Historic Garden Week Celebrates Ballantrae Farm

Taking the road less traveled in McLean.


McLean was covered in snow when I visited in January. I was headed to Ballantrae Farm, the 6.5 acre estate that’s open for Historic Garden Week on the Fairfax/McLean tour, April 23. The road follows Ballantrae Farm Drive, lined with neo-Georgian and mid-century modern McMansions on micro-lots. It winds up and around to what legend says is the highest point in Fairfax County, and where—so the story goes—President James Madison and his wife, Dolley, solemnly watched the Capitol burn, just 10 miles away, when the British attacked Washington in 1814. 

Large stone pillars and a stately iron gate signal an entrance to a sprawling Georgian Revival fieldstone house. Built in the early 1920s, Ballantrae Farm once comprised hundreds of acres, much of it farmland. Subsequent owners, name changes, and acreages shifted over time, but the footprint of the original 10,000-square-foot house has essentially remained the same.

I’m there to meet Sara Polaski, the estate manager, and Janet Guzzano, the property’s garden manager. I motor up the meandering driveway, bordered with Belgian brick and flanked with alternating Kwanzan and Yoshino cherries. Lawns and plant grouping and well-tended beds are on either side, and despite being covered in snow, they’re thriving and healthy. I sense a certain magic about the place. A feeling of serenity washes over, and any hint of the congestion of the greater D.C. Metroplex quickly disappears. 

As soon as I’m parked, a giant ball of fur rockets toward me through the snow, tails ferociously wagging. Midnight and Roscoe are Ballantrae’s canine residents, loyally patrolling the property while their owners travel. They greet me enthusiastically as Sara, Janet, and Wriggly, Sara’s diminutive furbaby, catch up.  

Ballantrae’s current owner purchased the “farm” from the estate of Joe Robert, the D.C. financier and philanthropist, whose early death at 59 in 2011 left the property in flux. Situated in some of the country’s most expensive real estate, it was ripe for subdividing by hungry developers were it not for a soon-to-be retired executive on the hunt for his next chapter. Lucky for Ballantrae, he’s a guy with a love of history, a penchant for preservation, and a big heart.  

Photo by Donna Moulton

bellantrae

I learn that in the 1990s, Robert commissioned landscape architect Guy Williams to enclose the property, which, up until then, had been fairly open. Williams strategically added hedges and masses to the existing trees and shrubs, which together created a natural barrier. Now yews and holly and cypress, along with cryptomeria, giant oaks, and hydrangea, comprise the property’s borders. 

Ballantrae is über-luxe. Not in an in-your-face way, but subtly and stately. As we trudge through the snow, with my new canine friends in tow, Sara and Janet show me the huge Swiss Family Robinson-style treehouse tucked into a grove of Norway spruce. Brilliantly camouflaged, I nearly miss it. With ladders and levels and an actual treehouse—even a swinging bridge—winding among its host’s gnarly limbs, it’s right out of the pages of Johann David Wyss’ classic children’s book. It’s in the corner of a regulation-size soccer field, sunken and complete with amphitheater-style stone stairs notched into the gently sloping hillside. 

A kitchen garden, designed by Jan Conti, the property’s emeritus director of horticulture, is also sunken and features Belgian brick-edged beds, cold frames, and possibly Virginia’s most charming potting shed. Ledges of the surrounding stacked-stone retaining walls are layered with ‘Nikko Blue’ hydrangea and leatherleaf viburnum. Sara and Janet tell me that the owner’s children, some grown, some still in school, enjoy the property’s privacy, where they can also play tennis on a Har-Tru clay court. 

Joe Robert’s priority had been the landscape, but after his death, from all accounts, it was in need of some serious love. Now, it’s once again a focus. The current owner lived in the U.K. for many years, admiring the country houses and gardens that dot the English countryside. A fan of Vita Sackville-West’s style at Sissinghurst and Christopher Lloyd’s gardens at Great Dixter, he arrived at Ballantrae a decade ago, inspired to properly honor the property by paying homage to its history and the gardens he admired abroad. 

Sara shows me a serene birch tree “walk” and the pretty parterre garden that was rehabbed, a project that also made pool access easier. It’s where Ballantrae’s hardscaping shines, artfully combining slate, brick, limestone, and pea gravel, creating a visual party underfoot. 

Garden vignettes, succession planting, and seasonal interest were capitalized on, where clusters of spring’s sweet-scented clethra give way to fothergilla in the summer, and the exfoliating bark of oakleaf hydrangeas can be the dramatic stars of the landscape in winter. Pansies happily welcome nearly 20,000 spring bulbs sprinkled throughout the property. Foundation planting, with beds of holly, boxwood, fern, and azalea and in place for decades, were tamed and trimmed. Containers, reflecting the seasons, are well-placed, and climbing roses and hydrangea, vestiges from Guy Williams’ day, scamper up stone walls. A terrace on the south side of the property includes ample furniture groupings and a full outdoor kitchen. 

An engineer by training, the current owner took over Ballantrae in 2013 and not only put his stamp on the outside, but he also embarked on several interior renovations, with every decision factoring in the house and its history. For liveability, the second floor and the kitchen got complete makeovers. 

Ballantrae Farm could have gone the way of many noble, aging homes. The “farm” could have been subdivided into a dozen or more McMansions. That would have been the easy route. With a deep appreciation for history, its new owner took the road less traveled. In the last decade, he’s preserved this gracious home, making thoughtful changes that respect its legacy. 

And when he bought the house from Joe Robert’s estate, Robert’s two loveable labs, suddenly had nowhere to go. Without so much as a second thought, this dog-loving owner tells me in a phone conversation we had in December, Midnight and Butterball are what sealed the deal. “Of course they came with the house,” he declares. I can almost see him smiling through the phone. Sadly, Butterball passed away last year, but Midnight, the spry 15-year-old black lab, Wriggly, and Roscoe, their red golden retriever pal, continue to happily roam the property. Who knows? You might just see them on the Historic Garden Week tour.

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