Hospitality maven Sheila Johnson’s Va. estate is a serene retreat

Entering Sheila Johnson’s Fauquier County manor home feels as if you’re walking into a welcoming upscale hotel.

Soft jazz filters throughout the main house at Salamander Farm, which is decorated in soothing earth tones. If you’re lucky enough to be a friend of Johnson’s, you can enjoy drinks on one of her home’s many terraces, swim in her infinity pool, ride one of her horses, dine on freshly prepared food from her garden or sleep in one of her sumptuous guest suites or cottages.

Those who don’t know her can soon enjoy the same level of hospitality at the Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg, set to open Thursday. Salamander Farm is the inspiration for the newest resort to be developed by Johnson, who is chief executive and founder of Salamander Hotels and Resorts.

“I bought this property in 1996 because my daughter was spending a lot of time riding horses,” Johnson says. “I fell in love with the view, too. It was a natural time to leave D.C., to regroup with the kids and get out of the noise of the city and that life. My daughter’s a professional show jumper now and practices here almost every day.”

References to Johnson’s varied interests, businesses and philanthropic work can be found throughout Salamander Farm. Johnson, a founding partner of Black Entertainment Television, is vice president of Monumental Sports & Entertainment and president and managing partner of the WNBA’s Mystics. She is also part owner of the Wizards and the Capitals. She’s a partner in ProJet Aviation, an aviation consulting firm, and a partner in Mistral, which makes luxury bath, body and home products. Johnson has served as executive producer of four documentary films and has been on a variety of boards to support humanitarian, educational and arts issues around the globe. She’s also an accomplished violinist.

Salamander Farm, which has about 177 acres, including stables, barns, guest cottages, a pond, a riding ring and meadows, was originally named by previous owner Bruce Sundlun, a telecommunications millionaire and former governor of Rhode Island whose nickname was “Salamander” when he was a World War II bomber.

“When I found out the old name of this farm, I reached out to Bruce and asked if we could bring the name back,” Johnson says. “It just spoke to me, because a salamander is the only animal that can walk through fire and come out alive. It stands for fortitude, perseverance and courage, all qualities that are important to me.”

The salamander symbol can be found repeated in various places in Johnson’s home, while a double salamander serves as the logo for the resort. Johnson says the double salamander symbolizes reconnecting with yourself or with others, something she achieves at her home and hopes guests will achieve at her resort. Creating her serene home and the resort has taken years of work with architects and landscape designers as well as collaboration with interior designer Thomas Pheasant. The original sections of the manor home are more than 100 years old.

“When I bought the house, it was about half the size it is now,” Johnson says. “The beauty of the stonework, the setting and the grounds drew me in, and it was very romantic at first because there was very little electricity and no air conditioning. After a year, that got old.”

The first renovation required engineers and mechanics to install new wiring and air conditioning and to build an underground water and sewage treatment system. The next renovation, which took more than four years, was done simultaneously with the design of the resort, which echoes some of the features of the manor home.

“It’s important to me to bring nature into the house and to appreciate every season, so most of the rooms have been done in earth tones,” Johnson says. “In this house, we preserved the original wood where we could and we used a mix of stone, brick and wood flooring. We’ve repeated that pattern in the resort.”

Guests are welcomed at Johnson’s home and at the resort in a similarly designed foyer that leads directly into the living room. The oval foyer features stone flooring and elaborately detailed mouldings, along with arched entrances to the living room and the bedroom wings. The living room features twin marble fireplaces at each end of the room and multiple sets of French doors that open onto a terrace with views of the pond, meadows and distant mountains. Underfoot is one of the many rugs found by Pheasant with a leaf motif to bring nature in.

A grand curving staircase with suede fabric along the stairwell walls leads to the lower-level living areas. Throughout the home, the palette chosen by Johnson and Pheasant, including chocolate, ivory and pale blue, functions as a restful complement to the natural beauty of the surrounding farmland.

Across the back of the lower level is a gallery with three sets of French doors, stone flooring and a coffered ceiling, a space perfect for the many large parties that Johnson enjoys throwing for friends and family.

“At Christmas last year, we put a tent over the lawn outside the gallery so we could expand the party space even more,” Johnson says. “We had one of my godchildren’s weddings here recently, too.”

Adjacent to the gallery is a formal dining room with space to seat 50 guests at multiple round tables. More intimate nearby spaces include a billiards room with a coffered wood ceiling and a wood-and-stone full bar, which is replicated at the resort. Near the billiards room, a staircase leads to the wine cellar, which has stone walls and niches for wine bottles. An antique table in the center of the cellar provides an intimate setting for quiet dinners. This wing of the house also has a wood-paneled library where Johnson sometimes invites writers to read to small groups, and a home theater with a coffered wood ceiling and a small stage where her children used to enjoy performing for family gatherings.

“When we remodeled the home, I made sure there were loggias and terraces everywhere so we could enjoy the outdoors for most of the year,” Johnson says. “One of my favorite loggias is just outside the bar, where we built these beautiful stone walls and have an outdoor fireplace. Another favorite is the one off the library that leads to a secret rose garden with a fountain and gazebo.”

The gazebo provided the perfect setting for her godchild’s wedding and offers a view of the riding ring and the pond, which has a stone bridge and fountains. The grounds also include a swimming pool with an adjacent loggia with a massive stone dining table and a door to the outdoor kitchen. Nearby is a basketball court, occasionally used for practice when some of the members of the Wizards or the Mystics visit. The vegetable garden, fruit trees and greenhouse are nearby, offering fresh food for the meals that Johnson and her husband, William T. Newman, a judge in the Arlington Circuit Court, love to prepare.

“I’m a vegan, and I’m working on my husband, but he loves meat, too,” Johnson says.

Naturally, Salamander Farm’s kitchen provides plenty of space for the couple to cook together and for caterers to take over for large events. The tile-floored kitchen features a marble center island, professional-quality stainless steel appliances, granite counters and myriad wood cabinets. A touch of whimsy is added by the oversize sculptures of apples, cherries and oranges in the kitchen and the adjacent window-wrapped breakfast room, which has views of the lawn and the swimming pool.

One of the property’s several guest cottages, adjacent to the pool, provides a charming two-level retreat with a kitchen, a living room with a fireplace and two bedrooms upstairs, each with a sumptuous bath with Waterworks fixtures and views of the farm.

In the main house, Johnson and her husband have a suite of rooms and a private terrace. The rooms include a foyer, a sitting room with a distinctive antique library table with niches for books, a study, his-and-hers baths, walk-in closets and dressing rooms. A staircase leads from Johnson’s dressing room to the upper-level salon, which has more closets and equipment for a hairdresser and manicurist to primp Johnson and her guests on-site for special occasions.

Two more bedrooms, each with a luxurious private bath, are part of the main house.

Johnson has been careful to preserve the historical flavor of her home and to inject that ambiance in her resort. She clearly loves the natural beauty of Virginia’s horse and wine country and wants to express that love in her home and her resort.

Michele Lerner is a freelance writer.

 
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