They’ve bought a piece of American history in the heart of Virginia hunt country, and sometimes they’re still a bit intimidated by it.
Alex Vogel and Jill Holtzman Vogel acknowledge that they cannot compete with the breathtaking wealth or artistic tastes of the previous owner, Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, the billionaire arts patron and Jackie Kennedy confidante who died last year at age 103.
For starters, Alex, co-founder of a Wall Street and corporate research firm, and Jill, a lawyer and Republican state senator, own no Picassos or Rothkos to adorn the walls of the Georgian-style mansion in Upperville, Va., that they bought last month.
“My 7-year-old does beautiful oil paintings. I intend to hang them up because . . . uh . . . I do not have any priceless art,” Jill said. “If I had priceless art, you can be sure I’d sell it to pay for the home’s restorations.”
Not that the Vogels aren’t wealthy in their own right. They paid $7.25 million for one piece of the Mellon estate: a 283-acre parcel boasting a lake, a tennis court, a pool house and the mansion-turned-museum known as Brick House.
But Bunny Mellon, heiress to the Listerine fortune, and her husband, Paul, son of Pittsburgh industrialist and Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon, were in a different category of affluence. Some of the most famous people in the world visited them at their 2,000-acre Oak Spring Farm in Fauquier County, about 50 miles from Washington — including John F. Kennedy and Queen Elizabeth II.
The Mellons briefly lived in Brick House after they were married in 1948, then moved to another home on the estate and converted the mansion into a private museum to exhibit their trove of masterpieces.
Paul, a major benefactor of the National Gallery of Art, died in 1999. After Bunny died in early 2014, her estate offered the entire 2,000-acre Oak Spring Farm for $70 million.
But the gargantuan property didn’t attract a buyer. So this fall, Oak Spring Farm went on the market in chunks.
Alex and Jill, both 45, won a bidding war for the 25,000-square-foot Brick House and the rolling land around it by paying the asking price and listing no contingencies. Thomas B. Anderson, president of Washington Fine Properties, said other pieces of the Mellon estate remain for sale, including an $18 million, 450-acre parcel that formed the base of Paul’s horse-breeding operation. (His horse, Sea Hero, won the Kentucky Derby in 1993 as a long shot.) The 450-acre property also features Bunny’s famed greenhouses — she was an avid gardener and horticulturist — several cottages and an airstrip.
“It’s one of the only private airstrips on the East Coast,” Anderson said. “It’s the crown jewel.”
Meanwhile, across the street from the airstrip, contractors for Alex and Jill are reconfiguring the 10-bedroom Brick House so the couple can actually live there as a family. That means the pull-out storage racks for paintings must go to make room for closets and shelves for sweaters and other clothes. It means the butler’s pantry — a huge second kitchen where the Mellons’ servants would plate dishes for guests — must be merged into the main kitchen.
“We are normal people, and we have normal jobs,” said Jill, who owns a law firm and said she does not draw any income from her father’s business, Holtzman Oil.
The Vogels, who already lived in Upperville, have four children from their marriage and two from Alex’s first marriage — running from ages 3 to 17; the eldest lives with Alex’s first wife in California, and the second-oldest attends boarding school in Delaware, but all six children will have bedrooms in the house.
As Alex walked through the mansion recently with their 7-year-old son, he marveled at how some painting placards and notes remained affixed to the walls.
“James Ward (1769-1859), The Reapers 1800” one sign read. “James Seymour, c. 1702-1752 Flying Childers with a Groom, 1742,” said another.
“I guess when you have that much art, you can forget,” Alex said, looking at one of the signs.
Upstairs on the third floor, a message was written on the pull-out art racks: “Stephenson painting — Tuffy will take to Cape Cod.”
“Who’s Tuffy?” Alex wondered. “I seriously entertained keeping these racks here because they’re neat. But they take up so much space. And this is where the kids are going to be, which is funny because all this priceless art was here.”
But the Vogels do want to keep some of the more offbeat Mellon artifacts. In a downstairs room, a black push-button phone sat on a side table, completely absorbing their son Tas. The entire home is filled with these ancient devices.
“I want to keep a bunch of these because they’re fun, and the kids have never seen them. Isn’t this fun, Tas?” Alex asked. Tas was busy pressing the red “HOLD” button.
In another room on an upper floor, by the old master bedroom, a velvet rope still stood by the entrance.
“I couldn’t figure out, with a house that has 24-hour security, why is there a velvet-rope stanchion?” he asked. “Turns out this was Paul Mellon’s room for Degas sculptures. Gotta keep it.”
Speaking of the home’s security room, that goes, too. Lacking millions of dollars worth of art objects, the Vogels will not need armed men in blazers on the premises. They would rather use the space for something less serious.
“All of this comes out,” Alex said, scanning the security room’s phones, a big map, spaces for computer monitors, a sign with photographs and names of apparent trespassers from long ago. “And the kids’ ping-pong table is coming.”
Soon, Alex and Tas were off in a Kawasaki golf cart, driving across the vast property, passing by the 11-acre lake and motoring across a bridge over a creek. Tas looked pumped.
“One of the things that saddens me is you have all these amazing homes out here, but fewer and fewer are used as actual homes by families and are not lived in by families,” Alex said, glancing each way across the rolling fields. “These homes were made to be lived in.”
Alex said that he and Jill are especially proud that they scooped up the property as opposed to someone who might have barred fox hunters and other equestrians.
(Their real estate agent, Peter Pejacsevich, alerted the Vogels the moment the piece of land went on the market.)
“I feel really passionate about conserving the land as open space,” said Alex, whose wife and children ride horses as members of the Piedmont Fox Hounds, a group that Paul once helmed as “master.”
But the Vogels, who own three horses, said they want more members of the local community and beyond to visit the property and will probably host various political events. Alex once worked as the chief counsel to former Senate majority leader Bill Frist, a Republican from Tennessee.
That will be a huge change from the past. Only close friends of the intensely private Mellons got to swing by, often to ride horses or, in the case of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, seek refuge from the press.
“I think the Mellons were careful about having people over because the house was full of priceless art, and they were never going to make people aware that hundreds of millions of dollars of art was there,” Jill said. “But when we’re finished with the renovation, it’ll be a house where we get up, eat breakfast, pack lunches, have play dates, do school homework, host birthday parties, political events and dinner parties. It’ll be chaotic. I don’t think Mrs. Mellon lived so . . . actively.”
“Mrs. Mellon entertained impeccably. She was a person of such refined tastes,” she said. “It’s intimidating, because we’ll be having parties with carryout from the Farm Store in Middleburg.”