Skip to main content

Saving Sulgrave Manor

Three alumni work to preserve George Washington’s ancestral home

Sulgrave Manor, the ancestral home of George Washington near Oxford, England Alexandra di Valmarana

Three UVA alumni, previously strangers to one another, have serendipitously found themselves working to save Sulgrave Manor, the ancestral home of George Washington near Oxford, England. All three currently live in England; David Billings (Col ’84) and Holly Smith (Col ’72) are on the board of trustees for Sulgrave Manor, and Alexandra di Valmarana (Arch ’96) is an architectural advisor to Sulgrave.

Sulgrave is a small manor house that was built by Lawrence Washington, George Washington’s 5x great grandfather, in the 1530s. The manor was passed down through three more generations of Washingtons, but was sold by the time George Washington’s great-grandfather, John Washington, left for Virginia in 1656.

The Washington family coat of arms Alexandra di Valmarana
Lawrence Washington’s family coat of arms, which includes three stars and two stripes, was carved in the stone of the entrance door. It is thought by some that the Washington coat of arms was partly the inspiration for the American flag.

“I first visited Sulgrave when I was 8 or 9 years old,” di Valmarana says. “Even then, seeing the Washington family crest of red and white stars and bars over the entrance door of the manor…brought to life the shared histories of America and England.”

Smith, a magazine publisher, moved to England in 1986, when her British-born husband was transferred there for work, and got involved with the Daughters of the American Revolution, which has a London chapter that helps support the manor. She became a Sulgrave trustee in 2011.

Billings, whose wife is British, practices law in London. He replaced his father-in-law, Sir Philip Goodhart, a former member of Parliament, on Sulgrave’s board. The manor has, Billings says, “an educational role in promoting the special relationship between the two nations.”

Although George Washington never lived at Sulgrave Manor, the building has come to represent goodwill between Britain and the United States. The manor was restored almost 100 years ago, as part of a project to commemorate the centennial of the Treaty of Ghent, which established peace between the U.S. and Britain after the War of 1812.

But nearly a century has passed since the manor has had a thorough restoration, and much of the early conservation work has perished. “The electrical and climate control systems need complete renewal, as they present a risk to both the contents and the fabric of the building,” di Valmarana says. “Much of the roof, which is made of stone slates from nearby quarries, needs renewal. The lead and iron casement windows have deteriorated and are now letting wind and rain into the structure—even George Washington’s coat has mold on it.”

The cottages on the Sulgrave Manor estate, like the one pictured here, are also badly in need of repair. Alexandra di Valmarana
Smith and Billings are working with donors in both the U.S. and U.K., especially the American expat community in London, to raise funds to save the manor. “I know far more about ancient drains and leaking windows than I ever wanted to know,” Smith laughs, “but it has been a fascinating assignment. We have looked at every aspect of the running of this historic home—how to raise funds, how to fulfill its mission of fostering Anglo-American relations and so much more.”

For the three UVA alumni who have made England their home, all agree that their time in Charlottesville was crucial to their understanding of the site’s importance. Both Billings and di Valmarana think their interest in historic preservation and architectural history developed at Virginia. “I was definitely motivated by the wonderful surroundings of the Lawn and Grounds to want to pursue preservation as a career” di Valmarana says.

Smith agrees. “The fact that the three of us are part of the team seeking to strengthen Sulgrave’s fabric and stature,” she says, “shows that the Virginia ties run deep.”