Sunlight and Comfort

In northern Virginia, two generations of one family built upon and preserved a 200-year-old legacy, creating a home where the landscape is the heart of the matter. And always will be.

Loudoun County may be on its way to becoming D.C.’s next suburb, especially with the new Dulles Greenway that provides a nearly straight shot from Leesburg to the capital, but there’s at least one good-sized pocket of it that will never change: the Oatlands Historic District, most of which is protected by conservation easements. Somewhere in there, a tree-lined lane takes you through gently sloping fields and forest until the view opens up to reveal a buttery-white house and its dependencies at the end of a nice long driveway. The main house is a little complicated with additions tacked on over the years. Peonies and hydrangeas grace the way to the front door.

This is Oatlands Hamlet.

In 1798, George Carter, great-grandson of Robert “King” Carter, inherited 3,408 acres near Leesburg. In 1801, he named it Oatlands. In 1804, he built the Greek Revival mansion that still stands just beyond the hill that rises just east of what’s now Oatlands Hamlet. The plantation required the labor of 85 slaves by 1840; by the Civil War, they numbered 128, and Emancipation had the predictable effect. Still, the family held the estate until 1897, when they sold it to Washington Post founder Stilson Hutchins. He in turn sold the remaining 1,000 acres in 1903 to William Corcoran Eustis, who saw in the property an ideal swath of hunt country. His wife, Edith, turned her passion toward reviving the four-acre garden. William Eustis died in 1921; Edith lived there until her death, in 1964. Grenville “Gerry” Emmet, her grandson, lived there starting in 1989. The former radio station owner sold his business in 2006, and his children have “flown the roost.” He and wife Cindy travel a lot. A smaller place in Leesburg makes more sense for them now.

“When my grandmother was getting on, she gave what is now called Little Oatlands, up the hill, to my aunt, her daughter Margie Finley, and then she gave my mother this property,” says Gerry, who grew up in New York and D.C. Anne Emmet, his mother, named her plot after her beloved dog, Hamlet.

When Edith Eustis died, her daughters gave the main house and 261 acres to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, steward of the site to this day. Oatlands, Little Oatlands and Oatlands Hamlet will remain as green space in perpetuity under the easements. “It’s very protected,” says Cindy. “It’s so private.”

Young Gerry Emmet had the run of it. “I was sent down here to help the farmer,” he remembers, “to prevent me from becoming more of a juvenile delinquent than I already was. He’d drag me out of bed at 4 in the morning to go milk cows.”

The Emmets lease some of the land to farmers for cows, hay and the like. In the bright sunroom, cool with pale furniture and ceramic tile floor, Cindy gestures toward the slope outside the window to her left. “There’s a herd of cattle, and they roam back and forth. That’s really pretty, when we can see them just right there.” The house feels as if it was built so that the owners could see “just right there” from any vantage point, whether “there” means the two ponds and the swimming pool, at the foot of the hill Cindy’s just pointed to, or the expansive, shady lawn and ancient oaks framed by the next windows over.

It wasn’t always that way. “This had been a tiny little gardener’s cottage,” says Gerry. “So my mother started building here, and then we’ve done a lot subsequently.” What’s now the library was part of the original late-18th-century cottage. “Mother put in the Dutch tile around the fireplace,” he says, indicating the whimsical blue-on-white images of windmills and boats adorning the hearth. The deep red walls and contrasting creamy-white, book-lined built-ins are the current owners’ contribution.

The entrance, papered in a faded-carmine color and gleaming in the sunshine from a broad window facing the front door, has seen big changes since Anne Emmet’s time, as well. “We wanted to open it all up and get a lot more light in here, so we took the wall out [and a maid’s pantry] and put that big window in.” It looks out onto a little fountain anchoring a semi-circular garden just outside—which the Emmets also put in. Inside, the effect is both airy and warm.

“We did the same thing to the kitchen, which had been a rabbit warren of little rooms,” Gerry remembers. That was six or seven years ago. Now, sleek cabinetry and appliances complement the tomato red center island that anchors the room. More windows bring the outside in, there and in the breakfast nook. Beyond the kitchen, near a little bedroom, they built on and expanded a porch into could be a little in-law suite.

The dining room has a view, as well—perhaps the most expansive of all. But it’s not through windows; it’s on all four walls, a mural painted by Anne Emmet’s good friend from New York, muralist Olin Dows. “He came down here and did this panorama of the entire property,” says Gerry, pointing to various spots on the property drawn by Dows. “There’s the big house, the fields … it’s all a very fanciful rendering of the property.” Indeed, there’s a strong whiff of Dr. Seuss, particularly in the trees, bright with pinks, yellows, blues and greens. “This is the farm, this is the pond down here, and there’s the house.” A closer look shows animals all around, squirrels, groundhogs, geese, even a pair of llamas shaking hands. “My mother was a big animal nut,” Gerry says, “and she had a menagerie of llamas and sheep and you name it.” The mural is one thing that’s hard for them to leave. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t travel,” Gerry laments.

The living room doesn’t give him nearly as much to say: “The living room is a living room.” Still, the impression of light and comfort, simply done, carries through.

Upstairs, the Emmets converted two bedrooms and a bath into a more generous master suite (with impressive closet space), with a luxurious bathroom that boasts two sinks, a tub, a sauna and ample room for lounging. A funny little hallway leads to two more comfortable, sunny bedrooms and another bathroom, beyond which is what used to be the servants’ wing—“a narrow hallway and three tiny little chopped-up bedrooms,” Gerry says. “So we just opened all of that up.” The result is another well-appointed bedroom. Did the kids enjoy all the nooks and crannies? He chuckles. “I think my daughter enjoyed it more once it got like this.”

The Emmets did as much outside the house as inside, adding the swimming pool and one of the two ponds. Thankfully, geese and ducks prefer the ponds and have no interest in the pool, which he says gets a lot of use during the summer (and then some—it’s heated). “We have a giant blue heron that shows up periodically,” he adds. There were koi, until the “bloody snapping turtle” got them.

Not only have the Emmets enjoyed the immediate surroundings of their home, but they’ve also covered many miles on the walking trails around the property, up into the woods, through the fields—and especially up around the main house, where Edith Eustis’ spectacular four-acre garden has been lovingly maintained. The frequent weddings up at Oatlands afford them free entertainment during the warm months, says Gerry. “They usually have a big tent outside the house. And we’ll often wander up there on a Saturday night and listen to music—and snoop.” He laughs.

Of course it’ll be hard to leave, although Oatlands itself will always be a connection—he’s on the board there. “I will feel remorse as I drive by and see this place, which we really created, and know that it’s no longer ours,” he says. “But there’s a time for everything.”

christine ennulat
Virginia Living’s Associate Editor
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