Country Pursuits

A close-knit family breathes life and light into Mount Prospect, a Victorian-era farmhouse in a county refreshingly untouched by time.

Clarke County’s lush green pastures, miles of split-rail fences and silent but steadfast watch of the Blue Ridge Mountains make it a place where it just feels right to slow down and stay a while.

This feeling was one of many things that drew Washington, D.C., residents Cleo and Michael Gewirz to transform Mount Prospect, a Victorian-era farmhouse off Swift Shoals Road near Boyce, into their country retreat; a place for family holidays and shared passions—fox and bird hunting and time spent unplugged among the cathedral arches of trees dotting the Shenandoah River landscape.“

Clarke County still looks the way it looked when I was a kid. It hasn’t changed,” says Cleo—a graduate of the University of Virginia who attended high school in Winchester—from a seat beneath a wisteria-covered pergola on the 29-acre property. “I just think that’s really amazing given how close it is to D.C. and how strong the growth has been there. Clarke County is incredibly special for that reason.”

The Gewirzes bought the yellow frame house that catches near-constant breezes from a hill facing Blue Ball Mountain and Wild Cat Hollow in 2002.

However, necessary renovations to the house, built in 1874, were so extensive it took the couple a year to plan them and another year to complete. They consulted with Washington, D.C.-based interior designer Andrew Law from the beginning of the project. In addition to Mount Prospect, the Gewirzes have collaborated with Law to design their first and current homes in Washington, D.C.’s Wesley Heights neighborhood and their summer home in Newport, Rhode Island, where the entire Gewirz family has summered since the 1930s. (The third generation in his family’s D.C.-based commercial real estate business, Michael is president of Potomac Investment Properties.)

“Cleo really had a great sense of what country life was going to be like,” says Law. “She had a good sense of how the house needed to function and what it needed to handle. And that drove a lot of our design decisions.”

Though Mount Prospect has an air of elegance, nothing is off-limits in this house so often filled with the Gewirzes’ three children—Lily, 19, Graham, 17, and Stella, 15—guests, and the family’s three corgis. “I didn’t want to have any precious spaces or rooms that no one wants to go into because they are beautiful, but they don’t feel comfortable,” says Cleo, whose own presence is warm and unpretentious. “I just want everybody to feel relaxed here.”

Although photographs from the 1920s show Mount Prospect with a wraparound porch, it was long gone when the Gewirzes bought the home. The driveway no longer led to the front of the house, so the front door was rarely used. Despite beautiful mountain views, there were few windows, and dark wall colors did little to compensate for the lack of natural light. There had been a series of what Cleo describes as “hodge-podge” additions including a brick, beehive-shaped stove in the middle of the living room and a narrow staircase that led directly into an upstairs bathroom with shag carpeting.“

Luckily, the bones of the house were great still,” she explains. “It had all of its original doors, windows and floors. It had an amazing view and a great location right near my family.”  

Cleo’s parents and sisters were also drawn to Clarke County’s charm and have all settled there, full or part-time. Her parents have lived off Swift Shoals Road for 15 years, and her sister, Jennifer Irwin, built her family’s country home, Swift Shoals, in 2006 next door to Mount Prospect. (Three days each week from August through March, Cleo and Jennifer commute from Washington, D.C., to fox hunt in Clarke County with Blue Ridge Hunt. Equestriennes since childhood, they keep their horses at their parents’ barn.) A third sister, Selena Smart, lives with her family on a farm outside the neighboring town of Berryville.

Mount Prospect’s original owner, Francis Murphy Burch, also had strong ties to the land. His mother descended from the Kerfoot Sowers family that lived in Clarke County for many generations. He inherited land that was once part of a tract called Peace and Plenty. An Episcopal priest, Burch built the frame farmhouse around 1874 in the simplified, Folk Victorian style and summered there with his wife, Mary. He led services at nearby Old Bethel Chapel, which to this day has no electricity or heat. “They only open it once a year,” says Cleo. “Everyone goes there with candles and big, giant coats for lessons and carols at Christmastime.”

The Gewirzes’ renovation of Mount Prospect started by taking full advantage of the mountain breezes when four porches were added: a front porch with white columns and rocking chairs; a pergola over a slate patio; a screened porch on the side; and a porch overlooking the backyard. The Gewirzes retained the original front staircase and double parlor but enlarged the doorway leading from the entry hall to the back of the house. Windows and French doors were added along the outside walls of the dining room surrounding an original, built-in china hutch.

In the back of the house, most of the walls were removed to create an open, airy space with effortless flow. A long bar connects the dining room to the heart of the house: a combined living room and kitchen separated only by two square, white pillars. (The kitchen and adjoining mudroom and back staircase were all part of an addition.) A massive table custom-made with reclaimed heart pine planks from a barn in upstate New York is the central gathering place in the kitchen. Beadboard cabinets with soapstone countertops quarried from Maryland are in keeping with the farmhouse look, as is the locally-sourced stone fireplace in the living room.

The numerous windows and doors added during the renovations bathe the house in natural light and views of the outdoors. “There really isn’t a color in the house that couldn’t be found in the landscape,” Law says of the palette of sage greens, pale sky blues, warm yellows, rusty reds and his signature neutrals. With the addition of refined accents like English roll arm sofas and soft, floral fabrics, he describes the look as “the American version of an English country house.”

“We started 10 years ago, and we’re constantly refreshing the interiors and adding to them,” says Law, who most recently collaborated with the Gewirzes to partially redecorate Mount Prospect prior to its debut on the Clarke County Historic Garden Week tour in April this year.

To bring more air and light into the entry hall, mahogany screen and storm doors were custom-made. The original solid wood doors, too beautiful to discard, were painted pale blue and hung like shutters inside the new doors. Softly patterned sage wallpaper from England further brightens the entry hall. New floral drapes and deep merlot walls in the dining room are inspired by Cleo’s collection of yellowware and French jaspé pottery.

The home is decorated with many objects of personal significance. Most of the paintings are the work of Michael’s brother, Jonathan Gewirz, or were purchased at Art at the Mill, a biannual art show at the historic Burwell-Morgan Mill in nearby Millwood. In the library, antique taxidermy reflects Michael’s passion for bird hunting. (A graduate of Georgetown University, he travels near and far for the sport, including making an annual trip to England.) The library also holds his collection of natural objects, including deer antlers and an elk skull that he carried out of Grand Teton National Park on a hike there during his youth.

Cleo’s love of riding and fox hunting is evident throughout the house. Although Law purchased the late-19th century, hand-colored fox hunting scenes hung in several rooms, the fox taxidermy proudly displayed on the den mantle is her own find. (One winter while driving home from Mount Prospect, she passed by a fox that had met an unfortunate fate. Unable to bear the thought of the beautiful animal decaying by the side of the road, she backtracked to find it, placed its frozen body in the back of her station wagon, and went on her way to pick up her children from school.)

“I would never kill a fox. I’m praying for the fox every time we go out hunting,” Cleo says, noting that the fox usually gets away. “It’s the sport, the riding, the chase, the camaraderie and the beauty of watching the hounds work.”

Besides riding, Cleo loves gardening and tends her fenced vegetable garden next to the barn, a larger garden in the backyard and young fruit trees planted along the driveway: damson plum, apple, cherry, nectarine and pear. Cooking at Mount Prospect is another favorite pastime. Cleo equipped the kitchen with all of her favorite accoutrements from her beloved grandmother’s kitchen. “My grandmother, who I was very close to and my daughter, Lily, is named for,” explains Cleo, “was a domestic goddess, the queen of the kitchen and the most amazing homemakerand entertainer.”

Without the distraction of cable TV or the Internet, Mount Prospect is the ideal place for all of the outdoor activities the family enjoys together, including hiking, tennis (on their own courts), swimming, canoeing and fishing on the Shenandoah River. Friends often join them; the former smokehouse directly behind the house functions as a guest house for children, outfitted with bunk beds and a bathroom. With Cleo’s family nearby, Mount Prospect is where the Gewirzes celebrate Easter, Memorial Day and Christmas. When they aren’t in Newport for Thanksgiving, they attend the Blue Ridge Hunt meet at Long Branch Plantation and the ball at the Shenandoah Valley Country Club.

Today, the couple’s oldest daughter, Lily, is starting her second year at the University of Vermont, and they are considering the future. As their younger children leave the nest in a few years, they may be able to make Mount Prospect their primary home. They’ll still need a home in Washington, D.C., says Cleo, albeit a much smaller one. But, she adds, “This feels more like home to me.”

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