Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Fired Up for Founders College

Over the weekend I visited Berry Hill, the antebellum plantation which will serve as the future home for Founders College. I do not think enough has been said about just how tremendous a location this is for this school; it is simply a place without many equals in higher education today. I have visited most of the great homes of Virginia in the past and the Berry Hill manor house alone easily ranks among them, while the richness of larger grounds serve to amplify the beauty of the property in ways that are absolutely breathtaking.

The estate, ten minutes from the town of South Boston, rests in the heart of rural Virginia; the countryside surrounding the property is peppered with tobacco farms and their antiquated log drying shacks. One approaches Berry Hill from the north, where a half-mile tree-lined road takes you to the second gate and its surrounding primitive stone wall. To one's right are the stone ruins of slave quarters, ghostly reminders of the plantation's past, and it is here that one first begins to see hints of the Greek revival manor house itself. Built upon the summit of a commanding hill, the home's eight Doric columns peek through the branches of the surrounding oaks in restrained understatement. It is only upon reaching the circular drive directly in front of the manor that one finally sees the unshielded splendor of this temple-home.

And this home is splendorous. On both flanks stand smaller dependencies that echo the style of the larger house, and there one is struck by the pungent aroma of the ancient boxwoods that surround the circle drive. (For those familiar with Mount Vernon, it is said that Washington favored the boxwood over all other aromatic plants). I arrived at Berry Hill about a half-hour before sunset, and as I approached, the north-facing house eclipsed the sun, leaving only its afterglow to illuminate the fa├žade.

All the while, I could not help but think to myself: this is to be their college.

Built by the planter and entrepreneur James Coles Bruce in 1842, the main house is in an excellent state of preservation. As one enters the manor, one is greeted by the carefully restored main hall with its grand circular stairways rising on both sides of the hall, meeting on a landing and continuing as one. The home features many original fixtures, including the carved Italian marble fireplace mantels in the parlor and the library. In back of the manor are more dependencies, one of which now serves as a small tavern.

And as I exited the mansion, I was struck by how the modern additions, such as a large banquet facility, guest facilities, and athletic center do not intrude upon the historic aspects of the manor, yet are equally as luxurious. The guest rooms are decorated en suite and feature either ornate four-post canopy beds or sleigh beds (I am told these are to be preserved for the use of students). Each room has a full bath and a spacious veranda that is perfectly suited to catching the last rays of the setting sun. Common rooms feature working fireplaces, and one would be hard-pressed to envision a more comfortable environment for study and enjoyment.

In the last bit of twilight, I left the house and visited the Bruce family cemetery off a ridge to the east of the main hall. There I found graves that go back to the 1840 founding of the plantation.

The next day I toured the larger estate, mountain-biking a perimeter road that bounds the property, which is bordered by the Dan River to the south and adjacent farms to the east and west. A significant part of the estate is wooded; portions are slated to be part of a future residential community and equestrian center that will circle the estate to the northeast, with the rest of the grounds to be kept as they are. Horse and mules are already raised on a part of the estate, with these animals having both woods and pasture in which to graze. I counted two ponds, with one serving as the home of an industrious clan of beavers (as judged by the large den they had built and the over-abundance of pine trees that they had felled). The other pond is in a small cut closer to the manor itself, ringed with large oak trees and a stone's throw from the ruins of two of the plantation's former slave quarters.

It was near here as I walked back to the manor house that I was able to enjoy a few moments away from my guide and take in the serene quiet of the place. There are no nearby roads to disturb one from their thoughts; as I walked, all I could hear was the sound of my feet and the gentile sound of a light rain falling upon the trees. I find that there are too few places today where this is possible and yet still offer all the potential of an invigorating and stimulating life. I obviously do not believe one's environment determines one's being, but if ever are there places that meld nature and man together in exquisite harmony, the Berry Hill plantation ranks as one amoung them. The property is brimming with possibility, and I can only say how fortunate Founders' students and faculty will be that they will have this beautiful place to call their home.

In a future post, I'll talk about what I learned about Founders College's educational philosophy from one of its recently-hired faculty, and how Founders believes that it can provide its students with an unsurpassed educational experience.

Update: Link to Lee Sandstead's images of the Berry Hill Plantation.