A few weeks back, I visited Neve Hall, a historic Episcopal chapel and manse on 14 acres in Albemarle County, for the first time. Three miles south of I-64 on U.S. 29, the site reveals classic architecture, old-school craftsmanship, and a profusion of art, and simultaneously shows signs of decay and renewal. The architect of the stone structure was Eugene Bradbury, whose early 20th-century work in Charlottesville includes grand residences and notable churches, like St. Paul’s Memorial Church on University Avenue, opposite the Rotunda. In its almost-hundred year history, Neve Hall has been a mission, a suspected house of ill-repute, a hideaway where kids partied and roller skated indoors, an artist’s studio, and a family home. Its past is linked to a diverse cast that includes Lady Astor, Erskine Caldwell, and Henry “Pop” Lannigan, the namesake of UVA’s Lannigan Field.
On Saturday, November 16, Neve Hall will begin yet another chapter of its life, when Potter’s Craft Cider introduces the storied property as a tasting room, event space, and future production facility and sculpture garden. Potter’s announced back in January that it would invest $1.65 million, with $100,000 of state and county assistance, to revitalize the building and reshape the grounds. During my visit, the pricey renovation was well underway, including the landscape design by Evan Grimm and Chloe Hawkins of Charlottesville’s Nelson Byrd Woltz.
As I navigated the arcing gravel drive that leads up the hill—a sweeping gesture devised by Grimm and Hawkins to build anticipation—Neve Hall’s bell tower, chapel, and two-story residence successively came into view. I explored inside while workers hammered, sawed, sanded, wired, and laid flooring, rushing to get the place ready for the opening event.
Potter’s co-founder and -owner, Tim Edmond, and Kate Lynn Nemett, the cidery’s general manager, found me gawking inside what’s called South Hall. This is the former residential portion of the structure. It has a soaring, vaulted ceiling, craggy granite walls framing tall windows, two fireplaces, and a timber-framed mezzanine suspended by massive oak beams milled from trees cut down on-site. Sunlight streamed in from the south, a cinematic touch.
“Pretty great, huh?” Nemett said.
“Amazing,” I replied.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” Edmond said. “But we’re really proud and lucky to be in this space.”
We quickly toured the building, passing through the cavernous chapel, crunching down the stone driveway, and then ducking into the woods. I began to notice a few figures, and then more figures, among the greenery. Vines crawled on a life-size rusting iron woman. The waist, buttocks, and legs of a ceramic female figure rested on the ground. Gnome-like creatures and vertical abstractions (their glazed surfaces looked like molten wax) clustered around my ankles.
All of these creations are the work of a dynamo named Jim Hagan, a UVA art professor who lived at Neve Hall with his wife, Erla, and their three children starting in 1963. Hagan established the sculpture and new media concentrations at UVA’s McIntire Department of Art. Before his retirement in 2001, Hagan’s sculptures, all made at Neve Hall, landed in prestigious collections, including at the National Gallery of Art. He was a prodigious worker, curing his ceramics in wood-fired kilns, carving pieces from the fat trunks of trees he felled himself, and cutting human silhouettes from thick metal stock. The latter, painted black, have graced the Downtown Mall since 1981. Edmond told me that three shipping containers of Hagan’s work were removed from the site before the renovation began.
Hagan and his family’s legacy constitutes a significant period of Neve Hall’s 95-year history. That rich past helped to convince Edmond and his business partner, Dan Potter, to invest in its future.
The cidermakers discovered the location through David Atwell, a friend who spent a good part of his childhood at Neve Hall. The co-owner of Greenwood Gourmet Grocery, Atwell was tight with the Hagan kids. Erla herself was a force of nature (her parties at Neve Hall were renowned), and Atwell became like an adopted son to her and Jim. Atwell considered the artist his mentor.
Edmond vividly recalls the first time he explored the building and grounds with Potter and Atwell. “You could feel the spiritual pull,” Edmond says. “That’s partly because of the chapel. But the space is also imbued with the energy of Jim Hagan.”
The mountain people and the missionary
Although the cornerstone of Neve Hall was laid in 1925 and its construction completed sometime in 1926, its history traces back to the end of the Revolutionary War. When the fighting stopped, the so-called mountain people—mostly white but some of Native American descent—took up residence in the Blue Ridge. They farmed and foraged, grew apples to make moonshine, hunted bison and elk—and over time became isolated from the growing population in Charlottesville and other towns. The mountain population peaked in the mid-19th century, and the natural resources people needed to survive fell into decline. After the Civil War, the Blue Ridge and its hardscrabble inhabitants were more or less depleted.
This is where Neve Hall’s namesake, Frederick Neve, comes in.
Born in England in 1855 and educated at Oxford University, Neve served as an Anglican minister before departing for missionary work in Africa. But he wasn’t up to living there, frequently falling ill, so he answered an ad placed by congregants at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Ivy and Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Greenwood, which had a history of employing English clergymen.
“He volunteered for this post when he heard that there was a demand for an English minister and that there was a small population of poor hill farmers living off the land in the Blue Ridge Mountains nearby,” one biographer wrote.
A combined total of 125 parishioners pooled resources to pay Neve $500 a year, and he arrived in Virginia in 1888, at age 33, to start his new job, holding services at the churches in Ivy and Greenwood while at the same time beginning his outreach in the mountains.
Neve was broad-shouldered and stood 6-foot-3 or taller. He had a thick head of hair and a hatchet for a nose. “He was tall and rugged and slightly walleyed,” author Elizabeth Coles Langhorne writes. “The wags of the parish declared that he kept one eye on the congregation and the other on the mountains.”
Neve took to riding his horse, Old Harry, into the hills each day. “He was to bring the outside world to the whole vast and previously inaccessible region of the Blue Ridge,” Coles writes.
Backed by donations from the Episcopal church and a few wealthy local supporters (notably, the Langhornes of Greenwood, whose eight children included Nancy, later Lady Astor), Neve built and lived at the first Blue Ridge mission, St. John the Baptist, in Ivy Depot, where he also became rector.
Neve was not alone in his missionary work, least of all in achieving his goal of having churches and mission houses constructed at 10-mile intervals along the Blue Ridge. Much of this history is set out in Our Mountain Work, the newsletter Neve started publishing in March 1909. By that time nearly 30 missions had been built, and many more would follow.
Neve’s work required all of the strength he could muster. Reaching the mountain settlements on horseback took hours and even days of riding through rough terrain. The living conditions he encountered were dire. If his knock on a cabin door went unanswered, he would push it open, finding horrific scenes inside, “whole families sick and dying of measles, typhoid, tuberculosis, diphtheria, and scarlet fever,” biographer Frances Scruby writes. “The standard remedy for almost any ailment was a sack of onions tied around the neck.”
It’s no wonder that attending to the mountain people—both personally and by building a vast network that provided food, medical care, education, and housing—took a toll on Neve. He retired as rector of St. Pauls in 1923 at age 68, and began spending more time at his spacious home, Kirklea, which had been built next to the church in 1904. Neve remained Archdeacon of the Blue Ridge, but his stepping down marked a significant moment. His congregation gave him a gold watch and a silver vase, but an even greater gift—a lasting tribute to his mission work—was the naming of Neve Hall in his honor. An edition of Our Mountain Work from 1924 shows a pen-and-ink illustration of the building as it was designed by the architect Bradbury. By then, a cornerstone bearing the initials EB had already been set, and after a final push to fund its completion, Neve Hall became the latest Episcopal mission house to open. It was the home of Reverend Dudley Boogher, who lived there for about 20 years, ministering to four churches nearby.
The Astor connection
By that time Nancy Langhorne had become internationally famous as the first woman to be seated in England’s parliament, in 1919. She ran against two men to win the position that her husband, Waldorf Astor, had vacated when he was named 2nd Viscount Astor. As the wife of a count (the two were married from 1906 until his death in 1952), Nancy assumed the title Lady Astor.
Lady Astor had struck up a friendship with Neve as a teenager in Greenwood. She was 13 when her family moved there from Danville, took up residence in Mirador (a grand home that survives to this day), and joined Neve’s congregation at Emmanuel Episcopal Church. Her father was wealthy, having earned a fortune in tobacco trading and railroad construction. After a year of getting to know Neve, young Nancy was impressed by his religious fervor and commitment to helping the mountain people. “From the first I loved and respected him,” she wrote.
The admiration was mutual. Neve saw in the teenager a wisdom beyond her years, and he wanted her to witness his missionary work in person. At age 14, Nancy accompanied him on one of his forays. It was her first exposure to the mountain people but not the last. She and Neve spent much time together. He often stayed at Mirador after conducting services at Emmanuel Episcopal, and he and Nancy shared company at the St. John the Baptist mission. As Nancy entered adulthood, she told a friend, she realized the strength of her bond with Neve. “The Archdeacon became one of my best friends,” she said. “I wrote to him every month for 40 years.”
Neve helped to set the future Lady Astor’s moral compass. As a politician, she pushed for legislation against child labor and established maternity centers and daycare facilities for the children of working women in her constituents’ city of Plymouth, near the Astor estate, Cliveden.
Lady Astor also stridently supported temperance, perhaps because of her experiences in the moonshine-soaked Blue Ridge and her friendship with Neve. She had a full, busy life in England, but Virginia and Neve were always on her mind—and she gave generously, if quietly, to his missionary work.
Ironically, those efforts began to taper off not long after Neve Hall was built. Virginia exercised eminent domain in the late 1920s and early 1930s to acquire 190,000 acres in the Blue Ridge Mountains. In 1936, that land became the Shenandoah National Park, which ultimately displaced about 2,000 people. Neve and the Episcopal Church continued their mission, but suddenly had a much smaller population to serve.
Lady Astor retired from politics in 1945. Three years later, a month before Neve’s death, Lady Astor wrote to him once more, thanking him for the inspiration he had given her as a teenager. “True friendship never fades,” she said.
The dark years
The Reverend Boogher left Neve Hall in the late 1940s, moving to Ivy to become rector of St. Paul’s. Though I was unable to pinpoint when the Episcopal Church closed Neve Hall, it is likely that Boogher was the last resident. The church’s work in the Blue Ridge had fallen into sharp decline after World War II, and in 1953, the archdeaconry was officially dissolved.
Interestingly enough, the next period in Neve Hall’s history begins with Henry “Pop” Lannigan, whose 1930 obituary in The News Leader lauds him as one of the “most noted athletic trainers in the East.” After building the sports program at Cornell University, he continued his career at UVA. Between 1905 and 1929, he racked up a record of 254 wins and 79 losses while coaching the men’s basketball team, and at one point led the Cavaliers to four consecutive NCAA titles. Lannigan also built the track team to national prominence, and the university honored him by naming its track and field facility after him.
Lannigan’s marriage to his wife, Helen, appears as little more than a footnote in his biography. What is known is that he had a daughter, also named Helen, who met Erskine Caldwell at UVA. Caldwell would become a giant of American literature, and the two married in 1925. They were divorced in 1938, around which time Caldwell, a notorious drinker, had begun an affair with the photographer Margaret Bourke-White. He and Helen had three children, including Erskine Caldwell Jr., known as Pix.
A widow for some years after Pop Lannigan died, Helen moved into Neve Hall. She lived there after Boogher departed, and perhaps even until the beginning of the Korean War, in the 1950s. During this time the house was known simply as “Mrs. Lannigan’s.”
David Atwell’s father, Sam, now 86 and living in Afton, recalls that Neve Hall was not the holy place it had been when the archdeacon had it built. “It was sort of a social place,” Sam Atwell says. “My brother said it was a house of ill-repute. Mrs. Lannigan, she was very smart and well-versed. She didn’t talk about anything.” But there were rumors.
“My brother used to go up there with [friends] who were a bit older than him,” Atwell says. “They were all teenagers or in their early 20s. My brother said there was a big pool there, and a woman used to sit on the edge at one end of the pool, naked. She said that if anyone could swim the length of the pool and back again underwater, she would go to bed with him.”
It’s unclear whether Erskine Caldwell ever spent time at Neve Hall, but he formed an opinion of it. While his wife was being treated for a serious illness in New York, and preparing for surgery, Caldwell visited her and, according to Caldwell biographer Harvey Klevar, discussed where their son Pix should stay while Helen recuperated. Living with the writer was not an option; his affair with Bourke-White had become an open secret and the couple were traveling abroad extensively for work.
“Though the boy was already on the train to Charlottesville,” Klevar writes, “Caldwell complained that Mrs. Lannigan’s was not a ‘fit place’ for Pix, since Mrs. Lannigan ‘allowed drinking in the house.’”
At this point, Klevar writes, Helen turned to her soon-to-be-ex-husband, and said, “Erskine, between drinking and adultery, what have you got to say?”
The Hagans move in
From the latter 1950s until Erla and Jim Hagan moved there in 1963, David Atwell says the house became sort of a community center, where people roller skated on the wood floor of the former chapel, which was marked with shuffleboard courts.
But it was the Hagans who truly brought Neve Hall back to life. While some sources say it was deconsecrated before the family arrived, the Hagans’ daughter Mara recalls that her parents paid to have it done. “They were not religious people at all,” she says. “When we moved in, I remember they borrowed $500 from someone to take care of that, to help with the deconsecration.”
Jim Hagan’s art quickly became the focal point of the family’s life. Mara recalls that her father’s obsessive creativity—and the time it consumed—sometimes irked his wife. “My mother was a little cross about it,” Mara says. “He would just disappear into the studio, or down a hill to build some big kiln for his ceramics. Things never got really bad, but I think she would rather have had him repairing things around the house.”
Still, Mara says both of her parents brought great vitality to the home—Erla with her constant welcoming of new, stray animals inside, Jim with his sculpting and listening to loud music, and the two of them with their parties, bashes that went deep into the night. “It was quite the scene,” Mara says.
She recalls that she and her siblings, Adam and Sasha, were banished to the second floor for many of the parties. But Adam cut a hole in a rug that covered a vent, and the kids all crowded around it to spy on the adults below.
When asked which memory of Neve Hall stood out the most, Adam Hagan immediately replies, “It was cold!”
The house was extremely inefficient, and in the coldest weather, parts of it were sealed off to make the best use of the wood stoves and fireplaces that heated the place. “The house was always a quirky work in progress,” he says.
While they knew that their father was prolific with his art, they didn’t get a sense of what a big deal he was until the early to mid-1970s. Hagan had solo shows at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond in 1974 and the Zabriskie Gallery in New York in 1975. In 1977, one of his wood sculptures was included in an exhibit at Princeton University, alongside works by Frank Stella and Marcel Duchamp. In time, his works—famously, his ceramic pigs—would begin to show up in impromptu installations at UVA.
Adam Hagan recalls that his father had little regard for the business side of art, and that he made a point of saying that he wanted his work “to rot back into the ground.” But he was the opposite of the brooding artist stereotype. “He always seemed happy when he was creating,” Adam says.
He also had a great sense of humor, both in conversation and in his art, Atwell says. One of his pieces, “Shy Exhibitionist,” was featured at the 1995 International Symposium of Electronic Art, in Montreal. The catalog does not contain an image of the sculpture, but it does offer the artist’s own description of it: “Shy Exhibitionist is a wood-fired ceramic sculpture with sensors, servers and strobes which is active when no one is in close proximity and becomes and dormant when approached. When making it, I thought about possums, crickets and turtles.”
Jim Hagan passed away in 2008. After Erla died, in 2016, friends and family gathered at Neve Hall to commemorate her. When the Hagan children decided to sell the property, Atwell convinced them that Potter’s Craft Cider would be the best new owner. Edmond and Potter bought the property in May 2018.
Both Mara and Adam Hagan say they are thrilled that Potter’s is giving Neve Hall another life. Sasha, for her part, says only that she wants people to know that it was a place full of life and laughter and animals, lots of animals, and that her mother delighted in throwing parties there.
On Saturday, Potter’s will throw yet another party at Neve Hall. There will be live music and food trucks and cider flowing from the taps.
“I’m really psyched about what Potter’s is doing, straight-up,” Adam says. “It was nothing that I or my sisters could have imagined, but David [Atwell] persisted, and he was right. When you live in a place for such a long time, you believe that maybe it’s something you’ll hold onto forever. But now that my parents are gone, it’s like, wait—we can’t carry the burden of maintaining that house. We’re just glad that Neve Hall is something that people will be able to see and share and appreciate. I think Mom and Dad would agree.”