April 2010: "Here's to the past"

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Elk Hill is the kind of place where, after you’ve rung the doorbell, you just happen to notice a plaque informing you that the property is part of the National Register of Historic Places. Commanding a bluff south of Nellysford, the 1805 house presents a formal face to drivers passing below on Rt. 151: white columns, a neoclassical pediment, and impressive trees. 

 

Since 1977, Elk Hill has been owned by Peter and Betsy Agelasto, who are the first occupants not to be descended from the original Elk Hill family, the Colemans. The Agelastos take their home’s history (and that of Nelson County) quite seriously, but manage to occupy this rather grand space with a sense of warmth and ease. Here, old-fashioned touches—a dish of mints on a side table—feel welcoming, not stuffy. 

The house was constructed in stages over roughly a century, and the first portion to be built was a hallway and this room, now a front parlor that serves as a gallery for family portraits. 

Those include a reproduction of an 1824 Delacroix painting, “The Massacre of Chios,” which hangs in the Louvre and represents the 1822 massacre of Greeks by Ottoman troops on the island of Chios. Peter’s great-great-grandparents escaped the event as children and later married. As their descendent says, “Everything has a story. This is not storebought stuff.”—Erika Howsare

Peter: “We say that Elk Hill is the family attic. We both have fairly large families and when something Victorian comes along, everybody says ‘That should go to Elk Hill.’ The only piece of furniture that’s been here a long, long time is that sofa. It’s probably 1840s or earlier.”

Betsy: “It hasn’t left this room since then.”

Peter: “We bought Elk Hill furnished.“

Betsy: “The person we bought it from [Edwin Burton Kyle] was 80 years old and his wife was in a nursing home. He was figuring out how he was going to leave. He says to Peter one day, ‘I’ve solved my problem.  I’m going to sell you the contents.’ And by contents I mean everything—down to the food in the fridge.

“We became such good friends with him that he came here almost every weekend the first four or five years [we owned it]. He would sleep in his own bed in his own room. I never worried about him. We had his 90th birthday party out here with 300-and-some people.”

Peter: “That included [former U.S. Senator] George Allen. We will still be in an odd circumstance and an odd place and somebody will say, ‘I was at Mr. Kyle’s birthday.’ We referred to him as Uncle Ed.” 

Betsy: “Being that it’s decorated Victorian, with all the pictures on the wall, we have the wedding pictures of me, my mother, Peter’s mother, we’ll have one of [our recently married son and daughter-in-law] Peter and Sara, the christening pictures of both my boys, Peter, his father and his grandfather. And we have family reunion pictures going back to a picture of his grandmother the night before she got married. So it’s fun to come in here. You see those two guys [large portraits of suited, mustached men]? We’ve got no idea who they are. They’ve come through Peter’s family. They’re kin, somehow.”

Peter: “There’s some eBay here too—that elk on the clock, that’s an eBay elk. [This is a photo of] my grandparents at Niagara Falls in April 1872. And you see [our sons] Peter and Parker in high school. This is all family.”

Betsy: “Whatever room we’re in, it has a story.”

Peter: “We have a toast at Elk Hill: ‘Here’s to the past, here’s to the present, here’s to the future.’ There’s as much to be gained from the past as anywhere.” 

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