In Petersburg, Virginia: A Five-Part Palladian Villla at Battersea

A recent issue of Virginia Living magazine features a feature article I penned on the restoration of Battersea, one of the few remaining 18th-century Palladian villas in Virginia. Built in 1768, it’s been restored by the Battersea Foundation. Virgina Living’s online edition is also running the feature, and A+A is pleased to repost it here today:

Today, Petersburg seems an unlikely spot for a five-part Anglo-Palladian villa.

But in 1768, it wasn’t.

Perched on a sloping bluff overlooking the Appomattox River, Battersea straddles the site of an Indian fishing village dating from 6,000-8,000 B.C. Prehistoric tools and arrowheads abound, according to Sandy Graham, chairman of the board and president of the Battersea Foundation.

Since the foundation purchased the villa and 37 acres from the City of Petersburg in 2011, it’s stabilized and restored the home built by Colonel John Banister III. Banister was a member of the House of Burgesses in the 1760s and ’70s, a signer of the Articles of Confederation, and a delegate to the Second Continental Congress from 1776-80.

Along the way, he befriended Thomas Jefferson, no stranger to Andrea Palladio’s 16th-century architecture—and its 18th-century tweaks by the British. “Jefferson had a vision of Virginia planters living in Palladian-style villas,” says Calder Loth, retired senior architectural historian of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. “He designed buildings for his friends. Several of those who worked for him continued to design and build in the Jeffersonian-Palladian idiom.”

Battersea may be connected to Jefferson’s vision, but his direct participation in the design can’t be documented. Still, says Loth, “The house would not look like it does had not Jefferson popularized the Palladian style in Virginia. It’s possible that one of Jefferson’s workmen had a hand in Battersea’s design.”

Banister built Battersea near Petersburg for a number of reasons. His grandfather had arrived in Virginia in the late 1600s with a Dinwiddie County land grant and established a plantation at Hatcher’s Run, eight miles southwest of Battersea. His mother, a member of the Peter Jones family who are credited with founding Petersburg, owned the Battersea property—at least 500 acres at the time. The family established gristmills there in 1732, east and 1,500 feet downriver from where Banister built his home.

But Banister was motivated far beyond his mills. “He wanted to be closer to downtown Petersburg—he was a professional politician and one of the wealthiest men in the region for years,” Graham says. “He wanted to entertain and impress his guests.”

And its name pays homage to Banister’s British roots. The London district of Battersea is in the borough of Wandsworth on the south bank of the River Thames. “As a planter, he might have thought it was a good name for it,” Loth says.

Along with Battersea and other properties, Banister owned 46 adult slaves, another 42 who were underage, plus 126 head of cattle and 28 horses. He grew tobacco at Hatcher’s Run, but at Battersea, horticulture was the enterprise du jour. “He was raising trees, plants, bushes and flowers there, not tobacco,” Graham says. “He had long lists of native trees and plants that he sent to Jefferson in France—40 or 50 different seedlings and saplings.”

Then there was the horse racing. Within two miles of Battersea were four professional-grade racetracks, and Banister was actively breeding and heavily betting on his equine stock. “George Washington bought a horse from the Banisters,” Graham says.

Besides, Petersburg at the time was the center of the universe. It was a busy port city in Virginia, which burgeoned first as a colony and then as a state. The city eventually became renowned as a commercial center for processing cotton, tobacco, and metal, then shipping products out of the region. It quickly became an important industrial center in a mostly agricultural state with few major cities. “It was more important than Richmond for a long time,” says Travis McDonald, retired director of architectural restoration at Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest.

McDonald has served on Battersea’s technical panel for years, offering opinions when asked. He views the villa as important because it’s one of the few surviving examples of Anglo-Palladian architecture in Virginia. “My favorite part is the Chinese Chippendale staircase inside, a pretty rare occurrence,” he says of Battersea’s intricately carved railing. “It came out of a pattern book—possibly the British architect William Haypenny’s.”

Banister was elected Petersburg’s first mayor in 1785. He died on Sept. 30, 1788, and is believed to be buried at Hatcher’s Run. In 1823, John Fitzhugh May, a friend and Virginia Supreme Court justice, who was involved with settling Banister’s estate, acquired the villa and initiated extensive refinements, including the construction of an orangerie.

May added Palladian windows to Battersea’s pavilions, a triple-hung window in the east wing, three-part windows in the hyphens connecting pavilions to the main house, plus Doric porches on each end. The brick exterior was stuccoed, then scored to imitate ashlar blocks. Inside, May added Federal-style woodwork in the principal rooms, and marble mantels.

May died in 1856. Battersea remained in private hands until the City of Petersburg purchased it in 1985, then sold it to the Battersea Foundation for $175,000 in 2011. “They were successful over the long haul in preserving it,” Loth says.

Its preservation was no walk in the park, since most of Battersea’s exterior walls were bowing out at its base.

“We spent the first five years investigating and resolving foundation-related issues,” Graham says. “We didn’t want it to fall down before we did the interiors.”

Those interiors have been substantially completed in the last two years. The preservation has benefitted from private funds and grants from the Cabell Foundation, the Mary Morton Parsons Foundation, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, and Petersburg’s Cameron Foundation. About $2.3 million has been spent since the foundation took title.

Battersea is now a cultural arts mecca for Petersburg and Central Virginia, with concerts, nature tours, oyster roasts, symposia, lectures, meetings, plein air painting, opera performances, and archeology for students. In 2026, it will commemorate the 250th anniversary of the beginning of the American Revolution by reenacting 1781’s Battle of Petersburg, and host other events.

Inside, it is being prepped for weddings, dinner parties, and other celebrations; outside, it will host more weddings, plus art and antiques shows.

Then there are the free open houses from 1:00–4:00 p.m. on Saturdays from March through November annually. “More people need to come out to see it—it’s a real hidden gem,” says Elizabeth Kostelny, CEO of Preservation Virginia. “I’m always a little surprised and in awe when we pull up.”

That’s partly because the path to Battersea winds through an urban grid of warehouses and industrial sites. But those who persevere are in for a treat. What awaits them is an 18th-century vision of symmetry and grace.

For more, go here:

(Lead image courtesy of the Battersea Foundation)