It’s a luxury to imagine, then create, a playground—not only for children but for adults of many recreational persuasions. That is just what Brooke Spencer and her partner, Kim Cory, did at a Free Union property whose 97 rolling acres include mountain views, mature oak trees, and a spring-fed pond. Its present owners bought it to serve as a second home and an equestrian farm, expecting many guests and a large, extended family—both horse enthusiasts and others—to stay in the existing house.
“The whole purpose was to create a playground, a place to entertain,” said Spencer “The whole inside of the house is designed for entertaining.”
Over the last seven years, Cory Spencer Partners have worked to update and transform the property into a place where owners and guests alike can play while surrounded by archetypal Albemarle scenery. They have renovated house and horse barn, reimagined the landscape, installed a pool and planted a wildflower meadow. Throughout the project, the guiding principle has been to connect inhabitants and guests to the outdoors.
The house originally did not serve this goal. Previously, Spencer said, “You were on this beautiful piece of property but you had no access to it visually, or in terms of where the doors were.” As part of the renovation, Spencer designed a new bluestone terrace, relatively low to grade, to invite visitors outside. Teak furniture is sturdy and maintenance-free, and instead of a rail, a row of green velvet boxwoods eases the transition from terrace to lawn.
“You can see the horses from here, but really it’s about the pond and the view,” said Spencer, showing off the pastoral vista of mature oaks, pond, and distant mountains.
The pool, of course, is a magnet for fun-seekers, who will find here not only the chance to swim but to lounge poolside while watching a movie on a TV hidden inside a custom-built table/cooler. Should they prefer to watch from the water, the table swivels to accommodate them.
A pair of poolside pavilions, connected by an overhead trellis, anchor the pool area with formal symmetry, while brick decking, icy-blue upholstery, and pretty peonies provide color. The linearity of the pool area gets offset by a loose curving chain of “islands”—clumps of viburnum, boxwood, and dogwood—defining this zone as separate from the rolling lawn beyond.
The owners’ devotion to UVA is reflected in several reproductions of a gate design from one of the Academical Village’s pavilions. The design appears in poolside lattices as well as in the form of a boxwood parterre off the side of the house.
Spencer softened the formality of the parterre by planting humble herbs in its center. “I hate it when people put a fussy garden in a country setting,” she said.
Bees on earth
The approach to the 97-acre Free Union property winds through one of its best features: a wildflower meadow that Cory Spencer Partners planned asa replacement for a hayfield. Such a choice has many environmental benefits, said Brooke Spencer. Not only does it attract and nurture pollinators, “It needs zero maintenance, and gets better and better over time.”
The idea is to get rid of invasive species and then replant with a diverse mix of native grasses and flowers. “You can choose flower types, color schemes, and flower heights,” said Spencer, as well as which species you want to attract. (For example, monarch butterflies love milkweed.) At this particular farm, about 100 different species now grow in the meadow, from native grasses like little bluestem to coneflower to asters and goldenrod.
Spencer and the meadow’s installers, JW Townsend, are extremely pleased with the results here. “It is safe to say that this is the most diverse and successful wildflower meadow in Albemarle County,” said Ed Yates, a consultant to JW Townsend on the project. “During the peak flowering season there will be more pollinators in this field than any other place in the county.”
One might pause to learn that installation requires multiple doses of herbicides to kill existing invasives. Controlled burns are another way to clear the decks for beneficial native species. Cory Spencer Partners, who have designed a number of meadows, like to cut a path through the meadow to encourage human visitors. “When you walk through a meadow, it’s staggering,” said Spencer.
Mowing a strip along the edge also helps indicate that the meadow is intentional. “It says we didn’t just forget to take care of it,” she said, adding that with growing numbers of wildflower meadows, the public will become more familiar with the look, as different as it is from clipped monocultural lawns. Declared Spencer, “The ego lawn is done for.”