February 22, 2024

Balancing Two Sites as One: Shawn Halifax on Woodlawn and Pope-Leighey House

When Shawn Halifax, the executive director of Woodlawn and Pope-Leighey House in Alexandria, Virginia, initially described his site, his answer was simple: “Two in One.”

Woodlawn, the first National Trust historic site open to the public, was a gift of over 2,000 acres to Nelly Custis and Lawrence Lewis by George Washington. The plantation mansion’s federal style construction was completed in 1805 and was the seat from which the couple enslaved hundreds of men, women, and children over the next thirty years.

Also on the site is the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Pope-Leighey House, a marvel of Usonian architecture set within a natural landscape.

Today, the two houses are situated on 126 acres of this historic plantation, which reveals one of the greatest challenges for this National Trust Historic Site: creating a single cohesive visitor experience. To meet the challenge the staff at Woodlawn and Pope-Leighey are focusing on identifying universal meanings across the properties and as Halifax said, “building interpretation around those commonalities, these intangible meanings like family, identity, loss, home, and others.”

Frank Lloyd Wright's Pope-Leighey House bathed in sunlight.

photo by: Woodlawn/Pope-Leighey House

Exterior of Pope-Leighey House in Alexandria, Virginia.

For Halifax, one of his goals is “for the incredibly talented team we’ve assembled to transform this site from a wedding venue back into a historic site, one where new and old audiences want to visit and feel welcome. It is essential that we reestablish museum best practices in three areas: interpretation and education, collections care and preservation, and the visitor experience, especially as it relates to accessibility and ensuring that it is a safe place for all guests to visit.”

This includes developing compelling visitor experiences and looking across the board at how to improve these two historic sites in ways that are inclusive, honest, and transparent. Read the interview to learn more about Halifax and his hopes for Woodlawn and Pope-Leighey House.

Looking up at the main house of Woodlawn from the bottom of the hill.

photo by: Woodlawn/Pope-Leighey House

View of the main house at Woodlawn Plantation looking up the hill.

What first inspired your love of history?

Reading books about historic figures beginning in second and third grade. I was also inspired by growing up in the Hampton Roads area where you cannot escape the region’s incredible history. This is where English North America was founded at Jamestown. There is Old Point Comfort, later Fort Monroe, which is where the first Africans in English North America arrived, and later where the Contraband story unfolded in the first steps to abolish slavery during the Civil War. Then there are these incredible museums and historic sites like the Mariner’s Museum, Colonial Williamsburg, and the Yorktown Battlefield. That only scratches the surface because there is so much rich local history, too!

I grew up surrounded by history. My grade school was just a block away from where we would look out over the harbor to see where the battle between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia (Merrimack) took place. In high school, the school grounds backed right up to the New Market battlefield. I was on that battlefield all the time. My parents and schoolteachers encouraged me to explore the past.

What's your earliest memory of experiencing a historic site?

My earliest memory of experiencing a historic site was with my grandfather. He delivered newspapers and magazines to newsstands, and my first memory was going to Fort Monroe with him to make deliveries to the Chamberlain Hotel. This hotel dates to the 1920s and overlooks the channel leading to Hampton Roads Harbor, which bristles with aircraft carriers and other naval vessels.

I also had a chance to see Ronald Reagan at the bicentennial of the Battle of Yorktown, which was cool as a 10-year-old to be able to see the President of the United States give a speech on a battlefield. Though I was so far away I couldn't really see anything, just a teeny, tiny figure up on a stage behind all kinds of bulletproof glass.

Aerial shot of Ft. Monroe.

photo by: Fort Monroe Authority

Aerial shot of Fort Monroe.

When people visit Woodlawn & Pope-Leighey House, what do you want them to see, do, and feel while they are there?

I want people to experience the history that's between the lines, but [you need to recognize] that Pope-Leighey and Woodlawn are two very different sites.

For Pope-Leighey House, a lot of our interpretation has been focused on Frank Lloyd Wright and his architecture, which is important. But I'd also like to start looking at the people that made the house come alive, these are the stories of the Pope and the Leighey families and how they turned the architectural gem into a home. To explore the trials and triumphs life presents to a family.

When you walk into the Pope-Leighey House, it feels like you're walking into a home, and we remind our guests that this is a museum, but the fact that you're able to come in and sit in that living room and take in that space makes you a part of it, a part of the home’s history. It’s remarkable.

When I talk about reading between the lines at Woodlawn, all evidence of the enslaved community that was here, all evidence of the free Black community that was here, a lot of that was obliterated. The story of the Quakers, a religious minority, at Woodlawn has been largely overlooked. We are working to better understand those histories. Over time Woodlawn has meant so many different things to the people who lived there. Sometimes those meanings are in tension with one another, but exploring the tensions and helping guests come to their own realization of how it relates to them in meaningful ways is a goal of our new interpretation.

A man standing in front of a door with a brass door knocker.

photo by: Woodlawn/Pope-Leighey House

Shawn Halifax standing in the doorway of Woodlawn.

A group of people sitting around a table in a historic house.

photo by: Woodlawn/Pope-Leighey House

Staff participating in certified interpretive guide training.

This means asking different questions in different ways than we have in the past. Looking at these spaces for what evidence we can find, even though we are using many of the same sources, but we are looking at them through a different lens. That includes engaging with descendant communities and asking them what questions we should be asking.

What is your favorite part of your site?

For the last part of the year visiting Pope-Leighey House as the leaves were changing, it's just unbelievably gorgeous. It is so beautiful to have that home placed in that landscape. I can't tell you how many pictures I took in the autumn.

Then to go from that into the holidays, where we decorated for the first time in 20 years in a mid-century holiday theme, was incredible. I could really envision myself there and that being someone's home, being my home. That time at the house felt special.

View of the back staircase at the main house at Woodlawn.

photo by: Woodlawn/Pope-Leighey House

Stairs to Woodlawn’s attic where early 20th century preservation workers left their names.

View of one of the windows at the Pope-Leighey House with the yellow of changing leaves.

photo by: Woodlawn/Pope-Leighey House

View of Pope-Leighey House during the fall.

What project at the site is energizing you today?

I am highly motivated and energized by issues related to accessibility and providing historical context here at Woodlawn and Pope-Leighey House. If we are talking about equity, justice, diversity and inclusion, but are not accessible and can't provide a bathroom for everyone, this is a problem. If we can’t provide contextual interpretation that demonstrates connections between a Federal mansion and former site of enslavement and a mid-century modern home, are we telling the site’s full history? I'm motivated by the idea of making the site more accessible and using an interpretive center to do that, because it addresses both issues.

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While her day job is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Priya spends other waking moments musing, writing, and learning about how the public engages and embraces history.

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