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  • Writer's pictureTim Murphy

Barboursville Ruins

The decrepit brick facades and Doric columns of Barboursville were once the epitome of Jeffersonian architecture in Orange County, Virginia. Designed by Thomas Jefferson himself, the mansion was built between 1814 and 1822 for namesake James Barbour—a lifelong politician who began his lawmaking career in the Virginia House of Delegates, serving three distinct terms between 1796 and 1812. He was an advocate for Democratic-Republican ideals and quickly became a prominent member of the delegation, even serving as Speaker of the House for his final three years in office.

While acting Speaker, Barbour penned a bill establishing the Literary Fund of Virginia—the first source of funding for Virginia’s public education system—which positioned him as a favored front-runner for the Virginia governorship in 1811. He ended up losing to incumbent George William Smith by a vote of 100 to 97 in the General Assembly. Tragically, Smith perished along with 71 others during a fire at Richmond’s Monument Theater on December 26, 1811. The Virginia Legislature convened one week later and appointed Barbour as Smith’s successor to office.

Barbour’s governorship was defined by the War of 1812. Known as the “War Governor,” Barbour waged a defensive campaign against the invading British. He fortified the coastal cities of Norfolk and Hampton and raised ten thousand troops for the protection of Richmond and the greater Commonwealth.

Following his term as governor, Barbour was elected to the United States Senate where he proved to be an influential force on the national stage. He tirelessly campaigned for federally funded infrastructural improvements and successfully lobbied his fellow Senators to charter the Second Bank of the United States. Barbour was elected President Pro Tempore of the Senate in 1819 and presided over debates concerning the statehoods of Missouri and Maine, which influenced the eventual Missouri Compromise of 1820. Barbour’s senatorial tenure ended in March 1825 after being appointed to President John Quincy Adams’ Cabinet as Secretary of War.

Following Adams’ defeat in the 1828 General Election, Barbour returned to Orange County to manage his family’s plantation. A connoisseur of agricultural science, Barbour experimented with various cultivation methods around his farm and reported his findings in national farming publications. He worked with the University of Virginia to promote the study of scientific farming and was later named President of the Albemarle Agricultural Society.

Barbour remained active in local and national politics while pursuing his agrarian undertakings. In December 1831, he attended the first national convention of the National Republican Party—the “Anti-Jacksonian” faction of the Democratic-Republican Party—and was elected its presiding officer. Barbour later served as Chairman of the 1839 Whig National Convention in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania—which nominated William Henry Harrison for President and John Tyler for Vice-President—and helped organize Whig assemblies around Virginia. Barbour died on June 7, 1842, and was buried at his Barboursville estate.

Barboursville persisted as one of Virginia’s finest estates in the decades following Barbour’s death. Though not exceptionally large—containing only eight rooms—Barboursville was admired for the presence of several two-story chambers, including its octagonal drawing room, reminiscent of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Sadly, the structure was gutted by fire on Christmas Day, 1884, and left untouched for nearly a century thereafter.

In 1976, Barboursville was purchased by renowned Italian viticulturist Gianni Zonin and given new life as the region’s first commercial vineyard. For over four decades, countless visitors have enjoyed the remnants of Jefferson’s grand design, in addition to some highly-acclaimed wines. Those who desire a more intimate connection to the property may find luxurious accommodations at Barboursville’s 1804 Inn and Cottages—several adjacent structures that predate the mansion’s construction. Thanks to Zonin’s efforts, the Barboursville ruins have transformed from a forgotten architectural masterpiece into the trademark of an enterprise, emblematic of Virginia’s budding wine industry.

Visit Barboursville Winery for more information about the vineyard and its history

For more information on the ruins, check out Only in Your State, Monticello, Atlas Obscura, Hallowed Ground, and Abandoned Country

Read the following publications for more behind Barboursville's architecture

  1. Harrison, Claudia. "Thinking Within Architecture." PhD diss., Virginia Tech, 2002.

  2. Rourk, Will. “Building Barboursville: 3D Scanning and Modeling the Ruins”. University of Virginia, 2021.


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