The Washington Post
January 31, 1996
Nothing is quite expected about Staunton Hill, one of the few castles within driving distance of Washington. One does not expect a castle on this side of the Atlantic, but there it is — an antebellum Gothic revival fantasy built by the heir to what was then the third largest fortune in America. Charles Bruce, who commissioned the building in 1848, gave license to civil engineer John Evans Johnson to design a house in any style whatsoever, as long as the cost for house and furnishings did not exceed $75,000. Having made this assignment, Bruce — who had just graduated from Harvard University — took off for his “Grand Tour” of Europe, totally unconcerned with the types of construction details that drive ordinary homeowners to distraction. Upon his return, Bruce was delighted to discover a little bit of Europe strategically perched on a clearing overlooking the Staunton River near the hamlet of Brookneal, in south-central Virginia. Marble had been quarried in Italy, cut to specifications in Philadelphia and transported to Staunton Hill by boat. Bruce’s castle was filled with large gilded Venetian mirrors, marble mantles, stained-glass windows, elaborate plaster moldings and exquisite furniture. The cost, then as now, “far exceeded” the agreed-upon budget. But Bruce was so taken with the final product that he agreed to pay the excess costs. Because of its remote location, some 30 miles southeast of Lynchburg, Staunton Hill was one of the few plantation houses that were not damaged during the Civil War. To this day the castle and its spectacular setting — forests stretching in every direction — have remained, seemingly untouched. Over the past century, the castle has seen its share of regal visitors — including the likes of Lady Astor and Dean Acheson — but today it is operated as a bed-and-breakfast and small conference center, so even commoners can book a visit. This is a real convenience to those of us who can’t afford to go to Europe every time we want a regal experience. On the other hand, being inexperienced with castle life, I was somewhat apprehensive about the prospect. Pretending to be a princess is dangerous work. So it was a huge relief to discover that this particular castle is not as intimidating as the brochure pictures had led me to believe. On the day I arrived, a badminton net was set up on the vast front lawn, the family dog was sleeping on the crenelated veranda, and a station wagon was parked right out front. While this castle does not come equipped with a moat, I did have to wait a while before I was admitted. It was David Bruce — great-grandson of Charles Bruce — who finally opened the door. I was ushered into an octagonal entrance hall through which I could see a chain of other interior spaces. I stood gaping at the high ceilings, pointed arches, intricate moldings and eclectic furnishings. Being a princess might not be so bad after all, I decided: This castle felt like home. It turns out that Bruce’s wife, Janet, is an artist, and she has worked to transform the manse from the bachelor’s pad and former hunting lodge it had become into a very comfortable home that is welcoming even to awe-struck visitors. “The Gothic style, artistically speaking, has always reminded me of phrases such as heavenly reaching’ and divine life,'” Janet Bruce says. “This is the architecture of spirituality and light, of Europe’s most beautiful cathedrals, of stained glass and divine faith.” Flying buttresses, vaulted ceilings, rows and rows of arches — this was the architectural language of a medieval Europe that was revived in the 18th century. Staunton Hall was built at the beginning of this revival in America, and its spacious, sun-filled rooms invite contemplation. Sitting in front of a roaring fire in the castle’s middle parlor — there are three of them, all in a row and each one different — I delved into a coffee-table book called “Gothic Revival” by Megan Aldrich. “The Gothic, in the Middle Ages, was associated with the mysterious, with that which is present in Nature yet also above and beyond it, and Gothic cathedrals were physical manifestations of this two-tiered concept of reality,” Aldrich writes. “The idea that reality might have several layers was central to much literature of the Gothic revival.” It is easy to contemplate the concept of a multilayered reality at Staunton Hill. This thoroughly European building is so incongruous in its exceedingly Southern setting — a mere mile away from Patrick Henry’s final resting place — that there is a natural warping of time and space. To confuse things even further, Staunton Hall has been decorated with a distinctly Asian flavor: Bruce’s father served as the U.S. ambassador to China, and David himself has amassed an extensive collection of Asian art, books and artifacts. In the bay windows flanking the fireplace stand two striking, life-size wooden figures from Taiwan. Bruce says they were carved by an aboriginal South Pacific tribe that had settled in Taiwan before the Japanese invasion in the 19th century. There is an arresting, rough-hewn power to this pair that compelled my attention again and again. Hanging over the bar in the middle parlor is a Chinese temple carving, and on the opposite wall are two oversize Noh theater masks. “They have a soul, I promise you, if you look at them long enough,” Bruce says. Staunton Hill may be the only Gothic Revival castle that has benefited from a consultation with a feng shui (pronounced “fung sh’way”) master. Feng shui, which means “wind” and “water” in Chinese, is an ancient practice of establishing balance and harmony within a building; the Bruce family’s long-standing interest in Asian culture resulted in a recent visit by master Yu-Mo Han. As a result of this analysis, Janet Bruce says, some furniture was moved around, some color changes were made, and the flow of the house improved. But overall, it seems that the Gothic style, Europe’s most sacred architecture, is quite congruent with ancient Chinese principles of good design. Han was especially impressed with the placement of the double floating staircases, which spiral nautilus-like from the first to the third floors. He said they draw energy from the Staunton River right to the top of the house. Indeed, the natural setting of this castle is as impressive as the building itself. Standing on the semicircular grassy area in front of the house is like standing on the bow of a huge ocean liner, looking out onto vast spaces. The ground slopes away gently beneath the mile-long stone wall, rolling down to the river bed. There are black bears in these woods, and bobcats, and wild turkeys. The estate itself — which once comprised 5,000 acres but now totals 275 — features a variety of trees including dogwoods, red and white oaks, cedars, hemlock, beech and ginkgoes. The private road leading to the castle is reputed to have the longest stretch of magnolia trees anywhere. And then there are formal gardens and flower gardens and several Gothic cottages scattered throughout the property. Miles away from anywhere, you are surrounded by beauty. “At night our stars are unbelievable,” Janet Bruce says. “You can go out and see the universe.” What she doesn’t tell me is that at sunrise you can see the mist rising off the river, bathing the treetops in soft gray clouds reminiscent of Chinese landscape paintings. If you are still enough, you can just feel the river’s energy as it flows up the mountain, reaching toward those heavenly stairs. WAYS & MEANS GETTING THERE: Brookneal, Va., is about four hours from the Beltway, two hours southwest of Richmond. For precise directions, contact Staunton Hill directly for a detailed map, which they will mail or fax to you. WHERE TO STAY: Staunton Hill (Route 2, Box 244, Brookneal, Va. 24528, 804-376-4048) has 30 guest rooms scattered around the property. None are in the main castle, although several are located in the adjoining colonnades. Several quaint Gothic cottages that dot the property also provide guest rooms: The cottage that housed the original plantation office comes with its own library. All the rooms are large and spacious; most have working fireplaces. Many of the bathrooms were remodeled by Ambassador David K.E. Bruce to resemble those of the Ritz Hotel in Paris. Each of the rooms is elegantly decorated: Some have an Oriental feel, some are more traditional, some have a masculine decor, and some are distinctly feminine. All Staunton Hill guests are welcome to spend time in the public rooms on the ground floor of the castle itself. The price is no more than that for other quality bed-and-breakfast inns: $125 for a room with private bath, $95 with a shared bath. The price includes a continental breakfast. Children older than 16 are welcome. One of the best things about this castle is that, unlike most remote country inns, it comes with its own small restaurant. The innovative menu continued to interest me, so I never left the castle grounds. Some of the dishes during my visit included shrimp satay, spinach phyllo triangles, salmon in champagne sauce, beef stroganoff and pork loin with chutney. The complete lunch special (including entree, coffee or tea, and dessert) was $13.50. Dinner entrees ranged from $12.50 to $18.50. WHAT TO DO: Staunton Hill provides miles of private walking space, a large outdoor pool and hot tub, as well as tennis and racquetball courts. Personally, I never made it off the grounds. If you are a history buff, however, you can make the short journey to Red Hill, Patrick Henry’s burial place. INFORMATION: Virginia Division of Tourism, 1629 K St. NW, 202-659-5523. For information on Lynchburg: 800-732-5821. u For a directory of recent Escapes pages available free by fax from Post-Haste, call 202-334-9000 from any touch-tone phone and enter 2109. u Address any questions or comments about this page to Escapes editor Roger Piantadosi, The Washington Post Travel Section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. u E-mail: email@example.com. CAPTION: Virginia Gothic: A mansion for a century, Staunton Hill is now a top-of-the-hill meeting center and inn..
By Daphne White, Washington Post