By Sandra Hutchinson
If your interests run to historic homes and gardens, I urge you to request some vacation days, board your pooch or kitties, fire up your GPS and head to the beautiful Commonwealth of Virginia during the last week of April to take in some of the tours offered during Historic Garden Week. Now in its 85th year, Historic Garden Week is organized by the Garden Club of Virginia and offers tours in various communities over the course of eight days, providing glimpses into homes, buildings and gardens across the commonwealth, most of which are normally not open to the public.
To determine what properties and gardens will be open during the week, you can open a PDF of the beautifully designed guidebook at the Historic Garden Week Web site, here.
You may also purchase a copy of the guidebook and have it mailed to you, for $10, but this option is only available prior to early April. If you happen to be in Virginia, you can pick up a free guidebook (this year coming in at 240 pages) at a number of locations; click here for an abbreviated list. The guidebook has descriptions of each property included in a particular day’s tour, parking directions, information on lunch availability and descriptions of any special events that might be scheduled. (This year on April 19 in Roanoke, for example: “Tablescapes with the Gents,” three gentleman designers will create floral arranging tablescapes. ‘Wine and nibbles’ included in the $10 fee.)
In terms of purchasing actual tour tickets, you can order them ahead of time through the Web site, or simply buy tickets at one of the locations included in your tour on that particular day. The guidebook includes addresses and detailed information on how to find the tour sites.
Prices for the tours vary, and support the Garden Club of Virginia’s work in restoring and preserving pubic gardens and landscapes. A typical fee for a day-long tour that includes anywhere from five to eight or even more properties and gardens is $40. Depending on the tour area, you may be asked to park in a specific location and take a shuttle to the properties. Other times, you can park and walk to all the tour sites. Or it might be a combination. For the James River Plantations, you need a vehicle to drive from one site to another. Each tour is unique and is best chosen after reading the description in the guidebook (either online or the paper version).
We have attended portions of Historic Garden Week for many years, since my family first stumbled across a tour that was going on in Fredericksburg, Va., on a day about 15 years ago, when we were driving through the town on our way to Williamsburg. I recall that the home we visited was at the site of the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg, and we could see damage from cannon balls in the exterior brick. The eccentric owner of the property had a large collection of Civil War army paraphernalia, which naturally intrigued our two young sons. Once we realized that this private home was only one of many that could be visited through the tours organized as part of Historic Garden Week, we were hooked.
I’m sharing photos from a handful of the many properties we’ve visited during Historic Garden Week. Each year the properties that are open change, although there are some which are fairly constant. Some owners open their homes and gardens to the public once a year, and only during Historic Garden Week. Each tour is organized by a local chapter of the Garden Club of Virginia. In each home, local club members display beautiful flower, plant and sometimes vegetable arrangements. In most private homes, interior photographs are prohibited. I’ve managed to take a few photos when I was permitted, though, and I am sharing some of those.
Construction on the main home at Tuckahoe Plantation was begin around 1714 by Thomas Randolph, and then enlarged by his son, William Randolph III. William Randolph’s cousin married Peter Jefferson, father of Thomas. Before he died, William asked Peter to come to Tuckahoe and help care for his young children. Thus, the Jeffersons moved there with their three daughters and two-year-old Thomas, and stayed for seven years.
The home remains in private hands, but it is open to the pubic outside of Historic Garden Week by appointment and may be rented for events. We’ve been there a couple of times, and once, the mini series “Turn” about spies during the American Revolution was being shot there. There’s a small one-room schoolhouse next to the main house where Thomas Jefferson attended school, and also a “plantation street,” a complex of early 18th century buildings that include slaves’ quarters, a smokehouse and storage buildings. As is the case with many of the plantation properties, today, there is an effort to acknowledge and recognize the contributions of enslaved people, without whom these farms would not have existed.
Morven Estate Gardens and House
Built circa 1820 in the late Georgian/Federal style, the last private owner of this property was John Kluge, who donated the home and nearly 7,300 acres to the University of Virginia Foundation in 2001. The foundation kept 2,900 acres and sold the remainder. In 1795 Thomas Jefferson, whose home Monticello is nearby, purchased the land for Colonel William Short, his private secretary. The property is in southeastern Albemarle County and now serves as a venue for educational and charitable events and retreats.
Like Tuckahoe, Westover is another James River Plantation that has remained in private hands. Built around 1730 by William Byrd II, a major leader in colonial Virginia, it is a stunning example of Georgian architecture in America. The wrought iron gates hung in 1709 remain and are thought to be the finest set of 18th century gates in the United States. A broad, sweeping lawn extends from the house to the James River. There are many bald eagles in this region and we were lucky enough to see one flying overhead on our approach to Westover. Westover has been passed down through the generations to the couple who now live here with their children.
Westover Episcopal Church
One of the great things about tooling about the countryside is discovering great little spots. We happened upon the beautiful Westover Episcopal Church, about a mile and a half north of Westover plantation. The original structure was built in the 1630s; the existing brick church was completed in 1730. It is still an active parish.
Gordonsville is a small town about 20 miles from Charlottesville, in Orange County, in an area dominated by horse farms and vineyards. We’ve toured private homes in Gordonsville, and also a museum called the Exchange Hotel, which served as a hospital during the Civil War. While primarily a Confederate hospital, many Union soldiers were treated there as well. The town was an important railroad junction. While we were touring the museum, the animated director encouraged us to return for one of his ghost tours.
And now for something completely different.
Now this has little to do with touring historic homes and gardens (except that you do have to eat at some point during the day) but one of the best things that happened to us upon our first visit to Gordonsville was discovering the Barbeque Exchange, an excellent barbeque restaurant next door to the museum. Because one of our sons attended the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, we have been able to return to the restaurant several times while visiting our son.
The Barbeque Exchange is operated by Craig Hartman (originally from New York, but don’t say that too loudly in Virginia), a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef whose resumé includes stints at places like Pinehurst Hotel, the Mayflower Hotel in D.C., and the excellent Fossett’s at Charlottesville’s Keswick Hall.
I discovered Mr. Hartman out behind the building the first time we visited, stoking up the barbecue with hickory wood. The menu is large an includes different types of pork barbeque, slaws, pickles, cornbread and pumpkin muffins, collard greens, mac & cheese — see it here. And there’s also the famous Porkapolooza, billed as the “greatest porkfest on earth,” held at the Barbeque Exchange in February. Here’s a link to the 2018 event listing, with the menu.
Craig Hartman of Gordonsville’s Barbeque Exchange
And I can’t neglect mentioning the charming Laurie Holladay shop on Gordonsville’s Main Street. Laurie and her husband specialize in lamps, lampshades and lamp repairs, but the shop is chock-full of wonderful discoveries like framed prints, needlepoint pillows, small porcelain items, occasional furniture, and much more. This photo of the front of Laurie’s shop kind of says it all:
Nearby in Barboursville
In nearby Barboursville, you can drive into Barboursville Vineyards and sample some excellent Virginia wines, but also walk about the ruins of the home of Virginia Governor James Barbour (in office 1812-1814), which burned on Christmas Day, 1884. This brick home was one of only three homes Thomas Jefferson designed for his friends, and Jeffersonian architectural design elements are still visible, including the octagonal shape. We were able to see the interior of the neighboring building, called the 1804 inn, during one Historic Garden Week tour. This property is home to the current owners of the vineyard when they are in residence, the Zonin family, and rooms are also rented as a B & B. Learn more here. The photo below in the center right is inside the Barboursville tasting room. Full disclosure: Barboursville Viognier is one of our favorite wines.
Richmond — Executive Mansion
There are typically one or more Richmond residential neighborhoods featured during Historic Garden Week, and often, the Executive Mansion will be open as well. The mansion is the oldest occupied governor’s residence in the United States.
Inside the first floor public rooms are some interesting furnishings and paintings, including this portrait of Barbara Rose Johns, a civil rights activist.
Behind the Executive Mansion, an outbuilding that serves as guest quarters for visiting guests was open to public view for the first time on our visit. The ground level contained the original kitchen. There we met Frances Adams, our delightful octogenarian docent, who told us she had been guiding at the Executive Mansion for close to fifty years! She had seen many governors come and go, and was outspoken in her views about their friendliness. She especially liked Charles Robb, who was in office from 1982 to 1986, and is married to Lynda Johnson, a daughter of President Lyndon Johnson.
Elsewhere in Richmond
Historic Garden Week always includes at least one residential neighborhood in Richmond. In 2017, we toured homes and gardens along Monument Avenue, the broad avenue that famously (or infamously) features statues of Confederate heroes like Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. There is one statue that stands in sharp contrast to these — that of Arthur Ashe, the African-American tennis star who was a Richmond Native. We pondered the meaning and significance (and future) of these monuments as we walked along the boulevard. The area is a National Historic District and naturally there is ongoing debate about the monuments’ meaning and significance.
Elsewhere in Richmond, also in 2017, we toured a number of homes in the neighborhood known as Windsor Farms, planned in the 1920s as an English village. The homes ranged from an 18th century farmhouse moved to the neighborhood to this handsome Georgian residence, shown below, built in 1935.
The Town of Washington, in Rappahannock County, was featured during Historic Garden Week for the first time ever in 2017. There were several properties open, most within walking distance of the atmospheric, high-end, Michelin 2-star Inn at Little Washington. The Inn comprises several buildings and garden areas.
I was allowed to take photos of some of the flower arrangements on display at different locations, which I share below. Arrangements often include vegetables as well as flowers. Hopefully these will inspire you!