Oatlands Plantation, the 187-year-old mansion that sits on 261 acres six miles south of Leesburg, draws as many as 50,000 visitors a year to tour the 22-room house filled with 2,000-plus antiques and the lush gardens of English boxwoods--and more to attend various events held on the rolling grounds.
Its supporters call it the jewel of Loudoun County's tourist attractions.
But as its board of directors looks for a new director to run the $1 million-a-year operation, some members said they are worried that much needed restoration projects will need more than the grants and donations they have depended on in the past from longtime supporters committed to preserving the county's history.
As newcomers continue to arrive--making preservation efforts both more challenging and more urgent to those who value history--many board members hope to tap into the financial resources of the high-tech companies that are helping drive the county's growth. They are also looking for new ways to use some of the buildings on the property, rather than simply showing them off.
"We're always scrambling around to find money," said board Treasurer Chuck Maloney. "Now the question is: Let's start restoring some of these buildings, but how? . . . It's a bottomless pit of maintaining it."
This year, Maloney said he expects Oatlands to bring in $150,000 from more than 20 special events--an increase over past years, when annual revenue averaged about $100,000. Events at Oatlands range from an annual point-to-point horse race to an upscale antiques show to sheep dog trials, and the property is made available to those groups not only for the rental fee but also in hopes of catching the attention of people who might otherwise not put Oatlands on their itinerary.
"New people to the county may come to plays or shows and then later come back another time to see the house," said Linda Silliman Glidden, who resigned as executive director last month to return to the Waterford Foundation because it is more concerned with her specialty, land use.
Glidden and other officials said their core events have remained steady over the years, with only the annual Celtic Festival leaving for Morven Park--the historic home of former governor Westmoreland Davis on other side of Leesburg--when the event grew too large for Oatlands.
The biggest moneymaking fund-raiser at Oatlands is the annual antiques show, which brought in $179,000 from 1995 to 1997, records show. The sheep dog trials, an event that has been at Oatlands for 15 years, made about $60,000 during that same time.
Although Candace Terry, who has organized the sheep dog trials at Oatlands for 15 years, will not run next year's show, David Boyce, Oatlands historian and its acting director, said he is meeting with another sheep dog trainer from Pennsylvania next week to discuss continuing the event at Oatlands in May. The event typically draws 4,000 to 5,000 patrons. "We'd be crushed to lose the sheep dog trials," Boyce said.
But officials said those events, and $8 house tours, still are not enough to maintain the property.
Oatlands, which was built in 1803 by George Carter, great-grandson of Virginia land baron Robert "King" Carter, of Corotoman, was sold in 1903 to William Corcoran Eustis and his wife, Edith.
After Edith Eustis died, her daughters bequeathed the estate and its furnishings to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1965. Oatlands receives about $300,000 annually from an escrow account set up by the Eustis family with the National Trust, and the board of directors runs the property.
Board members said they want to launch a half-million-dollar restoration project of a handful of buildings throughout the mansion's grounds and lush gardens over the next several years. The first project on their list is the crumbling greenhouse, which was built in 1810 and is said to be one of the oldest in the South.
Carter once used the 43-by-33-foot greenhouse as a winter incubator for exotic fruits, including bananas, strawberries, pineapples and other tropical plants, Boyce said.
The renovation plans also include restoring the garden outbuildings around the 4 1/2-acre garden. There is a smokehouse that is now used as a studio, a bachelor's cottage that is now used to store the buttons, bones and shovels found in digs on the property, a barn and an underground icehouse. Once those buildings are restored, some board members said, they would like to see them rented to arts and theater groups or used by businesses for retreats or meetings.
"It's the cultural crown of Loudoun County," said Jan Evans, a longtime member of the board. "We need to make its dimensions grow to not be just the preservation of buildings but to use the buildings."
Childs Burden, a board member who is heading the search for a new executive director, said he hopes to have the director's position filled by the end of the year and anticipates that fund-raising will be one of the key aspects of the job.
"We would like to get company sponsorship on projects," Burden said. "We want to try to get them interested in helping us, but it's been my experience that businesses want to see how it is going to benefit them. We haven't been successful in that yet."