Old Glory

Restoring the grandeur of an antebellum compound takes labor, money, and love.

(Photography by Kip Dawkins)

John Holland knew when he first visited Oak Ridge, more than 20 years ago, that there was much more to the sprawling, careworn estate in Nelson County than the overgrown gardens and deteriorating steps he saw in front of him. That would be an understatement. Holland and his wife, Rhonda, lived in the Tidewater area at the time and had decided to visit after reading a Virginian-Pilot article about the sprawling property—and its 4,800 acres and 52 buildings—in 1987. The story was headlined “Pieces of a Faded Dream.” Holland, in the demolition and reclamation business, was intrigued—more so than his wife. “He didn’t see what I saw,” says Rhonda Holland. “He saw what it was, and what it could be.”

What it was, and still is, is a vast historic antebellum compound—a Colonial Revival mansion with 50 rooms and enough outbuildings to support a small army for a few years—among them, a greenhouse, railroad station/post office, machine shop, smokehouse, gas station, racetrack and stone dairy complex with power plant. “It’s a little city that we are trying to take care of,” says Rhonda.

Cities need a lot of maintenance, and so do huge antebellum estates. When the Hollands bought Oak Ridge, the place was in serious disrepair. Many of the gardens and smaller buildings were hidden by overgrown weeds. The house had 24 leaks in the roof, and much of the kitchen flooring and ceiling had to be replaced. The last owner to live at Oak Ridge, J.J. Ryan, had died in 1970, and the house sat vacant until 1990. “It was time standing still and nature moving on,” says Rhonda. “It was sad.”

No matter: Holland and his late father put a $2.5 million deposit on the property. “We started working on it right away,” says Holland, who now owns Oak Ridge with his sister, Joanne Nesson. Some of the first improvements included a new floor in the railroad station and repairs to the front and back steps and to the ceiling in the house’s foyer. “I could see in my mind what it did look like at one time,” he says. “A friend once said, ‘If you can’t see the invisible, you can’t do the impossible.’ I wanted to restore it back to its original beauty.”

John Holland Sr., who passed away in 1989, was a colorful entrepreneur in the salvage business. He opened his own landfill in Driver, Va., and built houses as well. He collected cars, animals and real estate.

Holland says that he’s much like his father. A large man with a short beard and Santa-Claus-like persona, Holland inherited his father’s quirky personality and interest in real estate—as well as his salvage business. He spends most of his time in Suffolk managing John C. Holland Enterprises and is also a partner in the largest privately-owned wetlands bank in the country, the Great Dismal Swamp Restoration Bank. People building on wetlands are required to buy credits that preserve wetlands in their geographic area. “If you mess up one acre of wetlands, you have to replace it with two acres of wetlands,” Holland says. “The way we do it with preservation and restoration lowers the cost.”

John and Rhonda were married in 1977. The couple met in Portsmouth at a restaurant where Rhonda worked as a waitress. “He came in one February [morning] at 1 a.m. and ordered a hot fudge sundae,” she recalls, adding that he kept coming back. “In April, I asked him out on a date.” The couple dated for four years. “What I like most about John is that he understands people and accepts them for who they are,” Rhonda says. “He’s a little eccentric at times, but he’s an amazing man.” Since 1989, she has watched over Oak Ridge while John manages his businesses and continues to renovate the estate.

“I promised her a mansion when we got married, but I didn’t tell her she’d spend the rest of her life rebuilding it,” he says with a hearty laugh.

Oak Ridge has a long and illustrious history. Including the Hollands, the home has had 13 owners. John Harmer and Walter King—loyalists to the King of England—purchased the property in 1738. Robert Rives, a merchant who set up trading centers along the James River that eventually grew into towns and villages, built the original nine-room Federal-style house on the property in 1802, and his family owned it for four generations.

In 1867, Oak Ridge was sold to Oliver Beirne, a wealthy West Virginia merchant. The home was used by his daughter and son-in-law, William Porcher Miles, former chairman of the Confederate House of Representatives Military Affairs Committee, who also designed the Confederate battle flag.

After Miles moved from the estate in 1880, Oak Ridge sat vacant for 20 years before being purchased in 1901 by Wall Street financier and Lovingston native Thomas Fortune Ryan. With a net worth of more than $130 million, Ryan was the wealthiest Southerner of his generation. Like Holland, Ryan had a vision for Oak Ridge. He wanted to set up a modern, state-of-the-art farm and a self-contained city. He turned the home into a 50-room, 23,000-square-foot Colonial Revival mansion by adding two wings and a third floor. He also built a power plant to generate electricity, a movie theater, a golf course, a 700,000-gallon reservoir water system and various outbuildings—lots of them. He also added a one-mile standard bred racetrack and steeplechase. Ryan owned the property until his death in 1928 but only spent four months a year at the estate. “Oak Ridge was intended to be his retirement home,” Rhonda says.

One of Rhonda’s favorite buildings is the railroad and telegraph station, which also served as the estate’s post office until it closed in 1943. It’s the only stone railroad station left standing in Virginia. The tracks of Amtrak’s Crescent line are just a few feet away. During Ryan’s ownership, several of his house staff used the train to travel north. “We have housekeeper diaries that talk about going to New York on the train and shopping and going to the theater,” Rhonda says.

Currently, seven of its rooms, all downstairs, are open to the public. One, the library, is part of the original 1802 house. In addition to a large fireplace, the room holds three of the 27 paintings in the Oak Ridge collection, which Ryan acquired during the first Jamestown Exposition—including a portrait of Pocahontas painted in 1905. The room’s centerpiece is an ornate lion-headed English partner desk the Hollands purchased from the Hollowell Plantation in Elizabeth City, N.C.

The adjacent drawing room was added to the house in 1905. One of the tables in the room holds a commencement speech written by William Miles in 1878 and titled “Education, the Defense of the Nation.” Rhonda believes the nearby limestone fireplace came from a building in Europe. “Mr. Ryan was known for collecting sculpture pieces of buildings,” she says. On another table is a 1923 newspaper article that lists the wealthiest people in the United States based on the income tax they paid that year. The story reveals that Ryan paid $798,851 in income tax—modest compared to John D. Rockefeller’s $6.2 million.

The John Barry Room, a small sitting room, contains two more paintings from the Oak Ridge collection along with small Civil War statues and pictures of The Four Seasons of the Confederacy, which represent the room that Ryan underwrote at the Virginia Historical Society. The nearby paneled dining room holds an oversized circa 1840s claw-foot mahogany table with a sentimental collection of china. “It was a gift from John’s grandmother and her two sisters,” Rhonda says. “They represent a gift of someone’s time as well as someone’s love. They are very special to us.” The place settings depict events in American history, featuring Paul Revere, George Washington and Philadelphia Hall. The women bought the china in 1976 from an A&P for $0.59 a plate with a $10 purchase.

The nearby green and white breakfast room features a barrel ceiling, fireplace with hand-painted tiles, and four murals painted by M. Suzor-Côté, a French-Canadian landscape painter. The mural depicting a view beyond the rose garden was cleaned in 2003 and taken to the National Museum of Canada to be a part of a worldwide traveling exhibit.

The room overlooks the formal, Italianate garden of boxwoods and statues. Because of the overgrowth behind the house, the Hollands didn’t discover the attached rose garden until the spring of 1990. Nor could they see the greenhouse, which was built in 1908. “When we first came, we could only see the top of the cupola,” Rhonda says. She and her husband laugh as they recall trying to clear the poison ivy-laden underbrush with clippers. “We didn’t know anything about poison ivy,” John says. “We were burning it, grabbing it bare-handed.” The itchy aftermath led to several steroid shots.

The peonies in the flower gardens on the side of the property are Rhonda’s first love. Before the Hollands bought Oak Ridge, that area was used as a hayfield. “The caretaker said he remembered plants being here,” Rhonda says. “We found five peonies and started pampering them. Then we started to uncover pathways.” The Hollands rent out Oak Ridge for weddings, and many couples use the gardens as a backdrop. “We have weddings every weekend from March to December,” she says. “I love the weddings. It’s a way of knowing that someone will always be paying attention to what is going on here.”

Holland enjoys using material from his demolition business to enhance the property. All the stone and wood used in the garden were salvaged from other properties, as were the fences that encircle the estate. “I was raised in the demolition and trash business,” he says. “Every two to three weeks, I have trucks bringing things here.”

The Hollands rent out part of their land to a local farmer who raises pumpkins, and they have a game preserve. “We have about 12,000 game birds a year, including pheasant, chucker and quail,” Rhonda says.

The large carriage house across the road from the main home houses Holland’s sizeable antique car collection. Among other vehicles, he owns 1955 and 1957 T-birds, a 1959 Lincoln Continental convertible, a 1914 Willis Overland, a 1924 Dodge, a 1929 Nash and a 1969 Rolls Royce Silver Shaw. “I’m not one to invest in the stock market. There are too many Bernie Madoffs out there for me,” he quips.

The couple also owns an 1898 Studebaker vis-à-vis sleigh (its seats can be flipped forward or inward) originally purchased by Ryan. It was traded to Sweet Briar College early in the 1930s for a cow. The Hollands reacquired it in the late 1990s. Rhonda ascribes the collection to her husband’s “midlife crisis.” He doesn’t disagree, saying with a smile, “That’s my excuse to buy some toys for myself.”

The couple has put a lot of love and labor into Oak Ridge and hopes the next generation of their family will pick up where they left off. The couple has two married daughters—Heather, 31, and Reagan, 28, and three grandsons. Their daughters grew up on the property and have watched it evolve over the years. “Some people have boats that they pour money into,” John says. “This is our boat.”

This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issue.

Styling by Bill Sorrell and Richard Stone, with on-set styling assistance by Jonathan Janis.

Note: John Hollard died in December 2011

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