Nature, History, Harmony

Kendale, a 2,500-acre estate on the Rappahannock River, is a tranquil refuge with meadows, cornfields and flowers of every hue surrounding a modernized family farmhouse.

Originally published in our October 2008 issue (photography by Walter Smalling & Roger Foley)

On the long gravel and dirt road to Kendale, a working farm estate on the Rappahannock River owned by brothers Harrison and Hill Wellford, the sense of tranquility that envelops a visitor is undeniable. The estate borders one of the most pristine stretches of the river in the state and, with its fields of soybeans and corn, gives the impression of timeless grace and simplicity.

According to Harrison Wellford, the original house was built in the 1870s on land that has been in his family for generations. He and his wife, Sue, now live in the house. “My great-grandfather was given this land by his father [who acquired it in the 1840s], and he built this home for his bride,” says Harrison. It was a “typical Virginia farmhouse,” with Victorian touches. After inheriting the house, Harrison and Sue Wellford spent two years, from 1998 to 2000, expanding it and creating the gardens on the nearly 2,500 acres of farmland nestled on the middle peninsula, in Essex County. The current land is bordered by the Rappahannock on one side and the Occupacia Creek on the other.

After an extensive expansion, Kendale is now three times the size of the original house. The couple lengthened the Victorian porches, converted the attic into a third-floor playroom and lounge, added a large kitchen (painted in sea-grey green and tan) and bumped out the living room to create a 600-square-foot great room that looks out to the river. They also added a screened-in dining area downstairs and several connecting balconies upstairs, where Sue Wellford says they now enjoy sitting at night, looking at the stars and listening to the “tremendous ruckus” of frogs.

The Wellfords didn’t stop there. They also changed the main entrance to the house, achieving this by moving the driveway. Now, both they and visitors enter the home via the spacious, light-filled great room, which, thanks to the floor-to-ceiling windows, offers a captivating view out over colorful gardens, a large fishpond, cornfields and, finally, the Rappahannock. According to Sue Wellford, moving the entrance was an easy decision. “We changed it because of this,” she says, gesturing to the large windows and the vista beyond. “Everywhere in the house looks out on something glorious.”

Using both David Neumann, of the Neumann Lewis Buchanan architecture firm, and Tidewater Preservation, a company that specializes in restoring historic structures, the Wellfords were able to modernize their home without losing its historic feel. “You can’t see where the old house ends and the new one begins,” says Harrison Wellford of the renovated estate, “and that was the goal—to preserve the architectural and historic look.”

Standing on the porch where the original entrance used to be, Harrison says, “My grandmother talks about standing on the porch and seeing the steamboat coming [up the river] and knowing her boyfriend was coming to visit.” He’s referring to Ida Dulany Beverley’s diary found just last summer, buried in a box of 19th-century memorabilia. Her boyfriend was Harrison Wellford of Sabine Hall, 19 miles down river. She later married him.

Upon entering an upstairs bedroom, Sue mentions that Harrison’s uncle was born in that very room. The fireplace in the old parlor has an engraving that reads, “Shipped to John Carter Beverley,” Harrison’s great-grandfather.

For a place with so much family history, it was important to the Wellfords to create a livable home without losing the home’s rich past. Much of the furniture is original to the house or inherited, like the beds upstairs that were built in 1880. Any furniture that isn’t original was chosen to complement the historic design without sacrificing comfort, so that nothing looks out of place. As Sue puts it, “It’s a balancing act between the beautiful, the comfortable and what’s appropriate.” She credits Washington interior designer Frank Babb Randolph with finding complementary furnishings and creating a look that is “warm, inviting and serenely beautiful.”

The house tour culminates with a climb up a metal spiral staircase to a glass-enclosed cupola. It offers 360-degree views of the area. “This is where we come to watch thunderstorms,” says Sue.

Fortunately, there are none on this day, and the gardens beckon. It’s clear that Wellfords share a love for the land. The couple split their time between Kendale and Washington, D.C., where Harrison, a former energy and environmental lawyer, works as a private developer of green technologies. Their spectacular gardens, designed by the Washington-based landscaping architecture firm Oehme, Van Sweden & Associates, are as much a part of the home as its hardwood floors. Eric Groft, a designer for Oehme, Van Sweden & Associates who worked on Kendale, says his goal was to integrate the house with the landscape. “The transition between the manmade world and the natural world is seamless,” he says.

Harrison Wellford agrees: “I’m so happy with the harmony of the inside and outside.”

The first impression on stepping into the gardens is one of color, a look that Sue Wellford describes as “a painterly style … like a canvas of abstract art.” The serpentine walkways wind past huge bushes of bright red carpet roses, asters, yellow and orange lilies and tall, graceful sunflowers. “Nearly everything in the garden is a perennial,” says Sue, “so it’s a constant sequence of colors. Every week when we come, it’s a surprise.” In addition to the blooming flowers, Oehme, Van Sweden & Associates favored using native plants and grasses, so the landscape matches the home’s farmhouse roots.

We arrive at the fishpond—at 30 feet by 40 feet, it’s quite a bit larger than the average residential pond. A school of hungry koi follows us along the banks. Harrison has been experimenting with growing water lilies and lotus in the pond; pointing to a lotus plant that now stretches nearly 15 feet across, he laughs and says, “I bought that in South Carolina and brought it home in one pot.” With the flowers in the pond blooming in colors from soft pinks and yellows to a stark purple and bright fuchsia, the pond is an excellent contrast to the simple grasses ringing its banks.

Looking down and noticing the fish still following us, Harrison goes in search of some fish food while Sue and I continue through the garden. Pointing out a Virginia magnolia tree, purple moor grass, Russian sage and the dozens of butterflies flitting among the butterfly bushes lining the paths, Sue clearly knows every inch of the place. At the end of the walkway, her husband waits with a bright yellow electric golf cart to continue the garden tour down the river. The Wellfords love the naturalness of their property; as Harrison says, “It’s wild, nothing developed, and we put easements on much of the property so it’ll never be developed.”

On the ride back to Kendale from the Rappahannock, where Harrison had showed me his solar-powered boatlift, a bald eagle takes off from the trees nearby and flies toward the river, prompting Harrison to remark that the area has the highest density of bald eagles in the state. After a tour of the fruit and vegetable garden, where they use only organic fertilizer and no herbicides, we return to the house and settle at the big wooden table on the screened-in porch for some cold water and blueberries picked from the garden. They are delicious.

“This is where everybody is in the summer,” says Sue. It is easy to see why as a cool breeze keeps the room feeling comfortable even as the outdoor temperature nears 90.

Sitting on the porch, looking out at a wild meadow on one side and a walking garden on the other, the sense of stepping back in time is palpable. Sue Wellford notices it too, and says, “When you get here, it’s instant peace—after five to ten minutes here, we feel like we’ve never been in D.C.” That’s exactly the feeling they were going for.

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