Feature: Down Home 

A Richmond family discovers an 1800s mountain resort, and finds a new kind of retreat.

For Beau, a getaway was surfing with buddies. Lexi’s tonic was scoping Richmond thrift stores in search of mid-20th-century furniture and funky furnishings — particularly pastel-colored, Luray pottery and retro souvenir drinking glasses.

But the birth of a child — Mary Coy, now 3 — and Beau’s decision to parlay his career as a carpenter into the architecture profession, meant change was inevitable.

Last summer, when Beau decided, at age 36, to enroll in Virginia Tech’s architecture school, they assumed they’d be trading city life for graduate-student housing in some Blacksburg cul-de-sac.

During the transition, however, the Woodrums were intrigued to hear about a country villa that might be for rent. It was wedged in a mountain hollow, just minutes from Tech’s campus in Yellow Sulphur Springs, a former summer resort that reached its height of popularity in the 1800s, and where generations soaked in the healing waters.

The springs in Montgomery County are about midway between Christiansburg and Blacksburg. Remarkably, many of the resort’s frame buildings, including an old hotel and even a rustic, two-lane bowling alley, are still standing.

Like Brigadoon, time here stands still.

Looming above the now-weathered resort — up a winding, mostly dirt road — stands a casually elegant, Palladianlike villa that had been designed by Gibson Worsham, a Montgomery County architect, for his own family. Its design is so contextual it appears antique — not Clinton-era.

The house was vacant when the Woodrums first tramped over the steep terrain through overgrown grasses. They questioned whether they could tackle the place. “Some critters had moved in, and it had been a while since anybody was here,” Beau says. Would they be isolated from friends and social activity? Maybe conventional housing would be better, they thought.

“We’d set down serious roots in Richmond,” says Lexi, 32, “But growing up I’d always liked ‘Little House on the Prairie.’”

They took the plunge.

Isolated? Hardly. Friends and family have made a beeline to the springs.

“When the weather was good,” Lexi says, “the ripple effect went out, and there were people coming up here that never came to our house in Richmond.”

On certain occasions, as many as 10 people have spent the night. The three-story house was overflowing when family converged for Christmas.

“In Richmond our socialization was usually going out for dinner,” says Beau, marveling at their now-considerable home entertaining. The Aga cooker (a top-line English appliance that was already in place) is especially popular with guests who cook. “Manny Mendez [owner and chef of Richmond’s Kuba Kuba restaurant] brought up all this shrimp and an incredible pork roast,” Beau says. “He started finding different ingredients in the kitchen to add and started bossing all six or seven of us around, giving us things to do. It was great.”

Adds Lexi, “Most of our friends don’t have children, so when they come up here we do things they’d never do — playing board games and cards. Or making things out of Play-Doh with Mary Coy. We even had an exhibit of our Play-Doh creations.”

“If you’d ever wondered what life was like in an English country house, this is it,” says Beau. “In Richmond everything is so fast-paced; people are always in a hurry to get to the next thing. Out here, conversations unfold at a very different pace.”

On a recent, blindingly sunny Wednesday, Beau has returned from classes to join his family and two guests for a luncheon of cold salmon and salad. Lexi has set the outdoor dining area with a vintage tablecloth and favorite dishware.

But first a walk. As Mary Coy, wearing a pale yellow jumper, runs ahead through the woods toward a bowling alley, dating from at least 1894, Phoebe the dog (an Akita mix) is close on her heels. Three cats — Super Kitty, Gray Kitty and Paxil Rose — have stayed back to slink around the house. Lexi says the cats are much more relaxed since moving from Jackson Ward: “Nobody is going to throw a rock at them.”

The elongated, wooden bowling alley, with hundreds of initials carved into its weathered, wooden walls, has settled and twisted into unexpected, but not unappealing, ways and angles. As a spring-fed creek gurgles past, Mary Coy rolls a ball toward the pins.

On the short walk back up to the house, Mary Coy continually brings leaves and pods to show her father. Beau carefully examines each find and discusses it with his daughter.

“We go on hikes, and we’re learning the wildflowers and birds,” Lexi says. “I’m so pleased we can give that to her.” But as far as nature goes, she says, “we haven’t been that close. I’ve learned how to recognize poison ivy, and we’ve taught Mary Coy, ‘Leaves of three, let it be.’”

Lexi doesn’t, however, share Mary Coy’s newfound fascination for digging for worms. “I usually tell her, ‘I don’t deal with worms, you’ll have to wait for your father to come home.’”

The villa is a three-part structure that stretches across a knoll above about a dozen older buildings that make up the old resort. The house’s center block is an 18-foot cube that contains the living room. The spectacular ceiling rises to reveal a skylight. A balcony runs the length of the room.

Much of the woodwork in the room is from an antebellum Richmond townhouse that was demolished in the 1930s and rescued by the architect’s father.

Two high windows flank a central door, and all three open onto a broad portico where sweeping views of the resort below and hills in the distance can be enjoyed while you’re sitting in rockers. The Woodrums have furnished the living room with a L-shaped sofa in a loose-fitting green, cotton upholstery. Cushions in a 1940s-era, tropical print evoke old Miami Beach. A glass-topped coffee table and a wing chair in a striking black-and-cream fabric by modernist designers Ray and Charles Eames complete the conversation area.

A painting that Beau made while a painting and printmaking major at VCU hangs on a side wall. Books are stacked on every available surface and tumble from bookshelves. A bouquet of daffodils has been casually arranged in a glass vase.

The dining room furniture belongs to the villa’s owners — dark, Empire-style pieces include a sideboard and a dining table that was crafted to match. The room is lightened by metal 1950s and ’60s chairs. “Na‹ve” portraits by unknown artists — thrift-store finds — are set around the room.

What do the Woodrums miss?

A train whistle in the distance sounds. “We can still hear the train,” Beau says. “I could hear it when we lived on Oregon Hill and in Jackson Ward.”

“And the Richmond gossip line does not fail you,” Lexi says with laugh.

But then she and her husband blurt out simultaneously: “Sushi.”

“It’s not that they don’t have it here,” Beau says, “but your timing has got to be right-on. We miss Sticky Rice and Acacia.”

And they fret about how their rose bushes are doing in Jackson Ward, where they’ve rented out their home for the duration of their Virginia Tech saga.

“I really miss the spontaneity of Richmond,” Beau says. “Everything at architecture school is very rational and very staid. Richmond is edgy.”

“It’s much different up here,” Lexi says. “You don’t have to be up-to-the-minute here. But people are friendly. In fact, people are so nice here I was surprised by it. There is no crime, none. They recognize that nature is what they’ve got.”

“We were hiking the other day and someone went jogging by with a Walkman on,” says Lexi, “I thought, what? Are you crazy?”

Obviously, the simple pleasures of country life have kicked in.

Building a Villa

Architect Gibson Worsham, who grew up in Ginter Park, began his love affair with Yellow Sulphur Springs when he first came upon the secluded, former mountain resort near Blacksburg in 1972. He was studying architecture at Virginia Tech. “I rode my bike out that autumn — the leaves had changed colors — and I thought I’d gone to Olympus,” he says. “It has tremendous warmth.”

Nestled in a narrow valley between undulating hills, the evocative assemblage of weathered frame buildings includes a 19th-century hotel, a domed spring house and a number of low-slung, one-story cottages that fan out along the wooded hillsides.

Worsham was so entranced by the place that he rented a cottage there for his last three years at VPI. His landlady was Charlsie Lester who had bought Yellow Sulphur Springs in the 1920s. “She was a real pistol-packing mama,” Worsham says, with equal parts affection and awe.

When Lester died in 1994 at age 94, she left Worsham 2 acres of choice hillside and a cottage.

Worsham and his wife, Charlotte, who were working in Boston and expecting their first child, returned to the springs and took up residence in their rambling cottage. Three more sons followed, two born at home.

In 1998 Worsham built the villa on the hillside just above the village. He took his architectural cues from the sturdy Doric order of the old hotel (which he had helped restore). The new Palladian-style villa, inspired by Italian architect Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), has a central, two-story core and flanking one-story wings. It crescendos with a columned portico that overlooks the valley. Worsham based the railing design on that of the old spring house. A steep, interior staircase leads to a belvedere which opens onto a rooftop platform. Planned bedroom wings are yet to be built. — E.S.




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