Expandability is increasingly important since Graham and her husband, Julian, have four grown children and seven grandchildren, with another on the way.
In one way it’s always Christmas at Marl Hill. One of the most distinguishing decorating features of the interior is the impressive collection of some 50 colorful Santa Claus figures painted on cypress knees. A dozen or so of these pointy, irregularly shaped elves greet guests in the center hallway where they share space with a handsomely displayed collection of pewter dishes in a pine sideboard. The smiling, brightly-painted Santas are placed throughout the house, on mantles, atop cupboards. “They stay up all year,” Graham says. “We have no place to store them; this old house has no closets.”
At the holidays the Santas are joined by dozens of table-top size, artificial Christmas trees that decorate many of the rooms. “If we have a real tree, it will be a little one,” she says. “We don’t have room.”
As Graham talks, a dog darts in: “You little rascal, you knocked the gate open,” she says, flashing her dark brown eyes and frowning sideways. “Golden retrievers are the most hard-headed,” she says, hopping up, “Come on, where’s Bessie?”
Although Graham had detained her dogs behind a white-railed swimming pool enclosure, they have sneaked cleverly inside the house.
But Graham doesn’t mind.
One isn’t at Marl Hill for long before realizing that animals rule. When the Grahams moved to Virginia in 1997 from Covington, La., (a town outside New Orleans that author Walker Percy also called home) they began a new adventure: to rescue and rehabilitate animals just for the love of it. “It was my husband’s dream to do something with animals,” says Graham of establishing All God’s Creatures, an animal-protection foundation. Some 50 animals reside at Marl Hill.
“You give up a lot when you start taking in animals,” she says. “It’s a huge commitment, but I wish everybody would rescue an animal.” But with their children on their own and his partnerships in four New Orleans car dealerships sold, the couple sought a change in scenery. “I’d always wanted to live in cooler weather,” says Graham, a Shreveport native. They flirted with Scotland but had also enjoyed stays in Virginia — especially Williamsburg.
When Julian purchased a car dealership here, the couple initially rented a farmhouse in Mechanicsville and learned they enjoyed country living. Looking for a place of their own, they found Marl Hill on the Internet. The 25-acre farm boasts a core of one of Virginia’s oldest frame houses and at least a half dozen outbuildings. “I had visions it would be a real dump with extremely low ceilings,” says Graham. “Well, it does have low ceilings down here,” she says, smiling and pointing up toward the kitchen’s exposed, wooden beams. “My husband has to hunch over when he comes in here. But he loves it; he’d never lived in any house more than 50 years old.”
“We drove out here, saw it and said, ‘This is it.’ When we saw the Episcopal church next door we thought, we’re supposed to be here.” St. Peter’s was built in 1703 on land donated by Thomas Jackson, who settled Marl Hill. Graham is active with the church’s Matthew’s Haven, a support organization for New Kent children.
Aside from remodeling the kitchen, the Grahams have made few changes to the three-story house, respecting its charms and peculiarities, such as steep staircases. On the grounds — partly wooded, but mostly fields — they built a barn and added a good deal of sturdy, wooden fencing to contain the horses, goats and sheep. “Moses is forever breaking boards,” Barbara says of one of the horses, “He knows he can do anything he wants. He’s always tearing the fencing down.”
With the move to Marl Hill, the Grahams shed some of the furniture that had filled their much larger, 5,000-square-foot home in Louisiana. By converting Marl Hill’s ground floor dining room into a weight room, they had no place for the formal dining table, chairs and sideboard — they went to one of their children. “All that dark furniture: I’m glad to get rid of it,” Graham says. “It’s so hard to keep dusted.”
Almost every room has comfortable sitting and conversation areas. The clean lines of the 18th-century rooms have been softened with vintage, boldly patterned quilts. Many of these were acquired in Williamsburg before the Grahams moved here. Many have bold, red-and-white patterns. In the living room there is a working fireplace with wood piled nearby — the couple has resisted installing gas logs. The Grahams have chosen to forgo curtains and let rustic simplicity reign.
But comfort is coveted. In the living room and parlor there are large, cushy sofas covered with stylish, off-white cotton slipcovers — a must says Graham because of the free-range dogs.
The random-width, heart of pine floors on the second and top floors exude a warm patina but are partially protected with oil cloth coverings that Barbara painted in traditional patterns.
Her talent and deftness with a paint brush are also evident in the mural she painted in a powder room. She freely adapted an 1830s drawing of the Marl Hill landscape that is one of the Graham’s prized possessions.
Her adeptness with scissors and design is apparent on various pieces of decoupage she has fashioned on lampshades, side chairs and even a baby crib.
Fanciful objects are placed casually throughout the house, many of which reveal the Graham’s Louisiana roots. In the living room, a colorful painting of a New Orleans funeral, with high-stepping musicians all but popping out of the picture plane, rests above the fireplace. Nearby, an equally bright painting of a sax player is placed on the piano. There is a wooden, sculpted pig near the hearth, an alligator lamp (not real, of course) and a floor lamp whose base is a playful-looking, papier-mché dog that Barbara created.
Framed family photographs have been arranged into tablescapes and books fill shelves in every available location. In the kitchen there are a few hundred cookbooks. “I read them like books,” Graham says. “I read them cover to cover.”
The afternoon shadows reach deeper and Bessie and Maddie are insistent that it’s time for their walk. Graham throws a sweatshirt over her denim overalls and heads down the steps, past a row of huge, English boxwoods, through a wooden gate and down a country road. Smoke from the chimney meshes with the aroma of pines and wet fallen leaves. There is a slight chill in the air, but also the anticipation of Christmas at Marl Hill. HS
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