Old South, New Ideas

The old and the new come together at Berry Hill Plantation Resort in South Boston, Va.
The old and the new come together at Berry Hill Plantation Resort in South Boston, Va. (Paul S. Bartholomew Photography)
By Zofia Smardz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 9, 2005

It didn't play Tara in the movie, but believe me, it could have. A perfect whitewashed mansion on a grassy hilltop, it waited like the Parthenon astride the Acropolis as we rolled up the sweeping half-mile drive. In the Southside Virginia night, the only illumination was the glow from a full moon in the indigo sky -- and the blazing lights of the Grecian portico that towered eight Doric columns strong above us.

Whoa, we said as we pulled up and parked. Talk about Old South. Uncle Charlie had promised a grand backdrop for the family reunion, but who knew about this?

I guess David O. Selznick didn't know about Berry Hill plantation either, back when he made his little film about love, loss and bitchiness in the Civil War. More's the pity, but it figures. Thanks to an off-the-beaten-track location and a half-century of standing vacant and neglected, this patch of antebellum splendor has been little known and long unsung. But now, new owners have big, big plans for the 750-acre property on the outskirts of South Boston, a former tobacco-and-textile burg in Halifax County, Va. So look out, Homestead; check your back, Keswick Hall. Here comes Berry Hill Plantation Resort, soon to be nipping (it hopes) at your luxury-resort heels. Since opening in June, the place has been working double time to attract vacationers both corporate and casual to its sylvan locale. And in a "Wind Done Gone" twist, it's setting out a special welcome mat -- for African Americans in search of their past.

There's a pretty good list of amenities up and running so far, from fine dining to tennis, hiking, biking, fishing, horseback riding and hayrides; an indoor pool (outdoor coming) and high-end European-style spa (non-surgical facelift, anyone?); and weekend wine-tasting and cooking packages. Promised over the next two years are a golf course and academy, a major conference center with ballroom for conventions and business retreats, and a residential village with a town center and retail shopping.

All of which should be a boost to South Boston and Southside Virginia. A hurtin' town for some years, South Boston -- about four hours from Washington -- has spruced up part of its downtown with antiques stores and a couple of posh restaurants. Until now, its major tourist draws have been the stock car track at South Boston Speedway and Bob Cage's Sculpture Farm, an open-air "art gallery" featuring loony outsize metal sculptures that the namesake tobacco millionaire designs and plants on his lawn for your drive-by delectation.

A modern spa is one of the amenities that draws visitors.
A modern spa is one of the amenities that draws visitors.(Berry Hill Plantation Resort)
So if Berry Hill can pull off its plans, wow. But there's a ways to go to reach the five-star heights. Manicured lawns and fancy boutiques are dandy and all that. But the feel is still small-scale (the dining room seats maybe 100) and a little rough around the edges (our room phone chirped annoyingly in the wee hours until we finally unplugged it, and some in our party had an unsettling bed-separating-from-headboard experience when they settled in for the night).

That's all fixable, of course. But here's hoping all the programmed glitz doesn't swallow up Berry Hill's real ace in the hole: the ability to float you right back through the centuries.

And from the get-go. The mansion's 60-foot-wide stone steps lead to the front hall with its signature "floating" staircase -- a fabulous double stairway that winds up either side of the foyer with no visible means of support. Registration is in a front room downstairs that is still decorated the way it would have been 150 years ago.

A friendly clerk behind an Empire-style mahogany desk directed us out back to our room in the new wing of 90 guest rooms that was built where the house slaves' quarters once stood. The rooms, opening onto a quiet terrace, were pretty, with canopied beds and large, luxurious modern baths. But if I'd known that we could, we might have splurged for the $275 or so on one of the two upstairs suites in the Big House. Well, maybe next time.

The estate passed through a number of illustrious Virginia hands, including Benjamin Harrison's, fourth governor of Virginia and signer of the Declaration of Independence, before coming to James Cole Bruce. Bruce built the magnificent mansion -- said to be one of the finest examples of Greek revival architecture in Virginia -- in 1842. You can crawl through the restored house on a self-guided tour, picking out the original antique details -- the marble fireplaces from Italy, the silver-plated doorknobs and hinges and bell pulls. One night, after a day of touring the grounds and a hot game of horseshoes followed by dinner, some of us retired for drinks to the library-turned-hotel bar, where I imagined passing a quiet 19th-century evening listening to piano music in the parlor next door. My husband and sons played pool on the billiard table that now fills the dining room where Bruce entertained with his renowned silver service, the one he buried in the woods as the Yankees approached. Sunday morning, some of us just sat on the colonnaded front porch, staring out at the bucolic vista.

But behind the moonlight and magnolias romanticism is another story. At one point, Bruce reportedly owned some 3,000 slaves. You can't look at the house and grounds without thinking of their sweat and toil. It's something Berry Hill has committed not only never to forget but to actively honor. On June 19, it invited the descendants of slave families in Southside to a "Juneteenth" picnic commemorating the emancipation of the slaves; more than 450 people showed up. It plans to make the celebration annual and to promote itself as an African American heritage destination with black history-themed tours, special educational programs and more events on significant holidays, such as Martin Luther King Day, and during Black History Month.

"There's a reason the word 'plantation' is in the name," says resort spokeswoman Suzanne Gandy. "We can't change history, but we can face it head-on and embrace the role slaves played here."

You don't have to be African American to get into it, either. Before we left, I dragged my husband and kids down the rutted mile-long track through the fields south of the mansion to Diamond Hill Cemetery, the wooded graveyard where the plantation's slaves were buried. Quite a contrast with the family burial plot and its grand, if crumbling, headstones. Here the markers were just an occasional rough rock jutting from the ground. The sun sent shafts of light through the trees, illuminating history's ghosts in the haunting stillness.

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