Ghost stories. Buried silver. Richmond connections. And amazing ... bathrooms.
They're all here.
About two hours from the capital city, along the once-dominant tobacco fields of Southside Virginia, an inconspicuous farm road flanked by bountiful trees gives rise to Berry Hill, an easily overlooked National Historic Landmark steeped in history, splendor and a few surprises.
With roots dating to around 1770, the Greek Revival mansion makes an immediate statement: Eight fluted Doric columns tower over the granite portico, and even the sterling silver doorknobs can take your breath away.
Today, the Halifax County home is the heart of the Berry Hill Resort & Conference Center, a haven for history buffs and seekers of quiet getaways.
“We were looking for a place halfway between where we live in Virginia and North Carolina,” two sisters said on a recent visit. “Berry Hill popped up. We like history, and this place is wonderful.”
Indeed, Berry Hill has long been a place of hospitality – at least according to one local legend, which claims that an all-night “entertainment” was thrown in 1824 to honor the Marquis de Lafayette upon his return to Virginia. The American Revolution hero did return for a celebratory U.S. tour, but a stop at Berry Hill appears unlikely. (In Richmond, though, the youth honor guard that welcomed him included Edgar Allan Poe.)
On firmer historical footing, the Berry Hill site originally encompassed 105,000 acres given in 1728 by the English crown to William Byrd II, a surveyor and the founder of Richmond. Over time, parcels were sold to notables including Virginia statesman Richmond Bland, who was a cousin of Thomas Jefferson, and to future President Benjamin Harrison.
In the early 1840s, Berry Hill's new owner, James Coles Bruce, spent $100,000 remodeling the plantation's home into a white stucco mansion – thanks to slave labor and a vast inheritance from his father, James Bruce. (When the senior Bruce died in 1837, he was the third-wealthiest man in America: He had made his millions in agriculture through a then-novel chain of farm mercantile stores and warehouses brimming with tobacco.)
Fit for a lord by the era's standards, the mansion features a foyer whose two "floating" staircases swirl 20 feet upward – seemingly without any support. The grand parlors are adorned with regal red and gold brocade, hallmark ornate fireplaces and baseboards carved from marble shipped from Carrara, Italy.
Mrs. Bruce, known as a stickler for symmetry and balance, even ordered a false door be installed to offset a functioning entryway.
After one of the Bruces’ daughters married into Chicago’s Crane plumbing family, Berry Hill was graced with some of the country’s earliest and fanciest bathrooms – and large even by 21st-century standards. The bathrooms feature huge mirrored dressers, deep porcelain tubs and showers with so many dials that a recent guest sent water spraying over the lustrous tile floors.
During the Civil War, pounds of sterling trays, tea services and the home’s doorknobs were buried in the plantation’s woods. Bruce ordered his butler to burn the mansion if Union troops encamped. The Yankees held off, though the silver collection eventually was sold at auction.
Though the plantation’s acreage has shrunk through the centuries, tales of ghosts still abound. Phantom horses and apparitions of a young boy reportedly have been seen in the mansion’s Jeffersonian windows, much as a 1950s caretaker wrote in his poem “The Ghost of Berry Hill.”
“Did you ever see a Spook or Ghost,” the poem goes, “Till it froze up your blood with horror and fear? Now the story I tell, oh! It frightens me still! While I worked on a plantation, called 'Old Berry Hill.' "
After the estate left the Bruce family, a new owner fled the mansion in the middle of his first night there, apparently so frightened he refused to return except to farm the land.
“I’ve never seen anything. But I have heard footsteps,” said Leland Delano Luck, a veteran teacher turned Berry Hill historical guide. He noted the tale of an excited 5- or 6-year-old boy who, upon spotting a carriage coming up the drive, slid down the towering banister from the second floor and fell to his death.
Near the gardens is the family cemetery, where generations of Bruces rest under elaborate headstones. In contrast are stone ruins of the plantation's slave quarters and the Diamond Hill cemetery, one of the largest slave burial sites recorded in Virginia. There, graves are marked solely by rocks broken and sinking along the banks of the Dan River.
In 2005, slave families’ descendants were honored at a Berry Hill picnic that attracted 450 people – most of whom had never entered the long-private mansion.
Even Luck, an octogenarian, was a latecomer to the estate: “I’d heard about this place for years and always wanted to see Berry Hill.”
These days, the resort is anchored by the mansion’s two guest suites, two guest houses and a modern 88-room hotel with corporate and banquet facilities for 400 people. Glass doors open from a lap pool to a courtyard near where the original icehouse and smokehouse still stand. Walking and bicycle paths abound. The mansion and its 650-acre surroundings, including a boxwood maze, are photogenic backdrops for destination weddings.
Southern cuisine is highlighted in the Mansion Restaurant and in Darby's Tavern – the estate’s original kitchen – where locals and guests are drawn to its hand-hewn bar, billiards room and massive fireplaces with gleaming 1790s copper and wrought iron pots.
Unofficial athletic honors await Berry Hill's kitchen “runners” – mostly local high school boys who literally dash the chef’s creations up 23 cement stairs to the ballroom and both restaurants, as well as through the mansion and hotel for room service.
“I’ve worked here for a year and lost 30 pounds,” said Skylar Wade, a “runner” well-acquainted with carrying heavy warming dishes up the steep steps alongside his younger brother, Gavin.
Like its distant past, Berry Hill's more recent history has been eventful. Previous owners included a Washington lawyer (who, as Luck quips, “used it as a playhouse for his rich buddies”) and Founder's College. It was the vision of a Duke University academician who lured 24 students and professors to the school ... only to soon shutter it.
Another previous owner was AXA. In the late 1990s, the French insurance conglomerate purchased the property and undertook a $33 million renovation. But after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, heightened airport security made it difficult for AXA to fly in its European executives for weeklong training.
Today, Berry Hill is owned by a Maryland surgeon. The resort is managed by Taylor Hospitality, a subsidiary of Up to Par Management, both based in Lexington.
Berry Hill's reclusive location – 3 miles from South Boston, a town of 7,800 residents – has helped preserve its history, but it has complicated its marketing. Greg Krepps, Up to Par’s hospitality director, calls Berry Hill “a hidden gem” – and he concedes he “never heard of it” before joining the company.
“Once people arrive,” he said, “they’re amazed.”
History aside, Berry Hill is now a resort with modern comforts and the potential for pampering.
* The Spa at Berry Hill offers a party for six, featuring a mani-pedi, a dip in the pool and a strawberry arugula plate lunch with goat cheese and candied walnuts, for $129 per person. For men and women seeking full indulgence – at $499 in high season – there’s the customized five-hour “Berry Bliss” massage, facial, body scrub and nail treatments, as well as wine with lunch.
* Classics in the Mansion Restaurant include a rich blue cheese wedge salad, seared sea scallops over stone-ground cheddar grits with balsamic drizzle, and warm blackberry cobbler. Such a three-course dinner for two is about $95 (before a tip for impeccable service). In Darby’s Tavern, a favorite is the shrimp and grits – a dish harkening back to Chef Darby, who was dispatched to Louisiana by Berry Hill’s owner in the mid-1800s to master Creole cooking.
* Berry Hill promotes itself for conferences, corporate meetings and group events. Nearby are two golf courses, a small airport, the Virginia International Raceway in Halifax and the Martinsville Speedway, a well-known stop on the NASCAR circuit.
Ruth S. Intress, a longtime RTD news and politics writer, now lives in Baltimore but returns frequently to Virginia.