House on a Hill

Historic Ben-Coolyn Farm in Keswick makes an idyllic home for a new generation.

Last fall, Chris and Katie Henry were halfway through a renovation of an older home in Charlottesville. The young couple, who had recently celebrated the birth of their daughter Alice, was eager to move out of their downtown Charlottesville condominium. 

Both history majors who met as students at the University of Virginia, Chris and Katie had happily been preparing the older house they had purchased in town for their growing family. Then they learned that Peter and Ann Taylor were selling the 144-acre Ben-Coolyn farm, in Keswick. “The farms around here never come up for sale,” says Katie, “and when we came to see it in the fall, it was breathtaking.”

The farm, perched high atop one of the rolling hills that form the pastoral frilly edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is part of what was originally known as James Clark’s Tract, a parcel dating back to the 18,000-acre Meriwether Land Grant of 1730. Its white-stuccoed, circa-1870s Federal-style house surrounded by exquisite formal gardens, pastures and historic outbuildings proved irresistible to the Henrys, who purchased the farm last November. 

“It’s close to town and has lots of space for a big family. We want lots of children,” explains Katie, a native of Keswick, who works as a freelance journalist. Plus, she adds that that her parents’ farm, Castalia, is just a few miles away and even connected by a trail. 

Ben-Coolyn’s formal gardens are divided into carefully groomed parterres that stretch between the house and the pastureland it commands. 

Ben-Coolyn’s formal gardens are divided into carefully groomed parterres that stretch between the house and the pastureland it commands. The gardens were the constant focus of Peter Taylor. For almost 20 years, he lavished the 19th century gardens and surrounding acreage with a lover’s devotion, while his wife Ann looked to the interiors. The investment banker and entrepreneur planted no fewer than 176 willow oak trees along the driveway that leads from Route 22 through open pasture to the main house. “I actually got a wholesale license so that I could buy large quantities of plants,” says Peter, adding, “I like to garden.” 

When the Taylors purchased the property in 1999 from the descendants of Harold and Kay Hallock who had owned the entirety of Ben-Coolyn farm since the late 1940s, Taylor immediately turned his attention to restoration of the original formal gardens adjacent to the house and planting hundreds of native high and low canopy trees on the property’s old front hayfield. 

Katie and Chris Henry, with their daughter Alice.

The Henrys are eager to maintain the pristine state of the gardens and surrounding property that captivated Peter, who has been introducing them to their new farm. Ben-Coolyn, Scottish for “breezy hill,” is protected with a conservation easement held by the Virginia Outdoor Foundation.

Working with the Richmond-based landscape architectural firm HG Design Studio and Charlottesville landscape architect Rachel Lilly, Peter developed schematic plans for the restoration of original garden rooms and the addition of new ones. Boxwood and brick, a customary combination and almost sacred component of traditional Virginia gardens, provides the framework and constant refrain for the formal gardens at Ben-Coolyn. 

Many boxwoods original to the property have been preserved, including a collection of 100-year-old shrubs of impressive stature that form a hedge separating the south-facing brick terrace at the front entrance of the main house from the loose stone driveway. A number of other English and American boxwood cultivars have been added throughout the formal garden rooms, including green velvet, green beauty, green mountain and Dee Runk varieties of the genus Buxus. The latter variety was named for the late University of Virginia biology professor, dean of students and boxwood aficionado Benjamin Franklin Dewes “Dee” Runk.

The formal gardens wrap the main house on three sides. A large expanse of lawn reaches to the north at the back of the main house. A sweeping hedge of boxwood provides definition to the space, without obscuring dramatic views of pasture and mountains. In keeping with the park-like theme, four oak trees spaced evenly, two on either side of the lawn, form a loose allée to the mountain viewshed. 

To the west, on the other side of a large boxwood hedge is a pool and pool house, which Peter renovated and repurposed after plucking it from elsewhere on the property where it had served as a servant’s cottage. Adjacent to the pool, separated by a manicured lawn and boxwood hedge are symmetrically pleasing rows of crabapple trees neatly ensconced in square, boxwood-edged and mulched frames. A short set of brick steps at the western end of the crabapples drops down to an octagonal-shaped loose stone path that rings another manicured lawn. Both are hemmed in by perimeter beds of tulips tucked between two layers of boxwood hedge. Offering a restful spot for afternoon tea or garden meditations is a white gazebo with privacy lattice screen on three sides. New dawn climbing rose is intertwined around much of the lattice offering up its fragrant pink blossoms throughout spring and summer. Peter installed the gazebo, which was inspired by one he spied while on Massachusetts’ Nantucket Island. “It was in the garden next to the Jared Coffin House,” he explains. “At night I snuck over there with a tape measure so I could get the dimensions.” A turn south reveals yet another garden room, this one centered around a circular fountain, ringed by stone paths and beds filled with knockout roses bearing light and dark pink flowers, all neatly trimmed in boxwood hedge. An allée of holly trees leads to a passageway through a wall of eight, 20-foot-tall American boxwoods to a tulip-filled garden room punctuated by sweet bay magnolias.  

On the eastern side of the house is the newest addition to the property’s collection of parterre gardens. Divided by boxwood-rimmed paths, 

with a lily-pond at its center, the garden is home to a custom-made greenhouse constructed by noted British manufacturers Hartley Botanic. The glass and aluminum structure offers a heated floor and almost 250 square feet of climate-controlled year-round growing conditions. 

Peter has redirected his considerable passion for gardening to the couple’s new home, Castle Hill, a historic 18th century Keswick estate about five miles away. “I have always been in awe of Castle Hill’s beauty, rich history and numerous 200-year-old trees,” he explains.

The gardens were not the sole focus of the Taylors during their tenure at Ben-Coolyn. In addition to structural improvements to secure the 19th century house, they also built a master bedroom, bath and office suite over a one-story wing occupied by the kitchen at the back of the house. The views to the south through floor-to-ceiling windows that span the home’s expansive living room are matched in the new master suite with equally spectacular views of pasture and mountains to the north. 

The Henrys are working with Charlottesville-based interior designer Kai’li Millner to create interiors that both reflect the young family’s lifestyle and pay homage to Ben-Coolyn’s unique setting and history. And while the gardens surrounding the house and Peter’s carefully curated arboretum will remain unchanged, the Henrys are planning to install 12 acres of vineyards in the pastureland. The couple will join the owners of two area farms for the viticulture venture conceived by friends George Hodson and his sister, Emily Pelton, of the family-owned Veritas Vineyard and Winery. “We are very excited about it,” says Chris, who is president of Stony Point Design/Build, a Charlottesville-based construction development company. “It could be producing in just a couple of years from planting.”

It is altogether fitting that Ben-Coolyn’s new owners are adding a new dimension to its farming heritage while maintaining the luster and historical significance its gardens and home possess. “I remember coming here as a child,” says Katie. “It is absolutely amazing, and we want to preserve all of the beautiful gardens that Peter has created.” 

This article originally appeared in our April 2018 issue.

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