Hidden Treasures, Storied Past and Second Chances at Brook Hill Farm

I wish I were with you dearie. How can I wait? Oh love, how can I wait until the sunlight of your eyes shall shine upon the world that seems so desolate? Until your hand clasp warms my blood like wine, until you come again, O love of mine, how can I wait? —Excerpt from a letter written in January 1890

Here in Central Virginia, history lives at every turn. Battles were fought on local ground and great men and women lived here. Many of our older homes come with stories of significance. But few homes can boast about hoarding a packet of mysterious love letters for over a century.

Brook Hill Farm, in Forest, prides itself in just that. According to owners Jo Anne and Jay Miller, previous owners Dolores and Bill Busch stumbled upon this cache. As Dolores Busch tells the story, she and her husband moved to Brook Hill in the 1960s from New York with four young children to run an Angus cattle farm. She recalls that the children unearthed the packet of letters. “It was like finding a treasure chest! We were really excited,” she says. Her son Jimmy, who was nine at the time, cannot remember most of the details, but recalls that he and his brother and sisters were involved in a game of hide and seek. In an attempt to hide, one of the children crawled into a “dead spot” in the wall. Jimmy described it as a small space just large enough to climb in and a perfect place to hide things.

The secret room, next to a fireplace upstairs, was six feet by four feet by six feet high—more like an empty pocket between walls. It seemed to be a catch-all space for various items, including the mysterious packet of letters secured with a tattered pink ribbon.

These letters chronicle a long-distance romance that took place between 1887 and 1891. All the letters come from what appears to be a well-to-do gentleman called Hecky, to his “dearest love.” In some cases he refers to her as Nina, but he also uses aliases including Mrs. Mary Weston and Mary Hartcourt. He writes of their travels throughout the East Coast, Great Britain and Europe. Unfortunately the notes do not contain enough information to trace the identities of either one of the lovers.

Reading these letters makes it is easy to imagine life long ago. Driving down the narrow path to Brook Hill, lovely homes flank each side of the road, each home’s history intertwining with the others.

Long before a home was built on the site, the land was used as a dependency for neighboring Bellevue High School, and provided the school with essential staples. Founded in 1863, the school attracted students of well-to-do families from all over the South. With over 100 students enrolled there, they needed a large staff to care for and feed students and teachers. There were cooks, butlers, maids, maintenance help and farm hands. The property at Brook Hill was used as a farm to grow crops and to cut and store ice. Nearby, Glen Mary operated as another dependency, and at the top of the road, Trivium served as an inn. Today they all still stand as fine examples of 19th- and 20th-century architecture.

In 1904 the property was purchased by Samuel and Graham Webb of Tennessee. Graham was the daughter of a well-known architect of the time, and she was responsible for the design of the home. “She was ahead of her time,” says Jo Anne. Her design encompassed some innovative ideas, and local workers built the home according to her exact specifications. She called it “Rowncevilla.” Within a short time the couple moved back to Tennessee, unhappy because they were unable to have children to fill up their large home. Following the Webbs, a series of many owners lived here and at some point the home was renamed Brook Hill.

When the current owners, Jo Anne and Jay Miller, moved into Brook Hill in 1991, they found an old home in poor condition. Despite this, the couple was still attracted to the property. Jo Anne has a background in art history and actually owned a home remodeling business specializing in historical renovation. When she originally went through the home, she was immediately attracted to the architecture and surrounding historic farms. At the time, other contractors were looking at the property with the intent to demolish the house and put up a subdivision. This went completely against Jo Anne’s sense of history. She knew that she had to try to save this wonderful old house and have it listed on the historic registry.

Jo Anne came well prepared for the task of renovating and accurately reproducing many of the details that were hidden beneath layers of paint, ceilings and walls. With her historic preservation background, she was trained in the art of bringing things back to their original condition. Luckily, none of Brook Hill’s owners lived in the house long enough to make any major improvements. Ceilings had been lowered and walls painted numerous times, but underneath, everything was still intact. This made Jo Anne’s detective work much simpler. She was able to unearth wall coverings, old moldings and plaster ornamentations, then reinstall them into their original places.

At the turn of the century, most rural farmhouses in Bedford County were Queen Anne style. This took on many forms using decorative details, turrets, wrap-around porches and ornamental woodwork. While Brook Hill does incorporate many of these elements and design motifs, its style more represents the compact form of the Bungalow/Craftsman architecture. The Bungalow style is known for its simple design and use of local materials and visible handicrafts. Graham Webb’s use of heart pine, grown and milled in the area by local craftsmen, typifies this style. She also landscaped with native trees and shrubs dug from neighboring woods. What makes this home so extraordinary, according to Jo Anne, is that it is one of the earliest examples of Bungalow architecture identified in the area.

Upon first glance, the front door does not appear centered. In 1900, the railroad became prevalent and brought traffic up to what is now the corner of the house. Webb designed the house with this in mind. When visitors approached the corner of the house on a lane from the Bellevue Train Station, an optical illusion created the impression of a perfectly centered front door.

Wide steps lead visitors to a 63-foot front porch that is 12 feet deep. This expansive porch wraps around the house on both sides. A low-pitched roof is set on square columns with brick piers.

The front door still has the original oval beveled glass. When the Millers first moved into the house, the door was covered with over 30 layers of paint. As Jo Anne scraped the paint layers off, she was surprised to find glass beneath. Flanking each side of the door are multi-pane sidelights with 36 tiny windows. This use of multi-pane windows can be found in several areas of the home. Directly above the front door is another series of 36 pane sidelights to match. And rear French doors that open to a back porch are also covered with multi-pane windows. “The amount of glass in the house was very unusual,” says Jo Anne. When it was first constructed, “It was the rage in the community. Everyone would come by to see the house with all of the glass.”

From the exterior the home does not appear to be very large, yet there are over 4,300 square feet of living space. Webb did not include a front hall in her design because she thought it would be a waste of space. The front rooms were all used for socializing.These public rooms were separate from the private areas used by family and servants.

Twelve-foot ceilings give the impression of a truly expansive home. According to Jo Anne, the ceilings in many homes of this era were often painted with designs or covered with wallpaper to make the rooms seem more inviting. At Brook Hill today, the ceiling in the music room is painted sky blue with billowy white clouds, and what the Millers use as their living room has a wallpapered ceiling.

Throughout the home are moldings and mantels using Federal and Greek revival styles as well as decorative stenciling. Beautiful parquet floors with heart pine flooring include decorative patterns along the border. Wherever Jo Anne could unearth the original designs she did. The parlor walls had originally been painted using an age-old technique known as ragging. Jo Anne recreated the effect. In the dining room she discovered that the walls had been “papered” with cloth, so she duplicated it. Jo Anne also fashioned missing sections of moldings and decorative ornamentations. Missing plaster moldings were replaced by making rubber casts to copy the original moldings. And where she found signs of decorative stenciling, Jo Anne stenciled in the blanks. She was able to restore the elaborate designs that were painstakingly done so many years ago, providing a fresh look while maintaining historical integrity.

Adjacent to the parlor is the music room, or “angel room.” Angel refers to its plaster ornamentations. Jo Anne had discovered plaster angels in the basement, and following some detective work, discovered that they belonged in the music room. She even found their original locations by matching old nail holes with the angels. Here a Greek key design had been stenciled on the mantel. Much of it had been worn away, but Jo Anne was able to completely restore it to its original glamour.

The kitchen has retained the charm of the early 1900s with its butler’s pantry, tin ceiling and cast iron cookstove. A modern-day complement to this room is Jo Anne’s collection of pie tins, both old and new, that cover the kitchen walls. A back hall leads to the private areas of the house including a tiny maid’s room. In times past the maid slept in front of the stove in the kitchen. But Graham Webb designed a tiny room set aside just for the help. This room was indeed tiny — just 60 inches wide!

The bedroom suite of long ago encompassed a gentleman’s room which today serves as the Millers’ library. “This is my favorite room in the house,” said Jo Anne. No wonder why! With its tin ceilings, beautiful molding, decorative mantel and built-in shelving, it is an especially inviting room. A doorway leads to what was once the lady’s bedroom and bath that today serves as the master bedroom suite.

Unfortunately, none of the original furniture was rescued with the home. But Jo Anne has skillfully used her own collections to complement the style of the home, and has mixed many of her own furnishings with what would be typical of a home of that period. For example, a lovely doll collection is featured in the parlor. The back hall has served as the perfect place for a puppet stage and to display Jo Anne’s collection of puppets and marionettes.

The Millers have taken this historic home and, over a period of 10 years, brought it back to life. They have kept the integrity of the period and painstakingly recreated the many decorative techniques typical of the period that lay hidden in the home after it fell into disrepair. They also salvaged those wonderful love letters that provide a peek into life so many years ago. While the letters were written before Brook Hill was constructed, they will always remain a part of the home. One can only guess the circumstances around them. What fun it is to imagine who the lovers were, their connection to Brook Hill, and what eventually happened to them and their romance. If only these walls could talk, what would they say? Though they may speak volumes, they have only left clues hidden within.

 

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