Three Parts Imitation, One Part Flattery

Emerald Hill is a new and regal estate modeled on Virginia’s most famous homes.

When the Winn family decided to move to Virginia, they didn’t take any shortcuts. The couple didn’t just buy a nice home by a lake; rather, they decided to replicate old Virginia in all its sprawling, early American glory.

They largely succeeded. Emerald Hill, the Winns’ 133-acre Charlottesville estate, is spectacular—picturesque and grand and practically new. The California-born owner and his wife built the place from the ground up, starting about 10 years ago. And did they ever build. A 17,000-square-foot, 60-room Greek Revival home is the centerpiece of the estate, but by no means the only piece. There is also a formal garden, orchard, vegetable garden, carriage house, cabin, garden house, working barn, gatehouse and covered bridge. And two conservatories, a tennis court and a pool. Including the guest house, carriage house and cabin, Emerald Hill has 38,000 square feet of living space

The family lived in California until the 1990s. Then the couple began looking around the country for a better place to raise their two sons—and, after touring a good part of America, “Charlottesville was our first choice,” says the owner of Emerald Hill. “We liked its moral tone, and the fact that it was a southern town—but also fairly close to the north. And, of course, it’s a university town.”

In 1996, the Winns bought the first of many parcels of adjoining land and started what would become a massive, four-year construction project. At that time, says owner Craig Winn, the property was in terrible shape. “To say that the land was unsightly would be too kind a word—it was an overgrown mess.” There was garbage in the heavy underbrush, and since the property had been used to raise cattle, there were endless strands of barbed wire laced among cedar trees. And the property was overgrown with multiflora—a thorny, fast-growing bush also known as Jefferson’s Curse. (Thomas Jefferson is said to have imported the plant to “fence in” cattle and sheep.) “The pastures were impossible to walk through,” adds Winn. “It took a full year to bring the land to the condition it’s in today—much of which I spent in the seat of a John Deere tractor.”

Winn got stuck in a swamp once, requiring rescue by a neighbor. After that, he hired a team of excavators, who worked the property for more than 12 months. The results are impressive: There is a lake, two ponds, a stream and several brooks with springs. Winn describes the woods around the estate as something approaching an English forest. There are century-old hardwoods—massive oaks, poplars, hickories and walnuts. There are also 1,000 new specimen trees, including dogwoods, redbuds and crape myrtles, brought in to beautify the estate. More than a hundred fruit bearers constitute the orchard—peach, cherry, nectarine, plum and apple, among others.

The home’s architecture and design are borrowed from the Valhallas of Virginia—Mount Vernon, Monticello and Carter’s Grove, with a little White House thrown into the mix. Winn drew the elevations and floor plans for every room on graph paper, but “all credit is due to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. I copied the footprint of one and the architectural style of the other.”

Emerald Hill’s footprint is a direct copy of Mount Vernon, with perpendicular dependencies connected by curved hyphens. The White House influence can be seen with the colonnade on the west side of the house, replicating the colonnade on the south façade of the White House, overlooking the Rose Garden. The wallpaper in the dining room is a direct copy of the paper in the White House dining room: “It’s off the original 18th-century blocks,” says Winn.

The entrance of the home, with two grand staircases rising along both walls, is modeled on the entrance at Carter’s Grove, both architecturally and with respect to the millwork. The only difference, explains the owner, “is that Carter’s Grove is pine and we’re cherry.” Winn says that the carriage house, where he does business and spends most of his time, is an enlarged version of the barn at Carter’s Grove—two intersecting rectangles creating four gables in one building. There are arched doors on all four sides of the building.

By and large, the rest of the house is modeled after Monticello and its Palladian (symmetrical) style. The living room, or conservatory, is octagonal and has 14-foot high Palladian windows and a 20-foot-high ceiling graced by massive 10-piece crown moldings. The most famous room at Monticello, asserts Winn, is Jefferson’s combination bedroom and study. “We have replicated that upstairs in the children’s suites—bedroom-study combinations built on roughly the same scale. We did not want any excuse not to get good grades.”

The porticos at Emerald Hill also are modeled after Monticello. “However, the Mount Vernon footprint required greater height than seen at Monticello, so our elevations are taller,” Winn explains. “And that gave us the opportunity to use more elegant Ionic columns with Corinthian capitals instead of Monticello’s Doric treatments.” In keeping with Jefferson’s home, Emerald Hill sits atop a green knoll with a west-by-southwest orientation so as to provide the best vantage point to watch the sun set behind the Blue Ridge Mountains.

While Emerald Hill mimics the design of iconic early-American homes, Winn notes that the house was also adapted for a modern lifestyle. “Neither Jefferson nor Washington had a family room, but you need one [today]. Neither had a kitchen inside the house, or walk-in closets or luxury bathrooms.” Those are standard nowadays in high-end homes. Indeed, the home’s 4,000-square-foot entertainment center has a home theater, pub, great room, library, gym, sauna and game room.

Despite the size of the main house, Winn calls it “remarkably comfortable. It’s a livable home.” There are matching, English-made conservatories on each side of the house. Says Winn, “We use the north one for orchids—my wife is very adept at growing them—and the south one, overlooking the pool, is a reading room. It’s the best room in the house for watching thunderstorms as they roll over the Blue Ridge.”

Winn is quick to praise the crews who worked on the house, starting with builder Peter Eades and his family operation. “They don’t cut corners,” says the owner, and, over the four-year construction period, Eades and his team “became like family.” The one thing the couple has most enjoyed about the house, says Winn, is the millwork. Jaeger & Ernst, based in Barboursville, spent a year-and-a-half designing and building the cabinets and millwork, about half of which is cherry and the other half poplar with a traditional white, high-gloss finish. The entrance, family room, kitchen, master suite and upstairs bedrooms are cherry, while the wainscoting, chair rails and crown moldings have the white finish. “And every room features one of the historic Williamsburg colors.” Winn lauds Mike Roy’s Paint Works, the painting and staining crew that spent nearly three years at Emerald Hill, as “true craftsmen.”

“For somebody who wants to be involved in the land,” says Winn, “Emerald Hill is a wonderful lifestyle.” The couple’s vegetable garden is modeled on the same terraced plan that Jefferson used at Monticello. Forget the little tomato patch in the backyard: This one has 400-by-eight-foot planting areas, with Shenandoah brownstone walkways. Winn and his wife plant and harvest, themselves. “You could hire someone to do it for you, but it wouldn’t quite be part of the do-it-yourself, Southern lifestyle.” The flower house, adjacent to the garden, is a favorite spot for Mrs. Winn.

The carriage house has two floors, with walls and ceilings made of rough-sawn tongue-and-groove cedar. The 2,700-square-foot lower floor is essentially a 10-car garage, along with a shop and bath. The upper floor, with more than 2,000 square feet, can be used as an office, study or retreat. It’s got a vaulted ceiling, oak floor, Palladian windows and a rock fireplace.

The 2,300-square-foot cabin, set on a rocky ridge overlooking the property’s main stream, was constructed of solid pine logs and natural stone. Inside, a large stone fireplace rises up toward the open-beam ceiling. There is a large, open living room, den, card room and bath. The bedroom upstairs is open as well, with nice views of the woods and stream. A covered deck runs the full length of the cabin.

The outdoor Greek pavilion is the place to think about life. It’s got a protected seating area from which to enjoy an 88-foot-long soapstone reflecting pool, with fountains and parallel rows of flowering plums amid beds of perennial daffodils and peonies. At the opposite end of the pavilion, six teardrop-shaped lawns, separated by brick walkways, radiate from a central sundial. Very civilized.

After schooling at St. Anne’s – Belfield, the Winns’ sons are now off to college—the youngest one in California. Emerald Hill is now “a touch large” for the empty-nesters, says Winn. “We love Charlottesville, but our intent is to move to California to be near our younger son. You are parents for a long time.” And Emerald Hill will stand for a long time as an impressive homage to the great homes of Virginia.

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