Hidden Treasures

Photography by Roger Foley | Styling by Richard Stone

Christine and Edward Brennan first encountered Rokeby—an elegant 18th-century brick home tucked away on 65 rolling acres in Leesburg—in 1985, when attending a black-tie benefit for the Loudoun Preservation Society. The event was held to celebrate the then-recent renovation of a bridge and gazebo on the property that overlook a scenic pond with a fountain in the middle; Rokeby’s owners at the time had won an award for the work.

“They had a big tent out there and a three-piece orchestra. I fell in love with the house and everything, because it was like a paradise back here,” says Edward, retired CEO of engineering consulting firm Consultants and Designers Inc., whose slight drawl harks back to his upbringing in Petersburg and Colonial Heights.

“First of all, we love horses. This has been a horse farm for two centuries. The grounds are magnificent. There’s a 400-year-old poplar and wildlife that roam around the property, like deer and fox and geese,” explains Christine, an executive with information services and analytics company Neustar, who grew up in Groton, New York. “And then we came into the house and were just blown away. At that point, it was something we could have only dreamed of.”

The couple, then living in a historic stone home in Purcellville, also felt drawn to Rokeby’s storied past. During the War of 1812, the home served as the hiding place of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and other important documents from the nation’s archives.

A few years later, a friend told the couple that the house and estate were on the market for $2.9 million. But the home did not find a buyer, the Brennans or otherwise.

A second chance arrived in 1993, when they learned that the grand Leesburg estate had gone into foreclosure. “It was starting to get rundown,” recalls Edward. “The fences weren’t there. The paint was coming off the house; the roof needed to be replaced.” Still intrigued with the idea of owning such a historically significant property, the Brennans brought in a structural engineer to ensure that no serious foundational issues existed.

After the house passed the inspection, says Christine, “We bought it on the courthouse steps.”

The couple purchased the home at a fraction of the original asking price, “But we had to put a lot of money into it; the house was falling to pieces,” says Edward. “For the last 21 years, we’ve been taking it a little at a time to work on the house and get it back into shape.” Local brick and stone mason Bill Alderman made needed repairs to the Flemish bond brick. Other work included replastering walls, restoring the barn and a Victorian cottage on the property, renovating a garage into a family room and building several garages for Edward’s antique car collection, which ranges from a 1921 Cadillac to a 1970 Dodge Charger RT. The Brennans also undertook extensive landscaping and restored a tiled swimming pool—a surprise discovery. When they found the pool, it was missing its motors and was covered with sludge. “Now it’s gorgeous,” says Christine.

In April, visitors will get to see the results of the Brennans’ remarkable restoration when they open Rokeby to visitors for Historic Garden Week. “Chris and Ed are very generous people, and they have a great sense of history,” says Jean Brown, a former president and now associate member of the Leesburg Garden Club. “We’re all grateful to them for generously sharing their wonderful home.”

Once inside the stone gates of Rokeby, visitors enter the property via a crunching gravel drive leading past lush, green acres fenced off for horses. A large fountain comes into view on the right as the long, meandering driveway draws closer to the home.

Two large urns crouch at the brick walkway that leads to the front door of Rokeby, which is listed on both the National and State Historic Registers. Built in 1757 by Charles Binns II, the first clerk of the court for Loudoun County, the approximately 9,000-square-foot house began its life as a Georgian manor home. (Rokeby acquired its name in 1820—it is a reference to Sir Walter Scott’s 1813 poem of the same name about Rokeby Park, an 18th-century manor home located near Yorkshire, England, where he was a frequent visitor. The house still exists.)  

In 1837, a subsequent owner remodeled the home into the more opulent aesthetic of the Federal style, comprising decorative woodwork, Adams mantels and plaster moldings with neoclassical swags and urns.

“If you look at the front of the house, you can see over every window where he took out all of the bricks that were Georgian style and put in woodwork frames,” says Edward. (In a Georgian style, explains Christine, the bricks run perpendicular to the windows; in a Federal style, they run parallel.)

The front hall of Rokeby was designed on a grand scale, with 14-foot ceilings, ornate decorative details and a winding, three-story staircase that leads to the six bedrooms upstairs. To the right is a life-size painting of George Washington in battle by Thomas Sully, which was formerly displayed at the Smithsonian Institution. Sconces, hand-carved and gilded, frame each side of the painting. Other antique portraits line the walls, including another portrait of Washington.

 “When you have two of these in the same hallway, that’s when you know you have a serious collector,” says Rocky Robinson, a longtime friend of the Brennans who is also an antique collector.

The Brennans started collecting antiques in 1980. “We’ve tried to pick up as much Americana as we can—a lot of Federal pieces and a lot of Virginia pieces … We also have very eclectic taste, and a lot from Asia, the U.K. and other parts of Europe, Africa—all the wonderful places we’ve been. Everything in this house tells a story,” says Christine as boxer Kinsale, one of the couple’s rescue dogs, scampers at her feet.

The center hallway symmetrically divides the first floor. On the left, the library is filled with books, including the Binns’ (the original owners of the house) family bible, as well as the Brennans’ collection of paintings and bronzes, among them a bronze model of Frederick Hart’s Vietnam War Memorial sculpture, “The Three Soldiers.” The piece is a particular favorite of Edward’s, who served in the Marines during the war. At the top of a bookshelf are terracotta figures from the Tang and Han Dynasties. At the front of the room, an 18th-century Chippendale bookcase with a broken arch pediment features a carved gilded eagle made by Samuel McIntire of Massachusetts.

Behind the library is the cozy warming room, which has a small working fireplace (one of eight in the house), an 18th-century chandelier and, from late 18th-century Virginia, a Federal walnut table and an inlaid walnut cellaret on a stand. The room is filled with sporting life paintings, including Harry Hall’s “The Doncaster Cup 1850,” which captures the glory of one of the most celebrated horse races of the 19th century.

The Brennans breed and race thoroughbred horses and have some of their personal memorabilia on display in the room, including an early version of their jockey silks—embroidered with a four-leaf clover—as well as photos of their prize-winning racehorses. Five have placed in stakes races, including the Duchess of Rokeby, a first-place winner at Saratoga Race Course, and Lord Langfuhr, who was once nominated as New York Horse of the Year. (The Brennans currently have 10 retired race horses and riding horses at Rokeby.) Visible from the warming room’s windows is a courtyard garden with a neoclassical fountain of a woman pouring water from a vessel.

Beyond the warming room is a small powder room with charming fox wallpaper, followed by stairs to the cellar, which houses a historic vault. The brick structure originally had a metal door and bars on its two windows. Edward explains that the vault was built by Charles Binns II to hold the records of Loudoun County when it split from Fairfax County and became its own entity in 1757. “They didn’t have a courthouse out here for two or three years, so he stored them in his vault,” says Edward. “In 1814, when they thought the British were going to invade Washington, D.C., they wanted to save all the [nation’s] archives.” Rev. John Littlejohn, a Methodist minister in Loudon County, was a friend of Stephen Pleasonton, the clerk in charge of the U.S. archives. Says Edward: “They corresponded and [Littlejohn] said, ‘I’ve got an ideal place that you can store them in.’” Pleasanton, accompanied by a dozen or so soldiers, brought the archives, including the original Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, to Rokeby, which was then owned by Binns’ son, William. “They brought them out in a covered wagon pulled by an ox. It took them about three days to get out here” from Washington, D.C., explains Edward.

According to Kathryn Coughlan, who wrote in her 1992 book Rokeby: A Page in History, “This was the only time in history that these very important documents were housed in a private residence.” (While these documents survived, many others—including the entire Library of Congress—were burned during the British attack in August of 1814.)

Passing the center hall, one arrives at the formal dining room, highlighted by an 18th-century constitution mirror once displayed at Kenmore, the former home of George Washington’s sister. The mirror hangs above an 18th-century Chippendale chest of drawers signed by Leesburg cabinetmaker John Weaver. Two 19th-century pastels are on display, including one of the children of Ulysses S. Grant. The dining room also features an 18th-century Chippendale chest of drawers signed by a Virginia cabinetmaker, as well as an 18th-century Hepplewhite sideboard made by another noted Virginia cabinetmaker, John Shearer.

“Christine and Edward have carefully built an important collection of American antiques from the 18th and 19th centuries,” says Robinson. “Rarely do you find couples who have carefully combined such splendid architecture with equally fabulous gardens and appointed their home so perfectly with compatible antiques of the home’s period.”

A bronze statue of Irish leader Michael Collins, acquired in the U.K., recalls the days when Christine worked overseas, first as the head of human relations for London-based Barclays, then as the head of HR—and the first female executive—for the Bank of Ireland, based in Dublin.

“For most of our working lives, Ed and I worked in different cities,” explains Christine. While he worked in New York, she took positions in Atlanta, Boston and then London. “So Rokeby was the place we’d come back to on weekends.”

The couple has traveled extensively and owns other homes, including a 16th-century villa in Molise, Italy, near the Adriatic Sea. Rebuilt after the town was destroyed by an earthquake, the villa is known as “the Bishop’s House,” because it once belonged to a high-ranking church official. Today, the Brennans live full-time at Rokeby and vacation at their other homes.

The dining room and the adjoining front parlor at Rokeby both contain matching chandeliers, custom-made from antique glass. Notable highlights from the parlor include a fireplace with an Adams mantel, a high-style Federal period sofa made in New York around 1820, a tall case clock from Leesburg and a rare Pembroke table dating to 1790. The parlor also contains a portrait of John Alexander Binns, grandson of Charles Binns II, painted in 1823. A piano holds photos of the Brennans’ two daughters, who live with their families in Nashville and Charles Town, West Virginia.    

Outdoors, formal gardens and a scenic vista of rolling hills and mature trees complete the setting. The air is filled with the sounds of water pouring from fountains and the twittering and rustling of birds and other wildlife. Off in the distance is an 18th-century log cabin from western Virginia that the Brennans purchased and had disassembled, then meticulously reconstructed on their property.

“We just sort of pinch ourselves every day,” says Christine. “It’s pretty spectacular to live here.”

Rokeby will be open April 19 and 20 during the Leesburg Towne and Country tour. Funds raised during Historic Garden Week benefit the restoration of historic gardens across the Commonwealth. VaGardenWeek.org

This article originally appeared in our April 2015 issue.

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