Claymont Court

Claymont Court or simply Claymont is a Georgian style brick mansion, the grandest of several built near Charles Town, West Virginia for members of the Washington family. The current house was built in 1840 by Bushrod Corbin Washington, grand-nephew of George Washington, to replace a house that was originally built in 1820, but burned in 1838. The house was purchased in 1899 by author Frank Stockton, who lived there until his death in 1902. In 1943, Claymont was bought by industrialist R.J. Funkhouser, who at the same time bought nearby Blakeley, another Washington house. In 1974 it was purchased by John G. Bennett for the purpose of an intentional community. It is currently used as a retreat center by the Claymont Society for Continuous Education.

Washington Family Era

In the 1700s, the 300-acre (1.2 km2) plot of land on which Claymont stands was owned by John Augustine Washington, the brother of George Washington. George Washington had established the Bullskin Plantation, the first property he ever owned, a few miles southwest of the Claymont property. In 1811, George Washington's grand-nephew Bushrod Corbin Washington inherited this land at the age of 21. Bushrod built a thirty-four room mansion here using ninety slaves. Bushrod's brother, John Augustine Washington III, subsequently built the Blakeley mansion 600 yards away facing Claymont. The two brothers married daughters from the Blackburn family and started their own families directly across from each other in the Blackeley and Claymont mansions.

Bushrod finished building Claymont in 1820 for $30,000; a massive sum at the time that became known as "Bushrod's folly." After completion, it was the largest house in the area. With later additions to the home, it would become the largest house in West Virginia at 16,000 square feet (1,500 m2) with 59 rooms and 25 fireplaces. Claymont may also be the northern most example of the Virginia Plantation Style mansion with wings, courtyards, and dependencies. Claymont burned down in 1838 during Bushrod's first week working in Richmond as an assemblyman in the Virginia House of Delegates. The central part of the mansion was completely rebuilt and the remainder restored. It is thought the fire started in the fireplace of the mansion's basement kitchen. Bushrod died in 1851 leaving Claymont to his son Thomas Blackburn Washington. Thomas died in 1854 leaving the estate to his eldest son Bushrod Corbin II.

The Civil War was devastating to the Washington family, many of whom had taken refuge at Claymont. During the war, two of the young men of the house, including Thomas Blackburn Washington's youngest son James Washington, were officers in the Confederate Army under John Singleton Mosby. Both of the boys were captured in Claymont Court during Christmas furlough (holiday leave) by Union Army troops led by George Custer, who had been a roommate of one of the boys at West Point military academy. The Washington boys were taken to a Union prison camp where they both died. As punishment to Claymont estate for "harboring guerillas", General Sheridan ordered all of the cattle driven off the land (except for one milch cow) and every fence surrounding the estate's Clay Mound farm burned down.

After the Civil War, the reconstructionist government demanded payment of back taxes for all of the years that the Washington family had paid taxes to the Confederacy rather than the Union. The Washington family could not pay, and by 1871 the family was forced to sell Claymont estate for the modest sum of $10,000 (a third of what it cost to build). Most of the family then moved to Washington State.

After the Washingtons vacated Claymont, the property changed hands a number of times. The mansion and larger estate was actually uninhabited for a few years at a time and subsequently the property began to deteriorate and the farming operations halted. Claymont operated as a self sustaining farm, differing from plantations further in the American South. Claymont produced almost everything the inhabitants used. The property was farmed and maintained by nearly a hundred slaves as well as a couple dozen free workers. Because of Claymont's size, it was an expensive operation to keep up and later owners of the property would not have the resources or dedication to keep the estate operational.

Owners after the Washington Family

After the Washingtons vacated, there were a number of successive owners of Claymont:

  • 1871-1886: Clement March
  • 1886-1889: Charles Dawson
  • 1889-1906: Frank R. Stockton
  • 1906-1943: Col. S.J. Murphy
  • 1943-1974: R.J. Funkhouser
  • 1974-present: The Claymont Society for Continuous Education
Current Use

Of the eight remaining Washington family homes in Jefferson County, Claymont is considered the grandest. At 16,000 square feet (1,500 m2), it is also the largest. In 1973, Claymont was added to the National Register of Historic Places, a US government list of buildings and structures deemed worthy of preservation.

Today, Claymont operates as a retreat center run by the non-profit The Claymont Society for Continuous Education, which focuses on the philosophical teachings of John G. Bennett. While Mr. Bennett was alive, Claymont operated as a school focused on his specific teachings which dealt with self-reflection, spirituality, mysticism and oneness with nature. After Bennett's death, the school was discontinued and Claymont opened its doors as a retreat center for many different groups including Wickens, Christians, yoga instruction, meditation, martial arts, and traditional dance. It maintains a strong focus on organic farming, buying local, and sustainability. Claymont even hosts WWOOFers to work on the grounds and help with local agriculture in exchange for free food and lodging. The mansion proper acts as a retreat center having been retrofitted with showers, hot water, electricity, natural gas, and even wifi. A nearby 450-foot (140 m) cattle barn has been converted into a conference center. Besides the mansion proper, much of the estate grounds are currently maintained such as the front and rear mansion lawns. The old gardens, which were damaged in a storm, have proven too difficult to maintain and are currently unusable.

The Claymont Society for Continuous Education, in addition to hosting various retreat groups, also advocates heavily for Claymont Court's continuing physical restoration. Claymont has received grant money for restoration through the 1772 Foundation, Save America's Treasures, Jefferson County Commission, and individual donations. The Claymont Society works in tandem with the National Park Trust to lobby for continuing preservation grants.

Among recent restorations, the mansion has a completely rebuilt second floor veranda, new support beams for the main ballroom, and new window seals and gutter systems. The mansion can still be considered under restoration though it is fully operational with all utilities.

Citations

Building Activity

  • OpenBuildings
    OpenBuildings added a digital reference
    about 5 years ago via OpenBuildings.com