Perched atop a hillside at the confluence of the James and Blackwater rivers is a Federal-style house that has stood watch over the growth of the city for more than 200 years.
Built in 1815, Point of Honor has been home to a number of prominent Lynchburg families. It now serves families in a different manner — as part of the Lynchburg Museum System.
Dr. George Cabell, whose most famous patient was Patrick Henry, built his home with an eye for elegance but also attention to budget.
“The house he erected there was unquestionably the most elegant yet seen in the immediate vicinity, and after more than 150 years, Point of Honor still bids fair claim to the title of the city’s finest dwelling,” wrote S. Allen Chambers in his book, “Lynchburg, An Architectural History,” originally published in 1981.
Cabell’s land once stood at more than 800 acres and now occupies a single city block on Cabell Street in what now is known as Diamond Hill.
“The site on which [Cabell] built his mansion is in every respect worthy of the house,” Chambers wrote. “The broad expanse of lawn in front of the house served in the early nineteenth century as a dueling ground, and it was the bloodless, and honorable, conclusion of one of these that is thought to have given the house its name, Point of Honor.”
Cabell, born in Buckingham County in 1766, came to Lynchburg in 1792 and settled on a lot at the corner of Court and 8th street. But soon the physician moved his wife Sarah and children to land outside the town. By 1815, construction was completed.
Cabell died in 1823, Sarah in 1826. The estate was left to their son, William Lewis Cabell and his bride, Elizabeth Daniel. Both died of tuberculosis in 1830.
The house then was inherited by Elizabeth’s father, Judge William Daniel Sr., a well-known circuit judge for whom the neighborhood is named. Daniel died in 1839 and his wife in 1840. Their son, William Daniel Jr., inherited the house and moved in with his wife Sarah Ann Warwick in 1841, after adding stucco to the exterior and making other renovations. After Sarah’s death four years later, the property was divided and the mansion and two acres sold to David Bryce Payne.
Payne sold the house in 1857 to Judge Daniel, who leased it to the Langhorne family before selling it five years later to Robert Latham Owen.
Owen’s bride, Narcissa, as the legend goes, helped the Confederate Civil War efforts after two Union soldiers approached the house dressed as Confederate stragglers. In an attempt to bolster their spirits, Narcissa told them exaggerated claims of reinforcements headed toward the city. The Union spies reported her claims to General David Hunter, who withdrew from Lynchburg believing he was heavily outmatched.
Owen, president of the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad, sold Point of Honor in 1867 and moved to Norfolk to serve in the Senate of Virginia. The mansion became the property of two brokerage partners, who subdivided it further and sold it in 1876 to T.V. Strange and Lewis E. Litchford Sr. Two years later, Litchford was the sole owner and it remained in the family for 50 years. Alterations under their tenure included plumbing and additions to the rear. Over the years, the gardens and outbuildings disappeared.
Point of Honor was sold at auction in 1928 to James R. Gilliam Jr., who donated the property to the city of Lynchburg. It had new life as a recreation center for the Daniel’s Hill neighborhood.
Point of Honor’s restoration to its circa-1815 appearance began in 1968 and by 1977, the restored home opened to the public as part of the Lynchburg Museum System.
“For many years, students of Lynchburg architecture have attempted to ascertain the architect of Point of Honor,” Chambers wrote. “Based on the handbook source of the mantel, the similarity of the building to slightly earlier Richmond examples, and obvious affinities to contemporary work in Lynchburg, it may well be that Cabell, or his master builder, served as the architect as well.”
Catherine Dalton, a guide at Point of Honor, said she believes there are two reasons Point of Honor endured past its 200th birthday — the brickwork and the stone foundation.
The brickwork on the main house is laid in the Flemish bond, where bricklayers alternated the orientation of the bricks in a short and long pattern, creating a thick exterior wall. The stone foundation kept the porous brick from absorbing ground moisture.
One of the notable features of Point of Honor is its symmetrical facade, but that symmetry isn’t just reserved for the exterior. Inside, with one notable exception, the rooms on the first and second floors are situated exactly over top of each other in the same shape.
“Point of Honor bears many similarities to contemporary works in the city,” Chambers wrote. “Doorways with arched fanlights center its facade on both the first and second floor. … Windows are capped with decorative splayed lintels that are plastered over recessed jack arches…”
The basic floor plan for the house is a modified T shape, Chambers wrote, noting the central hall is bookended by polygonal rooms with windows that give a “remarkable sense of light and spaciousness, among the most attractive features of Federal interiors.”
The foyer reflects Cabell’s desire for an opulent interior while still being budget minded, Dalton said. The walls are painted in a faux finish, with the wainscoting painted to look like oak and the upper walls painted in an ashlar brick pattern.
The floor is covered in a floor cloth, painted to resemble Italian marble. These types of floor coverings were made from the worn sails of ships.
“This space shows you how Dr. Cabell saved money, how he spent money and how he avoided taxes,” Dalton said.
One of the ways Cabell saved money was in his choices of wood, Dalton said. The first five steps of the main staircase — the ones visible from the front door — are oak and the rest are pine. The reason, Dalton said, is oak was taxed heavily but the prevalent pine was not.
The wooden trim work throughout the first floor all are styled after typical patterns of the day, but Cabell made some subtle changes. For instance, the molding over the parlor door features swags of tobacco leaves rather than cloth, reflecting the source of Cabell’s fortune.
The house currently features electricity, but to protect the artifacts, no lighting has been installed. The foyer was lit by a large glass globe, which would have burned whale oil to shine out of the half-circle transom window above the door to welcome visitors. The globe is 200 years old, but the mechanics that operated it are reproduction.
“Most guests would have been coming from the water,” Dalton said. “I like to think of Motel 6: ‘We’ll leave the light on for ya.’”
To the left, sits the parlor. Displayed in the center of the room is a simple card table set with a china tea service. The four chairs surrounding the piece are artifacts, but the museum had another dozen reproduced so visitors can sit and study the room.
“This is the showoff room in the showoff house,” Dalton said. “[Cabell] designed this house so he could be seen by the people in Lynchburg.”
The parlor is trimmed in French blue and the walls are lined with wallpaper depicting a Parisian landscape called the Monuments of Paris.
The fireplace centerpiece is black, believed to mimic the popular black centerpieces called basalt ware, made by Wedgewood of London.
“The parlor, to the left of the hall, is one of the finest Federal rooms in Piedmont Virginia,” Chambers wrote. “... The chief decorative feature is the mantel but here that element shares honors with the surround of the double-leaf door leading into the parlor from the hall. Both mantel and door incorporate the same decorative motifs that, while typical Federal schemes, are not often found in Lynchburg houses of the period.”
The crown molding features the exact pattern of the day, but liberties were taken with the mantelpiece. Instead of eggs framing the cloth swags, it’s acorns, and instead of dentals there are carved oak leaves and lower down are tobacco leaves.
The carpet is the rarest thing Cabell would have owned. Carpeting was made in narrow strips that were nailed to the floor.
“We have an incredible piano forte that came to us through the Cabell family,” Dalton said. “That’s everybody’s favorite part of the parlor. It’s so impressive.”
The dining room, situated behind the foyer, had a second doorway for the enslaved servants to provide the meals. The wood trim features the diamond-shaped pattern of the day, but the typical English rose has been replaced with a Virginia dogwood.
Dinner was an hours-long affair, beginning at about 3 p.m. and finishing at about 9 p.m. The ladies would leave the table to wander through the gardens or listen to music, but the men would stay in the dining room.
The large central table features claw feet that end in casters, and it breaks apart into two tables that can be moved and rearranged as needed.
The dining room was meant for entertaining, so the family took their meals in the best bedchamber, where the Cabell parents slept.
“The best bedchamber, this is where Dr. Cabell goes from a smart man to a brilliant man,” Dalton said. “Fire was a real concern. There actually was a burn upstairs that had been patched. … Dr. Cabell, when the family is here without guests, he closes that door and closes the door above for the children’s room and only 1/3 of the house is where they live. From nine fireplaces, he goes down to three.”
The best bedchamber was outfitted with a bed, a table where the family would have eaten their meals and a “necessary chair” — the 200-year-old equivalent to a toilet.
On the second floor, the guest room fits in the same shape as the parlor below. For the museum’s purposes, the room is set up for two guests but the Cabells could move the beds out and place freshly stuffed mats on the floor to provide bedding for 20 to 25 people.
Dalton said her favorite part of the house is the view of the James River and downtown Lynchburg from the guest bedroom window.
The rooms over the dining room are where the internal symmetry is broken.
One one side of the staircase is the smallest room in the house. While restoration work was underway, crews thought they were going to find a wood-burning fireplace in the wall above the one in the dining room.
Instead, they discovered an unfinished fireplace. It seems, Dalton said, Cabell stopped construction to make alterations that included a coal-burning fireplace with a flue that connected to the original chimney. The window visible from the exterior is bricked over.
The children’s bedroom is situated directly above the best bedchamber, though Dalton noted the museum has not outfitted it with enough beds needed for the Cabells’ children.
The purpose of the final room is unknown, but Dalton theorized the room was used for the children’s tutors or for adult children when they visited.
The neighboring building, which almost touches the main house, is used as a museum dedicated to the home’s inhabitants. The separate kitchen and carriage house are reproductions of what would have stood on the property.
The most recent restoration project which took place in 2019 involves the restoration of the north lawn, behind the historic house, which features new brick pathways, curving benches, and a U-shaped row of sweet gum trees, reflecting the Federal-era style.
PHOTOS: Point of Honor marks one of Lynchburg’s ‘finest dwellings’
Perched atop a hillside at the confluence of the James and Blackwater rivers, sits a Federal-style house that has stood watch over the growth of the city for more than 200 years.
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Sidener is the special publications editor for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5539.