Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Oaklands, part 2

            In an earlier (December 30, 2010) post on Oaklands, the Watts estate in Roanoke, I concluded, “ Alas, so far, I have found no image whatsoever of the original house at Oaklands.” My cousin Sarah wrote me soon afterwards to call my attention to a book called The Architectural Heritage of the Roanoke Valley, by W. L. Whitwell and Lee W. Winborne (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1982). The endpapers reproduce a perspective map of Roanoke in 1891, with a view more or less from the top of Mill Mountain, that is, looking from the southeast across the city toward the northwest.

Perspective map of the city of Roanoke, Virginia, 1891
(Copies of the map can be purchased at

            The horizon is ringed by mountains. Just in front of them, at the top just to the right of the center, is a small hill labeled “Round Top”, which I knew as “Round Hill”. It was a landmark easily visible from the house in South Roanoke where I grew up, and it was part of Oaklands. Right in front of Round Top on the map is the legend “Oakland Improvement Company”. And in front of that legend is a large house standing alone in the midst of open fields. It must be Oaklands.

Detail of the perspective map of Roanoke, Virginia, 1891

            In my very first post, on December 28, 2010, I mentioned that a real estate developer had bought Oaklands. The date was around 1890. Until then, J. Allen Watts and his family had lived in the house, but the city of Roanoke was booming and the land looked ripe for development. An entrepreneur named Cornelius O’Leary purchased the land in 1890 and formed a company called Oaklands Improvement Company. J. Allen Watts and his family moved into the city, and the house at Oaklands was rented out. In 1897, it burned to the ground.

Stock certificate for the Oaklands Improvement Company

            Unfortunately, the representation of the house on the map appears to be a stylized icon, signifying a large house, rather than a realistic drawing. There is, however, a description of the original house, by someone who had seen it: my grandmother, Jean (Watts) Staples. She was born September 10, 1886, while her parents still lived at Oaklands. There is a photo of her as a small child, probably at Oaklands around 1888, with her two older brothers, Hugh (b. 1884, d. 1908) and William (b. 1882, d. 1932), and a negro man identified only as “Uncle Lou”. Uncle Lou may be Lewis Burwell (b. c. 1826, death date unknown), who appears in the census for Roanoke County in 1870 and 1880 as the dining room servant and then butler of Francis and Letitia (Watts) Sorrel. Letitia Watts (b. 1829, d. 1900) was my grandmother’s great aunt. She grew up at Oaklands, and inherited a large parcel of the land, which she and her husband named “The Barrens” and where they resided as neighbors. Letitia lived to see the original house destroyed by fire, and my grandmother appended her lament at the end of her own reminiscence.

Jean, Hugh, and William Watts with Uncle Lou, c. 1888

            Although my grandmother would have been only four years old or less when her family moved into town, they probably visited the old house occasionally. The graveyard was still being used; Jean Gamble Robertson was buried there in 1895, George Watson Carr in 1899, and Letitia (Watts) Sorrel in 1900. Her father, J. Allen Watts, had a substantial interest in the development company and probably wanted to see what was being done with the property; in fact, little if anything was done with it by Oaklands Improvement Company. The economy crashed in 1893, Roanoke’s boom subsided, and the land, still a farm, reverted to the Watts family. J. Allen Watts himself was buried there in 1904, and the ownership passed to his heirs. Even if my grandmother’s recollections were hazy, however, her mother, Gertrude (Lee) Watts, lived until 1953, and could have refreshed her daughter’s memory. Here is the description, written by Jean (Watts) Staples around 1920:

            About the year 1820 Edward Watts came to Botetourt County from his former home near Lynchburg and built the residence "Oaklands", which was to be the fami1y home for more than eighty years. His lands were located in that portion of Botetourt which a few years later was cut off and became Roanoke County. The house was situated in what is now North West Roanoke, and the lane in front of the yard is now called Rockland Avenue.
            "Oak1ands" was not a pretentious place, but very commodious and livable. It was built of clapboards painted white, with green blinds and broad verandahs. One porch extended across the entire front of the house and another across the back and around two sides of an ell or addition built back from the southeast portion of the house, which faced north. As in so many houses of the period, a broad hall extended from the front porch to the back and into this opened the big front door, which stood ajar in all seasons of the year as a sign of hospitality and welcome to all who might come.
            Off to the east of the house stretched a lovely lawn and beyond that the gardens. These covered quite a large piece of ground and were enclosed by hedges of osage orange, except on the far and lowest side where there was a background of lovely willows and other trees.
            In the center of the flower garden was a summer house completely covered with climbing roses, honeysuckle and jasmine. Around it were grouped the beds containing a wide variety of flowers which were the object of loving care by the ladies of the family. After a 1apse of more than a hundred years there are still a few of the old shrubs and flowers still living: a profusion of jonquils, coming up each spring, one clump of the old box-wood, some pirus japonica and 1ilac bushes. These are just about all that was left of the old garden.
            The home burned to the ground in 1897 and for many years there were no members of the family living on the place, so that the garden was neglected and almost disappeared. Soon after the fire, the place was visited by Mrs. Letitia Sorrel, daughter of Edward Watts, and in her diary she wrote the following sad words:
            "The birds sing their requiem over the broken roof tree and the soft winds wail among the blackened trees. I passed on into the garden, once so beautiful, so fragrant with its lovely flowers. The daffodils and jonquils, crocus and sweet lily of the valley were springing up everywhere, uncared for. But the roses and the jasmine were one mass of dead wood and unkempt branches. The beautiful microphillas trailing on the ground, the summer house a mass of ruins; the galicanthus and the many fragrant shrubs thrown aside, only the lilacs and snowballs holding watch over their broken sisters. Alas, what a picture and alas that I should have lived to see it. My dear old home! There is nothing left but memories."
            The dearly beloved lady who wrote these lines has been dead for many years. Long afterwards her great nephew, William Watts, built a modest home on the site of the old one and once more, after many years, there are roses blooming in the garden. Little by little, as it can be done, the former beauty and order are being restored. And "Oaklands" is no longer only a memory but is once again a home.

Oaklands in 2011
photo courtesy of my cousin Katherine

            The “modest home” built by William Watts “long afterwards” – around 1917 – still stands. It has lasted longer than the original house, which burned about eighty years after it was built. William Watts, his wife Ellen (Catogni) Watts, and their son William Watts lived there, and the family still owns it. The former beauty and order were indeed restored, and the old traditions of hospitality continued.

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