The stars shine brighter in Halifax County, VA

600 Acres of History

Tucked away just outside of South Boston is one of the area’s oldest hidden treasures. The Berry Hill Resort is a stately Greek revival mansion steeped in history and standing proudly on 650 park-like acres.

The more than two centuries old main house has been carefully restored to its original grandeur and is now a distinguished National Historic Landmark. The former plantation has been transformed to a destination used for vacations, weddings, training conferences, and festivals.

I had been to Berry Hill for a romantic wedding in January, but both the day’s agenda and an icy polar vortex kept me from exploring the property. I decided that I would return when the weather was warmer, imagining that the grounds would be exquisite with flowers in bloom and trees alive again.

I was not disappointed.

I turned off River Road and ventured down the half-mile shaded tree lined drive through the peaceful countryside to Berry Hill. The stately house with 60-foot-wide steps leading to an impressive Greek Doric portico with eight tall alabaster columns was even more breathtaking sitting on a meticulously manicured green lawn with a deep blue sky backdrop. A step inside the sprawling stone walls that surround the property is a step back to the antebellum days.

History of Berry Hill

I was fortunate to visit on a day that Leland Luck was on site. Luck, a former teacher in Halifax County, is a local historian who gives guided tours of the mansion and grounds peppered with remarkable facts and stories that cannot be found in any history book.

The property where Berry Hill sits was originally part of land grant from the English crown to William Byrd II in 1728. Byrd was the engineer who surveyed the boundary between North Carolina and Virginia. For his work and expertise in that area, the crown granted him 105,000 acres. Much of that region is present-day South Boston.

Luck will tell you that Byrd, who was a lavish spender, got himself in a financial bind and decided to sell the property. That was the first sale of the estate that would change hands many times after. Some of the more notable owners include Benjamin Harrison, who was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the fourth governor of Virginia, and Gen. Edward Carrington, a Revolutionary War hero. Carrington eventually left the acreage to his nephew James Bruce.

Bruce, who made his fortune in mercantile, opened what is the equivalent of today’s chain stores. He thought his business would prosper in the remote area void of competition. When he died in 1837, Bruce, described as a very just and honorable man, was the third wealthiest man in America.

“When Mr. Bruce wanted to get married to his first wife, Sarah Coles, her brother was seriously ill. They wanted to get married before her brother died,” explained Luck. “In his haste, he went to the wedding without a wedding ring, so he inquired of some of the ladies in attendance if someone would lend him their wedding ring. Elvira Henry was recently widowed from Patrick Henry Jr. She lent James Bruce a ring and the wedding went on as planned. Twenty years later after Sarah Coles died, James Bruce married Elvira Henry. So she got her ring back.”

Walking through the mansion, one cannot help but notice the massive windows that flood the rooms with natural light illuminating the mahogany and walnut Victorian furniture. “The windows were designed by the same architect that designed the windows in Thomas Jefferson’s home,” recalled Luck. “The sashes come all the way down to the floor so you can raise them up and walk outside. The story is that citizens would be charged taxes on every door on their house. The owners wanted to avoid being taxed so they installed windows that would function as doors.”

Off the original house is a service wing that now holds Darby’s Tavern, an Old English-style pub. “That is where the house maids stayed and where the food was prepared,” Luck said. The old cast iron pots hanging on a hook inside big stone fireplaces still remain in Darby’s Tavern.

Luck said that Darby, the chef, would prepare dishes in that wing and bring them to the main house. Although iron pots are no longer used, one can easily imagine Darby cooking meals in the kettles. The historic pub was buzzing with activity the day I was there with food and drinks being served to smiling diners.

“Just outside are a smoke house and an ice house where they would harvest ice off the river during the cold weather,” said Luck.

In addition there are two original mini mansions that stand on either side of an impressive circular driveway and stone houses where the slaves that worked the plantation lived. It is said that Mr. and Mrs. Bruce were so well-liked that many of the slaves stayed to work for pay when slavery was abolished.

Mahogany, marble, cherry …and balance

James and Sarah had a son, James Coles Bruce in 1806. The younger Bruce went to Hampden-Sydney College and the University of North Carolina before attending Harvard and receiving a law degree from the University of Virginia.

“James Coles Bruce and his wife, Eliza Wilkins came into possession of this property,” said Luck. “They had to make a decision on what kind of house they wanted to live in on this property. They loved the old Greek revival architecture with the big columns and granite.”

Luck said that Eliza traveled the East Coast as far as Quincy Market in Boston, Massachusetts, to gather ideas for their home. The stucco front and sides of the house are copied after the Second Bank of the United States in Philadelphia.

“When Mrs. Bruce saw that building her eyes lit up,” Luck said. “She told her architect, John Johnson, ‘I want to take this building and put it out there in the woods in Halifax. We are going to call it home and we are going to call it Berry Hill.'”

The mansion itself has 17 rooms and a great entrance way which is flanked with an impressive cantilever double staircase. The massive mahogany staircase has intrigued engineers for many decades as it seems to float to the second floor with no visible support.

The floors inside the structure are all cherry wood. “Mrs. Bruce wanted a fireplace in each room with a mantel piece and she wanted marble base boards in every room,” Luck explained. “This marble came from a mine in Italy. It is the same mine that Michelangelo got the slab of marble to do the sculpture he called David.” The ceilings are 18 feet high and all of the hardware for the doors and windows is silver plated.

“Story has it that Mrs. Bruce was a stickler for symmetry and balance,” said Luck as he opened a door to nowhere. “She would have false doors installed over the wall to keep balance in the room. They have doorknobs on the inside. No one will ever use those doorknobs.”

The manor stayed in the Bruce family for approximately 100 years. In the years since, Berry Hill has been bought and sold a few times and stayed vacant for long periods of time until AXA, a French financial services company, decided to buy and renovate the property to its original splendor at a cost of $33 million.

Adjacent to the manor house, AXA built a hotel with large verandas and furnished with handcrafted canopied beds and antiques to mimic the manor’s interior period decor.

“They used it as a North American training center for their top executives from Europe,” Luck said. “They did that for two years until the attack on the World Trade Center left the business world with uncertainty. They sold the property to three men from Washington, D.C. who started operating it like a hotel and conference center. Those men sold it to Dr. Gary Hull who used it for Founder’s College which operated from 2007 until 2008.”

Currently, Dr. Charles Edwards, a spinal surgeon from Baltimore, Maryland, owns the property which was named as one of the East Coast’s top wedding destinations by Martha Stewart.

The amenities

Two large suites are available for guests who wish to stay in the main house. Each with more than 800 square feet, both the Carrington Suite and the Bruce Suite feature separate living and bedroom areas with period furniture. From the suites guests can enjoy grand views of the magnificent grounds.

Visitors also can rent the Jefferson or Lafayette mini mansions adjacent to the main house. These smaller replicas of the main house include large guest rooms with sitting areas.

The Inn at Berry Hill’s 88 guest rooms offer four-post canopied queen beds or sleigh beds and towel warmers in the bathrooms. Singer Billy Idol and Dallas Cowboys Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith have both stayed at the inn.

Some of the more modern amenities at Berry Hill include an indoor swimming pool, a state-of-the-art conference facility with more than 5,000 square feet of meeting space, and a European spa offering Swedish, deep tissue, therapeutic and hot stones massage as well as manicures, pedicures and facials.

Also on the property is a choice of restaurants. The Mansion Restaurant offers dishes such as Sesame Crusted Ahi Tuna, Filet Mignon, and Chicken Blue Ridge.

For a more casual dining experience, Darby’s Tavern serves Tavern Burgers, Berry Hill Club sandwiches, fried chicken and waffles with moonshine maple syrup, and other local favorites.

Wherever you venture at Berry Hill Resort, you will find that the renovations have meticulously maintained the history and flavor of the original property with all its charm and tranquility. Old and new seem to flow effortlessly into each other and that is no small feat when structures have been built more than two centuries apart.

Whether you want to stay or dine or just take the tour, Berry Hill Resort, with its rich history, is a must-see site to explore.

The Berry Hill Resort is located at 3105 River Road in South Boston. For more information, call (434) 517-7000.

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