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The entrance to Airlie welcomes guests.
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Lampposts throughout the grounds maintain the center’s historic feel.
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A meeting of the U.S. Postal Service in the 1960s.
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The Groom’s Cottage, now a guest room.
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Menu from a wine dinner.
Photography by Whitney Pipkin
When an unexpected snowstorm caused a couple to pull off the highway just north of Warrenton one Saturday night in February, they followed the signs to Airlie.
A couple of years ago, they wouldn’t have made it up the driveway of the sprawling retreat center, past the signs warning “private property” and “registered guests only.” Says Kevin Carter, Airlie’s general manager, “Now, we have a sign that says, ‘Welcome.’”
The couple ended up having dinner, staying the night—and then staying another night. And snowstorms are just one of the ways visitors are rediscovering Airlie since the 55-year-old conference center began welcoming the general public just over a year ago.
After functioning for decades as a meeting space and private refuge for Washington’s prominent policymakers (several presidents have visited), Airlie is recasting itself as a getaway for anyone and any occasion. That means residents of nearby Warrenton—for whom Airlie was a mysterious neighbor, if they knew it existed at all—can now stop by for weeknight snacks in the pub or a seven-course wine dinner on the weekend.
“I have countless interactions with people who had no idea we were here. They live within a mile,” says Carter, who also lives nearby.
He’d also been hearing for years from business customers of Airlie who, after spending their non-conference hours wandering through gardens or fishing the pond on the property’s 1,200 undulating acres, wished they could bring their families out for the weekend. Over the years, those clients have included government contractors like Lockheed Martin and the international funds transfer service SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications).
For longtime Airlie regular Elise Yanker, the opportunity to share with friends and family the place she considered a second home for years couldn’t come soon enough.An Arlington-based leadership consultant, Yanker, 52, spent her weekdays at Airlie for four years starting in 2009 while conducting an executive training program at the center. “I’ve stayed in all but one building,” Yanker says with a chuckle. “I have my favorites.”
She has driven the 45-minute route from home hundreds of times and says she still feels like “everything slows down” when she nears Airlie. “It has the feel of being two or three hours away in the country, but it’s not,” she says.
Since Yanker’s first meeting there six years ago, she has seen Airlie expand its reach beyond the business clientele that sustained it for decades to welcome new audiences. She has since come to appreciate the other side of Airlie, too, bringing her husband out for dinners and attending a flower-arranging workshop. Yanker is even considering Airlie’s outdoor pavilion for her daughter’s upcoming wedding.
“It’s not some cookie-cutter hotel chain. They’ve got history,” she explains, adding that the same factors made doing work at Airlie feel a little less like work: “It has a very immediate impact on peoples’ stress levels.” And that’s by design.
The property in Fauquier County was a working farm when Dr. Murdock Head purchased it in 1956. Head was “very much a renaissance man,” says Carter, educated as a lawyer, dentist, professor and medical doctor; he also taught medicine for 26 years at George Washington University.
Head spent his share of time in Washington and saw in Airlie a place to escape the political landscape for a more natural one. He thought the people solving the world’s most vexing problems—whether heads of state or cancer researchers—might benefit from a little fresh air.
Head spent four years transforming the farm into a place where people could have dialogue and think without the noise of the beltway interfering or the mind-numbing monotony of a typical hotel conference room.
During extensive renovations, the stately farmhouse became a conference center that now comprises more than a dozen meeting rooms, many overlooking the grounds, with a main space that can hold up to 200. Barns and a towering silo were transformed into rustic guestrooms.
Instead of taking an elevator from the main conference room, Head envisioned guests taking a stroll along winding pathways back to their rooms, passing ponds, gardens and wildlife. And the vision seemed to work.
Airlie’s doors opened in 1960 and its first conference, “The Challenge for the Minds of Men,” which focused on America’s religious heritage, took place a year later.
A couple of years after opening, LIFE magazine deemed the Airlie Conference Center “an island of thought,” and Head one of the 100 most important men and women in the U.S. “Over the years, it really was a place for Washington to get away and get things done,” Carter says. Despite—or perhaps because of—its peaceful setting, plenty has been accomplished at Airlie.
Airlie hosted the first group of White House fellows, a prestigious program for leadership and public service, in the mid-’60s, and meetings of the American College of Surgeons and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the late ’60s. In 1962, the NAACP held its first annual Civil Rights Conference at Airlie, the only space south of the Mason-Dixon line that would host an integrated gathering at the time. Later in the 1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. met with other civil rights leaders at the center before planning protests in the nation’s capital.
In the early ’90s, Airlie served as home base for Dr. Bill Sladen’s research into the migration patterns of trumpeter swans and Canadian geese, as featured in the popular late-’90s movie Fly Away Home. Head also ran a documentary film company, Airlie Productions, out of the center and received more than 20 Emmy Awards over two decades of work in the industry.
Airlie’s pastoral setting provided an idyllic backdrop to environmental discussions as well, a particular focus for Head and many of the groups that met there. The initial concept for Earth Day, in fact, was born during a meeting on the grounds in 1969.
In 1963, Head established the Airlie Foundation and sold the property to the new entity, remaining at its helm. His success was overshadowed, however, when Head was convicted and spent about a year in prison in 1983 and 1984 for conspiring to bribe a pair of congressmen to obtain lucrative contracts for the conference center, according to his obituary in The New York Times. After being released from prison, he returned to work at the Airlie Foundation (his licenses to practice medicine and law were reinstated). Head died of brain cancer in 1994 at his home in Warrenton.
Behind the nonprofits that have hosted many of the conferences at Airlie, the federal government has remained a close second as the center’s biggest customer. So, in recent years when government shutdowns and budget cuts left agencies with smaller, if any, budgets for resort-based meetings and retreats, Airlie’s business took an overnight hit.
Opening the doors to a larger audience was something Carter, who has a background in the luxury hospitality industry, had a growing desire to do since becoming the center’s director nearly 15 years ago. Then the change became a financial necessity. Airlie started the transition in early 2014, booking individual guests on weekends and then opening up its 150 guest rooms on weeknights as well.
If anything has prepared Airlie to compete with other northern Virginia luxury weekend destinations, it’s the food.
Airlie’s culinary director Jeff Witte and executive chef Jeremy Anderson are passionate advocates for local farmers and have taken advantage of the center’s farm-belt location, near top wineries and orchards, to source more than 90 percent of Airlie’s food locally. Airlie launched its own food garden on the grounds 17 years ago that is now the four-acre backdrop to local gardening classes and a bucolic setting for outdoor wine dinners.
Trey Austin, a realtor and lifelong resident of Warrenton, eats regularly at Airlie’s Whistling Swan Pub and upscale Garden Bistro. Austin also has attended several of Airlie’s wine dinners, and he joined a group of 10 couples for a “staycation” at Airlie last Valentine’s Day.
“We have dinner, stay the night in one of the rooms, have breakfast the next morning and then are home in 15 minutes to our kids,” he says. “For locals, it’s a real treat.” Airlie.com