Some people drive down Franklin Street in Richmond every day and never notice the Stewart Lee House that sits in the middle of the block between 7th and 8th Streets. But this house has quite the history.
Originally part of a group of five houses built by tobacco merchant Norman Stewart between 1844 and 1849, the Stewart-Lee House is the lone family home survivor of what once was one of Richmond’s finest residential blocks. The building still survives largely because of its brief historical connection to General Robert E. Lee.
Norman Stewart died in 1856 and left the building to his nephew John Stewart. The younger Stewart then rented it to General George Washington Custis Lee, Robert E. Lee’s son, and a group of young Confederate officers. The officers used the house as the “bachelor’s mess” until 1864, when Robert E. Lee’s wife and daughters arrived to live there after the Federal government confiscated their home, Arlington. General Lee retired to the house in 1865, following the surrender of the Confederate army at Appomattox. The Lees left Richmond together for the country in June of that same year.
According to one report, on April 3, 1865, when the United Presbyterian Church just around the corner burned, and two neighboring homes caugh fire, Mary Lee (General Lee's wife) resolutely stayed put and had tea with some of her daughters. It didn’t hurt that a bucket brigade of Richmonders doused her house to reduce the heat.
In 1877, the house became the first home of The Westmoreland Club, and, some years later, the home of A. M. Keiley, Richmond's mayor from 1871 to 1876. From 1893-1959 it was headquarters of the Virginia Historical Society, and today houses the offices of the Homebuilders Association of Virginia.
Photo: Morgan Riley