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(CIRCA Magazine – A travel column from the Wake Forest Historical Museum)
It lies along a winding, country road, its fluted Doric columns strangely at odds with the surrounding countryside. Yet apart from a few brushes with glamour – it’s rumored that Oprah considered buying it, and NFL all-time leading rusher Emmitt Smith was once a guest – the home has essentially gone incognito… a fanciful coliseum in a cotton field world.
The fact that it’s located in South Boston, Virginia, less than a two-hour drive from the Triangle, comes as a shock. It’s rather like driving to Falls Lake and discovering that Captain Merrill Stubing has just steered the Love Boat onto the Beaverdam boat ramp.
All you can do is wonder, “What the heck is that doing there?”
I learned about Berry Hill when a good friend, Julie Luddy Roach, suggested we feature it in a column. This sounded like a terrific idea. I was looking for a travel topic, and our kids are big enough to enjoy a weekend road-trip. After booking an online reservation, we jumped into our aging Ford Edge for a simple jaunt north and quickly discovered “simple” isn’t the word for Berry Hill.
Coasting down the mansion’s long drive, the first thing you notice is its columned façade, inspired by Philadelphia’s Second Bank of the United States, which was inspired by Alexander Hamilton’s First Bank of the United States, and closely mimics the design of the Greek Parthenon. This seemed unusual for a 19th century farm.
After blinking a few times, I began to wonder just how this particular structure came to exist in a pasture in Southside Virginia.
First of all, Berry Hill can trace its origins to a land grant from the English Crown in 1728. The Greek revival mansion was built about 100 years later by our nation’s first agricultural millionaire, a man named James Bruce whose personal history is straight out of Gone with the Wind. Bruce’s dream home has eight massive columns, 17 rooms, three-foot thick brick walls, accents of imported Italian marble, ornamented plaster ceilings, and an astonishing “horseshoe” staircase that appears to float above the entrance hall. The carved mahogany is thought to be the work of famed North Carolina cabinetmaker Thomas Day, a free black man from Caswell County.
Fast forward more than a century, to the late 1990s, and the house was standing vacant and falling into disrepair. That’s when the Virginia Board of Historic Resources joined forces with a global corporation to create the Berry Hill Resort and Conference Center. The team constructed a new, modern hotel wing with comfortable rooms.
To preserve the property’s historic appearance, the architects designed the addition as a long, single corridor extending from the back of the main house. This hallway winds and turns, twisting around corners in a way that plays tricks on your eyes – think Stephen King’s “Overlook Hotel,” minus the tapping typewriter and pervasive air of impending doom.
This spooky coincidence isn’t lost on hotel staffers, who seem to love telling ghost stories and regaled us with an especially freakish tale about a weirdly ambulating bottle of steak sauce (I think they call it telekinesis). Anyway, we didn’t witness any unexplained phenomena during our visit. But we did notice the small family cemetery beside the house and a slave graveyard a short distance away.
So if you’re into that kind of thing, this may be another point in Berry Hill’s favor. If you’re not, rest assured you won’t be offered free drinks by a ghost bartender, develop telepathic powers, or feel inexplicably drawn to room 237. In short, you’ll be pretty safe.
Honestly, if I had to assess risk, I’d say the only real threat at Berry Hill comes from the constant onslaught of exceptionally good food. The mansion has two restaurants, both with signature dishes. Carrington’s gourmet menu is served in what was once a downstairs bedroom. Shrimp cocktail and filet mignon practically float into view on plates of fine china.
The property’s second restaurant is called Darby’s Tavern, and may be the only bar in the world where you can drink and watch sports in the company of antique farm tools and a massive original fireplace in a 200-year-old plantation kitchen. Darby’s borders a patio area with a large tent for weddings – of which the resort hosts many. We encountered a bride and groom in full regalia posing on the front steps the afternoon we arrived.
Just past those steps is the grand main entrance. And here’s an interesting twist for a historic site – almost nothing’s hidden, secret, or off-limits. It’s a lot like going on a scavenger hunt. Pester the staff enough and someone will hand you a few stapled pages titled, “Self-Guided Tour of the Inn at Berry Hill.” It’s packed with such fascinating nuggets as, “Notice the false door that opens only to a wall. These doors were placed throughout other rooms in the house to add symmetry,” and, “At the time when Miss Ellen married, some families were rich enough to have their own railroad cars.” You won’t actually see a railroad car, but you can touch the mansion’s furniture, turn the doorknobs, play the piano, or try the billiards table.
In some ways, it’s a bit surreal, rather like a fever dream. You want to pinch yourself, half expecting a tipsy antebellum host in a brocade vest to jauntily skip over, offer a mint julep, share the skeletons in his closet, and confide a whispered dash of inappropriate gossip about the mansion’s staff. It’s as if you only think you’re visiting a home called Berry Hill… because such a place surely can’t be found just 77-miles from our everyday, ordinary lives, right?
It’s almost too remarkable to be real.
You can learn more about The Berry Hill Resort and Conference Center at http://www.berryhillonline.com. Among its amenities are a day spa, tennis courts, jogging trails, indoor pool, and conference rooms. Nearby attractions include golf, wineries, horseback riding, and monthly festivals and events.