The Wickham House was designed by Boston architect Alexander Paris and finished in 1812, in the exclusive Richmond neighborhood known as "Court End" for its proximity to the courts and State Capitol. With a view of the new capitol from their formal garden, and neighbors like Chief Justice John Marshall and bank president John Brockenbrough, the John and Elizabeth Wickham positioned themselves close to their social and financial peers.
John Wickham’s law career alone did not create his wealth. Investments in Shockoe Bottom rental properties, West End coal mines and lands on the United States frontier made him a speculator. Moreover, on his two plantations outside the city of Richmond, more than 150 slaves grew crops of corn and wheat. It was the law career, however, that gave Wickham his place in American history. In 1807, he served as the lead defense attorney for former Vice President Aaron Burr. Arrested on charges of treason, Burr was acquitted, thanks to the efforts of his reputable lawyer.
The Wickham House façade and its surrounding support buildings signaled to passersby the wealth and reputation of the family that resided within. The interior also spoke to the financial position of the Wickhams. Wall paintings based on classic Greek and Roman patterns adorned each public room. Furniture in the latest style from New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia filled the house, and imported wall-to-wall carpets and draperies completed the interior. Within this setting, the Wickhams entertained, hosting tea parties, balls, gentlemen’s dinners and card games.
Behind the scenes of this elegant home, however, lay the labor of African American slaves. Up to 15 slaves worked here at any given time, cooking and serving meals, tending children, managing household duties, cleaning white marble fireplaces, grooming visitors’ horses and moving furniture to accommodate musicians and dancing. While the head slave and butler, Robin, may have lived in the basement of the Wickham House, most of the family’s slaves had small quarters above the kitchen and stable outbuildings.
The private sphere of John and Elizabeth Wickham comprised the second floor of the Wickham House and spilled over into the Harvie House at the rear of their property. Elizabeth’s father, Dr. James McClurg, lived with them from 1815 until his death in 1823.
John’s two sons from his first marriage were in their teens when the house was built. John and Elizabeth expanded their family quickly, with 17 births in 25 years. Babies filled the nursery; as they grew older, the boys were sent to live with a tutor in the Harvie House. Thirteen of Elizabeth’s children lived to adulthood; two daughters remained with her in the house until her death in 1854.
The Wickham House represents the many facets of the life of John and Elizabeth Wickham, among the wealthiest residents of early Richmond. The ostentatious display of material possessions, so important in the Federal era, would not have been possible without the labor of the Wickham's slaves. The pristine public rooms shared with the guests remained free from the noise and dirt inherent in raising a large number of children.
Today, visitors can enjoy every room in the house, imagining the complementary and competing elements that made up this early American household.