A Visit to N.C.'s Chinqua Penn Plantation

By Scott Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 12, 2009

"Where ya gonna find a pagoda with a fountain from Versailles?" asks Ann Toler, thereby succinctly stating both the promise and peril of Chinqua Penn Plantation.

We stand at the North Carolina mansion's doorstep, gazing at the Versailles manque splashing in the foreground and the pagoda just beyond the swimming pool. We do not tell Toler that the world can be neatly divided into those who enjoy seeing such things together and those who do not, or that the looming question is whether there are enough of the former to keep Chinqua Penn a viable tourist attraction.

The construction of Chinqua Penn, named for the chinquapin trees once found here but long ago killed by blight, was begun in 1923 and completed a few years later. The quartzite and oak mansion was the centerpiece of a 23-acre estate built 30 miles north of Greensboro for tobacco heir turned cattle breeder Thomas Jefferson Penn, whom everyone called Jeff, and his wife, Beatrice, whom everyone called Betsy.

As has been the custom in pre-Depression moments past and present, Jeff and Betsy lived for traveling the world, spending lavishly on art treasures they'd ship back home, or, when objects were too large for transport (e.g., a pagoda), commissioning facsimiles.

"To your left is the Marie Antoinette powder room," says Toler, who has been giving tours of Chinqua Penn for 37 years, nearly half the time the house has been in existence. We are in the entry hall, taking it all in: the Louis Philippe chairs, the painted plate-glass walls and alabaster ceiling fixture. A 15th-century mosaic of Moses hangs above the door to the reception hall, which is furnished with a fireplace in the Jacobean style, a pair of Japanese panel paintings, temple pieces from Nepal, Jacobean curtains and, naturally, a teak wood replica of the Golden Chair of King Tut.

"Someone once asked Jeff what the style of the house is," laughs Toler, cheerfully ignoring our growing alarm. "He replied, 'It's Jeff and Betsy style, the kind that'll make you want to come and come again.' "

With that, we descend a few steps into the formal living room, a gymnasium-size space with 35-foot-high ceilings and an eclecticism that would make even the reception hall blush. Roughly from top to bottom: Scandinavian art on the beamed ceiling from which hang Chinese lanterns, a canopy with Spanish tiles depicting the "Don Quixote" story, a Chippendale sofa, an Egyptian silver bowl, German stained-glass windows from the 15th and 16th centuries, a pair of terra-cotta Chinese statues from the Tang dynasty and Limoges panels covering the radiator vents on the floor.

"Is this a living room or a G-20 summit?" we crack to a fellow tourgoer. But the remark goes ignored because everyone save us has come with the proper Chinqua Penn attitude: To hell with consistency when you've got an art collection like this.

Looked at that way, you can hardly help but be impressed by the 17th-century Flemish tapestry above the stairway, the Japanese sweetmeat box in the reception hall, the dining room's exquisite marble mosaic floor.

Meanwhile, a religious summit appears to be taking place in the solarium, whose travertine hallway features Hindu, Buddhist and Christian art, as well as a 13th-century bas-relief from India opposite a Chinese sand painting.

None of this can possibly prepare you for the mud room, however, about which even Toler is forced to admit, "This one's a little mixed up," before quickly adding, "and yet it all blends."

Previously, we would not have used such a word to describe a space decorated with -- I'm just giving you the highlights here -- a death mask of Agamemnon, a Zulu warrior shield and ribbons won at local dog shows by Betsy's cocker and springer spaniels. But Chinqua Penn is rapidly winning us over, not with its art pieces, however spectacular, but with its charming, stupendous weirdness. By the time we've traipsed through the second-floor bedrooms, we're positively punch-drunk, grinning widely, our mirth both silly and slow to fade.

And just like that, we envision Chinqua Penn's next marketing campaign: Lots of mansions will leave you awestruck, but how many will leave you laughing?

Take that, Biltmore.

"You step over into the living room and you're in Spain," says Toler at tour's end. And Venice and Scandinavia, we mutter under our breaths.

"Step into the breakfast room and you're in Greece."

Plus Paris and Dresden.

"Go to the dining room and you're back in England with the Regency style."

Don't forget Holland and Indonesia.

"And yet it all works," concludes Toler, smiling.

Couldn't agree more, we swiftly reply.

And let's just leave it at that, shall we?

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