Newport News, Virginia: Stories from the Colonies

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While the museums in Newport News, Virginia, impress, physicians might want to check out some of the city's historic homes that have doctor connections.

Photography by the authors

His 24-foot-high statue in Virginia is massive, intimidating — like those of the Hapsburgs in Vienna. The size didn’t bother the press when the 7,500-pound tribute to Captain Christopher Newport was erected in the summer of 2007 as much as the fact that sculptor Jon Hair had chosen to magically restore the hand Newport lost in action off the coast of Cuba in 1590.

Newport (1561-1617) was one of the sea captains sent by the Virginia Company to establish its colony at Jamestown. A former buccaneer he captained the largest of the three ships that arrived in 1607 and he actually returned three times to Jamestown to resupply the colony. Why shouldn’t he be shown with his limbs intact? He had that hand most of his life!

History comes with challenges, of course. Truth often gets lost along the way: Did Newport have a hook on his right arm? Does the liberty taken by his sculptor matter? Did he even give his name to this modern city of 180,000 souls? Apparently, as he returned to London from the Jamestown colony known to be starving, the question on everyone’s lips from King James I to the businessmen who were financing the colony was, “Have you heard Newport’s News?” In time the apostrophe and the possessive “s” were dropped.

There are other statues, naturally, in this city that’s the home of the Peninsula Fine Arts Center — from statues that acknowledge another famous explorer, Calder’s Leif Erikson, and Brodin’s 1997 tribute to its police and firefighters to simpler ones that show the joy of youth, the 2010 “Winning” by sculptor Glenna Goodacre. Born in 1939, she also designed the 1993 Vietnam Women's Memorial and the obverse of the 2000 Sacagawea dollar.

But while the city’s museums impress, physicians might want to check out some of Newport News’ historic homes that have doctor connections.

Endview Plantation

William Harwood built his Georgian-style house in 1769, the same year Napoleon Bonaparte was born. The home survived both the American Revolution and the Civil War, although during the latter it was occupied by both Union and Confederate forces. During the 1862 Peninsula Campaign it served as a Confederate hospital.

The builder’s great grandson, Dr. Humphrey Harwood Curtis, a graduate of Jefferson Medical College (with a thesis on brain surgery), bought the house in 1856 and practiced from the plantation until the war came. When Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861 Curtis gave up his medical practice and formed an infantry company that served throughout the Civil War. Before the Confederates retreated from the area, they used Endview for a short time as a hospital.

Curator J. Michael Moore takes us into the home and shows us replicas of instruments used to probe for bullets, retractors and saws, reminding us that one in four Civil War deaths was due to the casualties of war but the other three were due to disease.

Moore has a master’s of art in history, has written two books on the Civil War and lectures at Christian Newport University. He shows us a bowl with bullets including the dreaded 58 caliber mini ball.

“With its heavy ounce of lead shot at 800 to 900 feet per second, low and slow, it caused catastrophic damage,” he says.

Cartridge pouches, water bottles and weapons including an Enfield muzzle loader are on display in what was the dining room.

On a lighter note, the curator opens a cupboard door to show us the reproduction of a Civil War bathtub that was used in the Richard Gere/Jodie Foster movie Sommersby.

We ask our guide, Rebecca Cutchins, the Newport News media relations manager if we could perhaps have a photoshoot with her and Moore in the bathtub, but they’re not having any of our nonsense!

James A. Fields House

This late Victorian Italianate house was the primary home of an African-American lawyer, teacher and politician, James A. Fields (1844-1903). It was one of 15 properties he had in the city.

In 1908 four black physicians “pooled their savings and asked the Fields family for use of the top floor to start a hospital.” For two years, named the Whittaker Hospital, it was the only accommodation for black patients in the community.

Like Endview Plantation it is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, something that would not have happened had history enthusiast Gregory Cherry (1955 to 2007) not bought the dilapidated building from the city for $1 and started restoration. His widow, Dr. Saundra Nelson-Cherry, a pastoral counselor, was kind enough to show us around for our photography.

Matthew Jones House

There is less to see at yet another home on the National Register of Historic Places, the Matthew Jones House situated on Fort Eustis at Mulberry Island. The interior has not yet been restored. Its history is befuddling: Its dual chimneys may go back to the late 17th century but an inscribed brick with the owner’s name and the date 1727 attests to when a brick veneer was added to an older Colonial wooden building.

Alterations in 1893 have further confused the history of what our guide, Dr. Christopher McDaid, a civil engineer with a doctorate in archaeology, believes is “the oldest building owned by the Department of Defense.” He points out on the second floor graffiti from past unauthorized squatters that have been left untouched in what is essentially an architectural-study museum.

The Museums

The US Army Transportation Museum is right there on Fort Eustis. Visitors who pop in just because they were checking out the nearby house where Matthew Jones lived are due a pleasant surprise: the museum makes a dull subject fascinating. It covers subjects from the progression of individual horse-drawn carts to impressive trucks in convoys, and from dioramas of D-Day to the art of David B. Lax (1910-1999) an art professor fluent in French from Peekskill, N.Y., who became a military policeman assigned to General Frank Ross to paint the scenes in France after D-Day. (Ross used to refer to Lax simply as “the sonofabitch who paints,” which Lax took as a compliment.)

The museum also has the gun-truck “Eve of Destruction” the only remaining example of “the hardened convoy concept,” the effort by 8th Group in Vietnam to deal with enemy attacks on convoys on “Ambush Alley” along Route 19. Raiding local junk yards for steel plates as armor (for specially created units to protect convoys) nearly brought a similar concept to Iraq and Afghanistan. It was thought this idea might be an improvement on using poorly protected Hummers and indeed the U.S. Army played with this perception until it found better ways. The U.S. Army was prepared to brand its gun trucks with the insignia of the Ace of Spades, aware that would bother the superstitious Viet Cong,

The Virginia War Museum a few miles further down the main drag in town explains this, too. Amongst a multitude of headgears (including the WWI steel helmet of Harry Truman and the “crush” cap of Jimmie Doolittle) is a historical perspective that ends with a Vietnam helmet with an Ace of Spades card ready to be placed on the dead body of the wearer’s next Viet Cong enemy so his soul would wander in torment with his death marked on this “death card.”

The Virginia War Museum shows an American six-ton tank based on the French designed Renault FT-17 built by the Van Dorn Ironworks in 1918. Equipped with either a 37mm Canon or a 30 caliber machine gun and capable of five mph, and considered better than the British tanks, it was going to change the nature of WWI but only two reached France and neither got to the front before the war ended.

The Colt Gatling Gun Model 1883 with 10 barrels firing 800 .45 caliber bullets per minute is so beautifully built it’s hard to accept it could do such damage until one reads details of war.

There is the exhibit you don’t really want to look at but you must: a section of the barbed wire fence of Dachau, the Nazi extermination camp where 200 inmates were dying every day from starvation and typhus when the American 7th Army liberated the camp on April 29, 1945.

We were running late when we reached the Virginia Living Museum. It was initially a simple natural history museum but changed in 1987 to one where every exhibit is a living one. So here, a great treat for families and children, is an aquarium and museum showing terrains that are found locally in this peninsula of Virginia.

“You could spend a lifetime of outdoor activities in Virginia and not see the variety of animals and plants we have inside our museum,” says our guide, curator Virginia Gabriele.

She goes on to prove it by taking her guests through a limestone cave, a cypress swamp and along the Chesapeake Bay, touching horseshoe crabs and peering into cases holding cottonmouth and water moccasin snakes and, of course, a small but frightening rattler. We find examples of ancient fossils and young chipmunks and unblinking owls staring at us from a darkened room; it is after all their bedtime.

Then we move on to the two internationally known museums that we’ll tell you about next week — but we need to mention a Holiday Inn and some restaurants, first. A Holiday Inn? Yes, on 943 J. Clyde Morris Blvd it just won an award from the company as one of the Top Twenty Holiday Inns in America.

Easy eats

The so-called Virginian Peninsula has a lot of simple restaurants favored by locals — places that don’t gouge their customers. That’s where we ate.

We had a great meal at the Thai restaurant, Thaijindesu for less than $40 and twice for dinner went to the Italian restaurant Fiorella at our Holiday Inn — unbelievably great for a hotel restaurant

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.