A Civilized Christmas

In a season notorious for commercialism, Keswick Hall, in the heart of Virginia hunt country, offers a relaxed and resplendent respite from the madness.

Christmas at Keswick Hall is refreshingly simple. One might expect to find the 48-room luxury inn—a celebrity favorite tucked in a hamlet in eastern Albemarle County—beribboned and bejeweled for the season. But the folks here eschew the man-made opulence that so often accompanies the holidays and instead look no farther than their own backyard—the lush 600-acre Keswick Estate—for inspiration.

The Keswick staff has mastered the art of decking the halls with nature’s bounty, decorating the Italianate-style villa with aromatic-wreaths, garlands of dried hydrangea blossoms, chestnuts still enclosed in their prickly hull and crabapples. The result is uncluttered, but festive—and above all, inviting.

Instead of searching for specific plants and flowers—which may not always be available due to changing weather conditions—the Keswick team looks for materials with rich color and texture. Finds include red buckeye, horsetails, yarrow and yellow cockscomb, and greens like eastern red cedar, white pine, magnolia, and Japanese cryptomeria. Amaranthus, rose hips and sumac also appear in abundance.

The property’s many Limelight hydrangeas ornament live trees stationed throughout the hotel as well as the garlands that grace doorways and arches. The only element used that doesn’t come from nature are the thousands of white lights that are wrapped around the crape myrtles that line the driveway to the inn and the grapevine balls that hang from nearby Washington hawthorns.

The landscape that inspires all of it—dubbed by Thomas Jefferson the “Eden of the United States”—is part of the 31,000-acre Southwest Mountains Rural Historic District. Dotted with sprawling horse farms and country estates, the neighborhood has long been a hub for gracious entertaining says Patricia Castelli, author of a new book being published next spring about Keswick Hall’s 100-year history. Castelli, the property’s resident historian, limns the history of the place from its beginning as the Villa Crawford—a residence built on 300 acres in 1912 by Robert B. Crawford (a gentleman farmer) for his new bride—to its ownership since 2012 by Historic Hotels of Albemarle.

The original Villa Crawford was built for $100,000 and designed by prominent Charlottesville architect Eugene Bradbury, its style inspired by the Crawford’s honeymoon sojourn to Italy. The couple later had twin sons but would only live in the house until 1919, the year when Mr. Crawford died. It remained a private residence until the late 1940s when it was purchased by a group of Charlottesville businessmen who transformed it into Keswick Country Club and added a golf course and two pools.

In the 1960s Keswick became the first integrated country club in Virginia. The club remained in operation—its fortunes waxing and waning—until the 1970s when it finally closed its doors. Several attempts were made to re-open the club by a succession of owners (including one winemaker who wanted the Villa Crawford to become the center-point of a series of vineyards) until 1990 when Lord Bernard Ashley, widower of designer Laura Ashley, purchased the property and 600 adjoining acres for $5.5 million. Ashley spent more than $25 million expanding the property, but preserved the original Villa Crawford—what he called “the heart of the hotel” explains Castelli. The new Ashley House opened in 1993 but Ashley’s tenure at the helm of the property was not lengthy; he sold it to Orient-Express Hotels in 1999 for just $13.5 million.

Orient-Express made its own improvements. It added a 25-meter infinity edge pool—a signature of the hotelier—and refurbished the Arnold Palmer-designed 18-hole golf course. They also added Fossett’s, now an award-winning restaurant, named after Thomas Jefferson’s chief cook at Monticello, as well as the more casual Palmer Room Restaurant & Bar.

Keswick Hall’s isolated location in the heart of Virginia’s lush hunt and wine country along with its relaxed (and paparazzi-free) country-house atmosphere have made it a favorite for celebrities. Mick Jagger, Anthony Hopkins, Morgan Freeman and Bill Murray all have stayed at the Hall. When Murray expressed an interest in playing golf during his visit, he was told by the inn’s most gregarious, though now-retired, porter Buddy Leffers, “Oh no, we can’t allow that. We’ve all seen Caddyshack sir!”

Castelli says the late Paul Newman also experienced Leffers’ homespun charm during a visit in the mid-1990s. One morning Leffers nearly collided with Newman while the actor was jogging outside. Later that evening, Leffers spotted Newman at dinner and said to him, “Whatever you’re doing Mr. Newman, keep it up! You look so much better than you did this morning!”

Witty repartee aside, Castelli says the character of the place hasn’t changed much in the nearly 100 years since Villa Crawford was first built and—as was the custom of the country—families and neighbors threw open their doors and welcomed visitors to stay a while. Keswick Hall tempts neighbors and guests this season with steaming cups of thick hot chocolate, roasted chestnuts and freshly made cookies in the Great Hall where a wood-burning fire crackles. Santa arrives via horse-drawn sleigh the first Saturday in December for the lighting of the holiday tree, and gingerbread-house decorating and wreath-making classes (taught by Lewis) take place all season. The public is welcome.

Perhaps the most noticeable and wonderful thing about Keswick is that the pace here is unhurried. In a season notorious for clutter and commercialism, it offers a simple and civilized approach to the holidays. And for those reasons, we want to linger.

This article originally appeared on Nov. 15, 2010.

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