Battersea mansion has a storied history all its own

Published 3:09 pm Monday, August 3, 2009

On Nov. 15, 1777, Revolutionary War hero and Virginia House of Burgesses member Col. John Banister signed his name to the first constitution of the newly formed United States of America, the Articles of Confederation.

Almost two-and-a-half centuries later, his great-great-great-granddaughter Betsy DeRamus would visit a house named after her ancestor’s own home in Petersburg, Va., known as Battersea.

This particular house is located in Gallion, Ala.

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Gallion’s Battersea was built around 1820 by a certain Col. McRae as a two-by-two log cabin.

“This is one of the oldest homes in the Canebrake,” current owner and renovator Mark Boland said. “The bondsman in the transaction [in 1820] was an original French settler from the Vine and Olive colony.”

By the 1840s, two additional rooms were constructed at the back of the cabin. A family with the last name of Goode also purchased the home at some point and named the house “Battersea.” It is believed that Mrs. Goode grew up in Petersburg’s Battersea and named her Alabama home after her childhood home.

“We are still trying to piece together the history,” said Tempy Barbru, who serves as the executive director of Battersea, Inc. in Petersburg, Va. “There is currently a large influx of history dealing with the Goode family. There may or may not be a connection.”

Another possible connection exists with Col. Banister’s descendants. Betsy DeRamus’ great-grandfather, John Monro Banister, moved to Alabama in the 19th Century and served as the first rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Greensboro. Banister was the great-grandson of Col. Banister of Virginia and happened to be living in close proximity to the Battersea home in Gallion when it took its name in the 1840s. Banister, like Mrs. Goode, also spent his childhood in Virginia’s Battersea. The relation of Mrs. Goode to the Banister family is still unknown, yet promises to reveal itself with further research.

Barbru, along with Mrs. DeRamus and several local historians, visited Battersea last Thursday. Current owner Mark Boland gave a tour and answered several questions as to the history and nature of the renovation.

“When it comes to renovating, I believe you should prioritize, focus and enjoy small victories,” Boland said. “These kinds of homes are so worthy of renovation, but it is such a labor of love.”

Boland pointed out how the wood of the house reveals the answers to other mysteries of history. The age of the original flooring was determined by the downward stroke marks left on the wood. Such marks are characteristic of sawmills that existed in Marengo County in the 1840s before more efficient sawmills were installed in the 1850s. Also, the original framing of the 1840 expansion shows evidence of hand-hewn axes. Many hand-carved moldings and mantlepieces remain intact.

Battersea of Gallion underwent further expansions, such as the addition of a second story and a kitchen in the 1880s and the addition of a bathroom in the early 20th Century.

“Jill and Bill Martin owned the house before we bought it in 2002, and they did a tremendous amount of work,” Boland said.

Battersea of Gallion is also architecturally similar to the Battersea in Virginia.

“They look similar when you approach them from the front…they both have magnificent trees and a long driveway,” Barbru said. “There are remnants of the Palladian style, particularly the columns and division of parts.”

This Palladian style was developed by Venetian architect Andrea Palladio in the 16th Century. Thomas Jefferson reintroduced the style in many of the buildings he designed and constructed in America. Legend holds that Jefferson was greatly influenced in this style by none other than Banister’s Battersea in Petersburg.

The futures of both Batterseas are as bright as their illustrious pasts. Boland is continuing renovations.

“We just need to finish working a little on the moldings and the landscaping,” he said. “The biggest part is finished.”

Barbru is looking forward to beginning the first phase of renovations to Battersea in Petersburg.

“Phase One will mainly be addressing issues of moisture and water damage,” Barbru said. “We are restoring it to the 1700s period as a cultural, civic and community campus.”