What Is That Tower?

Charlottesville, Virginia

May 20, 2020

Above is a photo of the Birdwood Estate located just west of Charlottesville. See the "tower" on the left of the photo? It looks like a lighthouse in a way. If you look closely, you will see some stairs on the outside that start about halfway up the structure.

What is it? For the answer, I turned to the UVa Magazine.

Birdwood is an elegant, rundown mansion that was once home to prominent Albemarle County farmer William Garth. Built between 1819 and 1830, Birdwood bears many of the characteristics of other early 19th-century buildings at UVA, and is rumored to have been built by the same workmen who constructed the Rotunda. The front steps are lined with four large Doric columns and a balcony with Chinese Chippendale railing sits above the front door. Inside, the house is filled with high ceilings, large windows and built-in bookcases with glass doors.

The Garth family owned the house for approximately 60 years; scratched into one of the window panes is “Gabe Garth, June 22nd, 1844.” Garth family accounts state that Northern troops stopped at the house for three days during the Civil War, and that Gen. George Armstrong Custer even came to the property on his way to Charlottesville and apologized for his troops’ plundering of the mansion.

The property eventually landed in the hands of Hollis Rinehart, who went on to create the Charlottesville National Bank and Trust Company, and who built a lighthouse-shaped water tower to the east of the property.

Birdwood changed hands a few more times before being parceled out to UVA, first in 1967 and then in 1974. For a short time it was used as a conference center.

Going into the house now, one can see the layers of redesign and re-imagining it has undergone as it changed ownership, from an unfinished stenciling project around the doors in the basement, to the ornate, peeling wall paper, to the 1970s-style orange carpeting on the top floor.

And that's the rest of the story.

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