Lured by Luray
Antiques and Elegance in the Shenandoah Valley

By M.J. McAteer
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Visitors to Luray, Va., who stumble across Billy Jennell's store probably have the same reaction I had when I first saw the place: What the heck is this doing here?

The mountain resort town famous for its caverns and canoeing is just not the sort of venue where one expects to find a deal on a 19th-century Chinese opium bed or a lacquer-fronted, abalone-encrusted, mahogany-lined armoire immense enough to frighten a McMansion. But my friend Frank and I discovered those exotic items in a store in down-home Luray.

I had been on a mission to find a present for my young niece, Melissa, and her longtime boyfriend, who just a week earlier had become first-time homeowners. Even bigger news for the family: On the very night the young couple moved into the new digs, the boyfriend dropped to one knee and popped the question.

A gift certificate had been gently suggested as a welcome housewarming gift, but, no, that was too boring for me, and so impersonal. I wanted a memorable present, and the Luray area had seemed a promising place to find one. If I bought a dud (not impossible, considering my track record), I figured Melissa would have a jump on another rite of passage: her first yard sale.

So a marvelously patient Frank and I had spent the better part of a discouraging day popping in and out of antiques stores and flea markets along Route 11 in the Shenandoah Valley between Woodstock and New Market. Some featured Civil War artifacts. A couple had American furniture: quite fine but way out of my price range. Lots carried "collectibles" ( . . . of dust, as my mother would say).

So Jennell's Luray Antique and Design Center came as a shock. No twig furniture or plaques with precious sayings. If, on the other hand, Melissa would go for a pair of 1940s hand-carved painted wooden statues of the Egyptian jackal god Anubis, I was in luck.

Jennell, a busy interior decorator based in Washington, began coming to Luray for getaway weekends about a decade ago. He bought a house (stay tuned for more on that) and two years ago opened his store.

"I love to shop. It is my favorite thing to do," he told me, and with 10,000 square feet of space, he indulges himself and buys big: chandeliers, statuary and furniture in gargantuan dimensions, along with many items of less glandular proportions.

Jennell mixes new and old. High-end pieces from furniture makers such as Habersham, Baker and Henredon share space with antiques of every era and style, from French country to modern, neoclassical to Williamsburg.

Many of the items are highly decorated (gilded mirrors, coy nymphs, fainting couches, Chinese porcelain), but I particularly admired a plain, solid cherry armoire that Jennell said had been custom-built as a media center at a cost of $6,000; somehow, the piece had become orphaned and had come to him from one of his "pickers" who frequent estate sales and auctions up and down the East Coast. Jennell was asking $800.

I wondered how many casual tourists would be willing and able to drop that amount or, say, $2,500 on that intricately carved opium bed, which was long enough to sleep Yao Ming.

A few, maybe, but Jennell imports most of his customers along with his inventory. Some are referrals from the Inn at Little Washington, about 20 miles away. Others are design clients of his who come from Washington and New York.

To accommodate those out-of-towners, Jennell turned the loft in his store into a 3,000-square-foot apartment where shoppers also can browse. I liked a foot-high bronze penguin statue, but to other eyes, I suppose it screamed yard sale.

Jennell rents out the apartment and recently began renting out his house on weekends, when he usually is in Washington.

The 1852 Greek Revival mansion is on the National Register of Historic Places. According to Dan Vaughn, a local historian, it was built by the first president of the Shenandoah Railroad and named by his daughter after one of Rome's famous hills, the Aventine. The house, originally on Luray's main street, was taken apart in the 1930s and reassembled in its present location near the courthouse.

I unceremoniously forgot all about my Melissa mission as I imagined Frank and me spending a night in Aventine Hall. At nearly 6,000 square feet, with 16 rooms, it would have plenty of room for us to import our friends, which also would make it quite affordable.

I pictured us lolling on the deck by the elegant swimming pool with its view of the Blue Ridge Mountains or, if it was chilly, warming ourselves by one of the 11 fireplaces, one of which came from the U.S. Capitol.

At lunch, we could eat alfresco on one of the porches, and for dinner we could put on our party clothes and go formal, supping off fine china beneath a crystal chandelier. Maybe someone would play the grand piano.

I was living the fantasy, as the perfume ads used to say, but at the end of the day, my mission was a failure: no gift. Maybe there is a message in that, though: Just spare Melissa the penguins and the Egyptian gods, and mail her a gift certificate.

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