelers to Washington, D.C., a visit to Oatlands and Stratford Hall would make refreshing day trips out of the city.

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Oatlands is situated in Virginia's hunt country, 30 miles northwest of the capital, and Stratford Hall is in the state's ``Northern Neck,'' the region between the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers, just 60 miles south of Washington. At Oatlands, the formal boxwood displays and elaborate gardens that surround the handsome mansion were begun in the early 1800s by George Carter, great-grandson of Robert (King) Carter, one of Virginia's great planters.

But it was almost 100 years later that the late Georgian-style home and gardens reached their prime. William Corcoran Eustis, grandson of the founder of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, and his wife bought the estate for use as their summer and hunt-season retreat. Instead of making changes, Mr. and Mrs. Eustis preferred to revitalize and heighten the beauty of the mansion and the acreage that had deteriorated since the Civil War. Terraces were extended, a boxwood walk was planted, and a reflecting pool and teahouse built. Elegant furnishings were added to the already elegantly detailed rooms.

Visitors see Oatlands, now a property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, as it was when Mrs. Eustis died in 1964. There are the carefully manicured gardens highlighted by the boxwood all'ee where George Carter once bowled, graceful descending terraces, and broad stone steps. And the rooms, including an octagon-shaped bedroom, are richly detailed with fine wood and plaster work and furnished with lavish American and French art and antiques. Family photographs, fresh flowers, clothing, and memorabilia combine to lend a hospitable warmth and a feeling that the family is still in residence.

From spring through late fall, Oatlands plays host to a variety of activities such as lectures, antique car shows, and the annual Virginia Foxhound Show, all open to visitors.

Stratford Hall, despite its superb setting on a bluff overlooking the Potomac River and its bold architectural style, has won much of its distinction as the birthplace and home of great figures in American history: Henry (Light-Horse Harry) Lee, the Revolutionary War hero; Gen. Robert E. Lee; Arthur and William Lee, diplomats who obtained European assistance for the Revolution; Richard Henry Lee, who made the motion for independence at the 1776 Continental Congress and, with his brother, Francis Lightfoot Lee, signed the Declaration of Independence.

The 20-room, early Georgian-style great house has undergone little alteration since it was built in 1725 by Thomas Lee, the only native Virginian to become governor of the colony. It's an H-shaped, brick building with an impressive 90-foot fa,cade and a cluster of four chimneys at each end.

Stratford's Great Hall, once the setting for fashionable balls and receptions, is today regarded as one of the handsomest rooms in the country and is the centerpiece of the manor, with its magnificent dimensions: 29 feet square and a 17-foot-high tray ceiling with elaborately carved decorations. The remaining rooms are exquisitely furnished in the gracious styles of the early 19th-century English town house and the Tidewater Virginia plantation homes.

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Outdoors, farming goes on over the 1,200-acre estate as it has since the days of the Lee family. The meadow, where the Lee sons once rode their horses, leads to the ``cool sweet spring'' yearned for by Gen. Robert E. Lee during the war. There is a formal garden outlined with boxwood and a second garden that features neat rows of vegetables and colorful flowers popular when the plantation was new.

In the plantation kitchen building, the huge fireplace gives off a rosy warmth as visitors sample cider and homemade ginger cookies. Nearby, close to where the hogsheads of tobacco were moved downhill to the river for shipment to England, the great waterwheel of the mill turns its wooden gears to power the millstones as they grind wheat, corn, oats, and barley, just as they did 250 years ago.

Amenities for visitors include a slide presentation and a museum in the Stetson Reception Center. ``Plantation lunches'' are available in a log-cabin dining room.

Practical information

Oatlands, on Route 15 south of Leesburg, is open daily from April through mid-November, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays, 1 to 5 p.m. Stratford Hall, on Route 214 off Route 3, is open daily 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Each house charges admission. For a listing of other great houses, contact the Virginia Division of Tourism, 202 N. Ninth St., Suite 500, Richmond, VA 23219.

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