On the market: Va. estate with a hefty history

Fairfield, a historic Virginia estate built by George Washington's cousin, is being put up for sale by the family that has owned it since before the Civil War.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 30, 2011; 8:30 PM

Yes, George Washington slept here. But so did Liz Butler, and that was much more important to Robin Richardson Greenhalgh. Growing up in this stately stone farmhouse near Berryville, Va., Greenhalgh's slumber parties with her third-grade friends were a bigger deal to her than the sleepovers of a Founding Father.

"To me, it was just our house," said Greenhalgh, 54, looking around the spacious entry hall of Fairfield, her family's home for seven generations. It is remarkably well preserved after welcoming visitors, both grand and giggling, for longer than this country has been a country. "I really didn't appreciate its remarkable heritage until much later."

But now that Greenhalgh fully celebrates the heritage of a house that was built by George Washington's first cousin and later owned by Robert E. Lee's aunt, she is preparing to say goodbye to the Clarke County estate. Citing the time and cost of maintaining a colonial mansion, Greenhalgh has put Fairfield on the market - even though that leaves her, and preservationists, anxious about the fate of one of Virginia's great unsung historic estates.

"It is probably one of the most significant colonial homes in the state, both in pedigree and architectural detail," said David Boyce, executive director of Long Branch Historic House and Farm, an 18th-century manor in nearby Millwood. "Here is a home that can boast of not only of having George Washington spend the night, but Martha, too. And multiple times."

Greenhalgh, a real estate broker, has listed the house and 38 acres for $3.9 million, an elite category where it can take years to find a buyer. To make the sale even more complex, Greenhalgh and her husband, George, plan to add covenants to the deed to restrict changes that future owners can make to the house and land. No condos, she said; no cutting up the farm for McMansions. A wealthy, history-minded family would be ideal, she said, or a college.

"With the house built by the Washington family and the second owners being the Lee family, I can think of one perfect university," Greenhalgh said.

Washington and Lee University in Lexington has not expressed any interest.

Whenever Greenhalgh passes the graveyard of the local Episcopal church, she feels the weight of the many Richardsons who have lived in the house since her great-great-great grandfather bought it 31 years before the Civil War.

Three years ago, after she and her sister inherited the property from their mother, Greenhalgh bought out her sister's share to stave off the inevitable. "I wasn't ready" to sell, she said.

But now that the Greenhalghs' daughters are in their 20s, the couple finds that an 8,400-square-foot stone mansion with what used to be smokehouses and slave cabins scattered around the yard does not make an ideal empty nest. Recent roof repairs ran more than $80,000. Restoring dormer windows in the attic costs $1,200 a piece.

"There's so much we'd like to do here, but we just don't have the means," Greenhalgh says as she looks around a kitchen with a fireplace big enough to serve as a bedroom. "I think my ancestors would understand that the time has come."

On a crisp January day, Greenhalgh showed off the house. Part Realtor, part docent, she pointed out the family initials meticulously carved into the stones and colonial-era graffiti left by Washingtons and Armisteads.

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