Here’s one for the dreamers: Monticola, a nearly 300-acre estate on the James River, is for sale. If you’ve never heard of Monticola, you’re not alone. Despite its rich history, it claims little fame and has never really been a public place. Now, spiffed up for a turn on the market, it’s ready for a look-see and a bit more notoriety.
There’s a lot to appreciate about this place. Built by a bank president in the 1850s, the home has seen every typical milestone of that Southern icon, the plantation home.
There was a period of antebellum prosperity, with original owners Daniel James and Elizabeth Carrington Hartsook heading up a large family and an even larger staff, including 25 slaves. There was the crisis of the Civil War, including a couple of days in which Union General Philip Sheridan commandeered the house as his headquarters and the family hid their valuables in a makeshift compartment under a bedroom floor. There was financial trouble, a sale to another family and a single heiress—Miss Emily Nolting —who lived alone in the house for more than 40 years and welcomed Howardsville neighbors to stop by her oversized dwelling. And, after Miss Emily’s time, there was a period of neglect when the house sat abandoned.
Monticola has some surprising chapters in its past, too. In 1940, it was briefly taken over by a Hollywood crew for the filming of a big-budget movie called (aptly enough) Virginia. Then, in the ’80s, it became the seat of an artists’ commune called Akwenasa, whose best-known member was Desmond Child (songwriter for Kiss and Bon Jovi, among others).
Acreage has shrunk and grown over the years, the landscape has altered and Howardsville itself has undergone vast changes, including disastrous floods in 1969 and 1972. But the house has stood solidly for 160 years or so, and despite times of deterioration, it has largely maintained its original form.
“Nobody ever really messed with it,” is how Frank Root puts it. He’s the president of Countryside Service Company, a Staunton firm that bought the property in 2005. Fortunately, he says, “We had a great home to start with.” Neglect there may have been, but the house had escaped shoddy remodeling.
With the help of the architects at Staunton-based Frazier Associates, Root’s company planned a landmark restoration, one that aimed for historical sensitivity. That goal wasn’t at odds with another aim, that of luxury. After all, this was an upper-crust kind of place from the start, with 10′ ceilings and 18-by-18′ rooms that are still capacious even by today’s standards.
The house needed plaster repairs, utility updates and the like; all the spaces are freshly painted and pristine, and gleaming heart pine floors set off the fireplaces that anchor every room. But the more exciting changes are in the kitchen and bathrooms, where Frazier helped to engineer modernization that, Root says, “didn’t detract from the historical nature of the house.”
In the kitchen, that means soapstone counters and all the usual gourmet touches. The Hartsooks might not have recognized the stainless-steel wall ovens, but they would be very familiar with the fireplace. Massive pocket doors to the adjoining parlor could remain open if it were to serve as a family’s main living space, or closed if a more formal dining room were called for.
Upstairs, one of four original bedrooms was sacrificed to create two bathrooms—nice ones, with bowl sinks and other nods to contemporary tastes. Amazingly, this big old house had only one bathroom before, so its current three and a half represent a significant jump indeed.
In the basement (or “ground level,” as it’s called, emphasizing its well-lit nature), rotting floor structures were replaced and the spaces finished for use as guest quarters, game room and whatever else someone wants to do that won’t fit in the giant rooms upstairs.
It’s charming to discover some of the ways that the renovators honored the history here, like a bathroom window where little Bertie Nolting back in 1893 etched his name right into the glass. This artifact was painstakingly preserved. Countryside also enlarged the front porches, which—thanks to a pre-1900 photo—they were able to prove had been downgraded at some point in the past. Now they’re back to their grand original form.
From the cupola that tops the roof—with four, count them four, chimneys serving as corner posts for a protective rail around the structure—the situation becomes clear. This is a castle, and you are the monarch. You’re surveying three counties and under your feet is a jewel of a house. Big boxwoods define the curving driveway; a swimming pool beckons from the side lawn. The romantic, semicircular back porches overlook a lawn studded with awe-inspiring trees. Beautiful brick walks connect the old outbuildings (chicken coop, smokehouse, etc.).
Most of us can only dream. The asking price for this prize is upward of $4 million. Perhaps we should hope that whoever decides to spend the money will find a way to share Monticola with the public. If not, we’ll just have to rent the movie.
Monticola’s renovation necessitated plaster repairs, utility updates and a fresh coat of paint. But architecture firm Frazier Associates also made some exciting changes to the kitchen, with the addition of soapstone countertops and stainless steel appliances, while still honoring the home’s historical details.
Address: 4336 Monticola Rd., Esmont
Year built: 1850s
Square footage (finished): 6,800