Chapter History

Chapter 3
This Old House

Mrs. Chenoweth woke up every morning inside the old Thomas Pate House, and looked across the street at the dilapidated Custom House.

Vacant for several years and in a desperate state, the Custom House had weathered the ravages of two wars, yet was on the verge of collapse. With missing window panes, a leaky roof, shutters hanging from the windows, and a damaged interior, the house was in need of an overhaul.

Like so many of Yorktown's historic buildings, the Custom House was falling apart. Mrs. Chenoweth took an interest in the property and dedicated herself to its restoration. Fortunately, she had some help.

In 1922, Mrs. Adele M. Blow, owner of the Thomas Nelson, Jr. house in Yorktown, purchased the Custom House property from the heirs of Dr. McNorton for $10,000. The chapter then began an aggressive fundraising campaign to purchase the property from Mrs. Blow. Her asking price: $6,000.

Funds for the down payment were raised through solicitation of members of the chapter and other DAR chapters throughout the United States. These early members held bake sales, coordinated a ball, and produced plays to raise money.

One regent wrote back asking why the DAR would want to buy a house formerly owned by the British; to which Mrs. Chenoweth replied in her usual fashion, giving the unsuspecting lady a lesson in American history.

On April 24, 1924, all the payments had been made and the property was sold to the chapter for $6,000. Meeting minutes state that "the building was to be used as a chapter house and would include a museum for the collection and proper care of documents and rare treasures."

A celebration was in order, and the chapter hosted the first dedication of the Custom House during their program for Yorktown Day, October 19, 1924. Under the leadership of the chapter, Yorktown Day 1924 drew over 2,000 visitors to Yorktown, including Governor and Mrs. Trinkle of Virginia.

Now it was time to get to work on the renovations.

Five years later, in 1929 and in the midst of the Depression, Mrs. Letitia Pate Whitehead Evans, a relative of our first vice regent, Mrs. Elizabeth Fox Madison, became interested in the project.

A noted philanthropist and business woman, Mrs. Evans (below) was the first woman to serve on the Board of Directors for the Coca Cola Company and, throughout her lifetime, donated millions of dollars to many organizations. In a time when fundraising would have presented a challenge, Mrs. Evans' involvement with the Custom House was a Godsend.

Mrs. Chenoweth wrote to Mrs. Evans, "the building is deteriorating very rapidly and has so bravely survived war and storm for 222 years, always a notable and historic landmark in the heart of Yorktown and thus rendering it so important that the building be restored and preserved to posterity."

In another letter she wrote "the chief charm to me is that this old building was already long associated with this country at the time of the surrender and certainly all of the great men so prominent in the history, not only of this country, but of France and England and other countries doubtless were in this building at one time or another. There is a tradition that immediately, or soon after the surrender, a meeting of the Mason Fraternity was held there with General Washington, Lord Cornwallis, General O'Hara and others in the meeting on most friendly terms."

Architect Duncan Lee of Richmond and Contractor E.C. Wilkinson were hired to oversee the project. Work on the Custom House began June 1, 1929, and continued until the dedication ceremony on November 15, 1930. The renovation included replicas of the original dependencies, a walled garden, and structure restoration.

Mr. Lee wrote of the Custom House, "a thorough examination of the exterior of the building showed all material and workmanship of the same date, probably the first quarter of the 18th Century and that only alterations were the closing of a window on Read Street and a tin roof. The window and roof material were replaced. I am quite proud of the yard wall and out buildings which were entirely new but built of very old material. Was sorry to see some years ago that one of the little buildings had been boarded up and completely hidden by vines. The interior woodwork is all of old material...the contractor is the same one who did all of the fine work for us at Carter's Grove."

Another celebration was in order, and the final dedication of the Custom House took place on November 15, 1930 (right). The affair once again brought many notables to Yorktown, who were invited "by card" only. Governor Pollard of Virginia gave the address.

For the opening, the chapter was presented with a painting of the Comte de Grasse, reproduced from a painting in France. The artist, Eugenie De Land Saugstad, was at the opening.

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