Few estates in Virginia are as old as Mount Airy Plantation; fewer still have been continuously occupied by descendants of the original family. Today, the 10th generation of the Tayloe family—John Tayloe Emery, his wife Catherine Bouldin, and their two young sons—have taken their place as stewards of the neo-Palladian home that wealthy planter and colonial statesman Col. John Tayloe II built in 1758 on a ridge near the Rappahannock River in Richmond County.
“My grandfather used to bring me down here when I was young,” says 43-year-old Tayloe of the 1,400-acre estate, which was originally part of a vast tract of land that had already been owned by the Tayloe family for over 100 years before the house was built. “I would come every moment I could get. He’d get me to cut weeds, and then we’d go fishing. Even when I was young, he’d tell me I’d have to take care of this place. I always knew that I would live here.”
Sited at the end of an unassuming gravel road shaded by old-growth cedar trees, Mount Airy’s magnificent front elevation is surrounded by 300-year-old boxwood. It is a place that wears the patina of generations and exudes a sense of romantic nostalgia: a weathered tractor rests beneath a giant crape myrtle in flower; white paint peels from the stable, a vestige of the estate’s origin as a stud horse farm; the Emerys’ three dogs amble about the property.
Despite the signs of deterioration that can be expected of a centuries-old home, its scale, particularly for one of its time, is striking. Curved passageways link the main house to two-story wings, creating a grand, semi-circular forecourt. Terraced stone stairs are flanked by Mountain and Muse, stone statues named for a wing-shooting ancestor’s beloved English setters. From the recessed loggia, massive front doors open dramatically into the great hall where 14-foot ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows flood the room with light. Symmetrical rear doors open to another recessed loggia and the bowling green beyond; to the right are the ruins of a brick structure, the oldest surviving orangery in North America. With three-foot-thick walls of locally quarried dark brown sandstone and limestone quoin trim, Mount Airy is one of few stone houses built in Virginia during the 18th century and the first example of a neo-Palladian villa in the colonies—its aristocratic elegance fitting for one of the wealthiest Virginians of his time. But it is more than architecturally significant; Mount Airy is a home that has been lived in and loved for more than two-and-a-half centuries.
Protecting the deep history of such a place while making it a home for a young family seems a daunting task. But the Emerys—whose energetic, towheaded sons, John Tayloe, 6, and Thomas Bouldin, 4, play or read on the comfortable sofas in the great hall beneath ancient family portraits—are not afraid to make Mount Airy their own; they have a bold vision for its future.
“Catherine and I are the first to live here in a long time who didn’t move here to retire,” explains Tayloe, a 1992 graduate of Hampden-Sydney College, journalist, producer and filmmaker who has worked with celebrities including Brad Pitt and Bono to promote their charitable work around the world. He and Catherine, a 1997 graduate of the former Randolph-Macon Woman’s College and former journalist, came to Mount Airy with their sons in 2010.
The estate, which is listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places, has been handed father to son or grandson for these 10 generations. But most of the Tayloe family who have inherited Mount Airy in recent history arrived after retirement, including Tayloe’s grandfather, Lt. Col. Henry Gwynne Tayloe—a WWII and Korea veteran who passed away in 1988—and his wife, Polly Montague, known to the family as ‘Grand Polly,’ who died at Mount Airy at the age of 96 just last year. The Emerys’ sons will be the next generation to carry on the legacy of the estate.
“It’s going to be take a lot of work for what we want to do here,” Tayloe says. “With a special home like this, the question becomes, ‘How do you keep it going? How do you support it?’” He and Catherine have written a business plan. “I think that’s probably only the second business plan ever written here—the first one was by John Tayloe II,” says Tayloe from his seat on a leather sofa in the library, one of the first rooms in the house to be refreshed by the couple. The walls are painted a rich brown, and the ceiling and trim are Hadley red. (The Emerys are currently working with Benjamin Moore & Co. to develop a Mount Airy-inspired line of paint. They also hope to one day create a Mount Airy line of furniture.)
Until now, the estate has been mostly private, opened by Tayloe’s grandmother occasionally to historical or conservation groups, and during Historic Garden Week every four years. The Emerys’ plans for Mount Airy going forward include continuing to farm its many acres of commercial soybean and corn fields, as well as opening the property for guided waterfowl and turkey hunts, tours and afternoon tea, and weddings.
Tayloe and Catherine’s own wedding was held at Mount Airy in 2001. The ceremony took place on the estate’s front elevation and, afterward, their 300 guests walked through the receiving line in the great hall to a tent on the bowling green for the reception.
“When people come here, their jaws drop,” because it’s not a museum, it is a family home, says Tayloe. “The home has always had that outwardly gracious feeling. It’s old Virginia chivalry, and during a wedding, guests really get that. It’s a very special experience to be where presidents and senators and dignitaries and historical figures have been.”
Among those historical figures is one of Col. John Tayloe II’s sons-in-law, Francis Lightfoot Lee. He and his brother, Richard Henry Lee, were the only pair of brothers to sign the Declaration of Independence. (Frank and Rebecca Lee are buried in the Mount Airy family cemetery; the ruins of their home, Menokin, which is three miles from Mount Airy, is currently the site of a unique historic restoration project utilizing structural glass.) George Washington, a close friend of John Tayloe II’s only son, the Hon. John Tayloe III, was a frequent guest at Mount Airy. A military officer who served in the Virginia General Assemby, John Tayloe III is also known for building the famed Octagon House in Washington, D.C., where James and Dolley Madison took refuge following the burning of the White House during the War of 1812. The Marquis de Lafayette and his wife, Marie, according to Tayloe, were also guests at the estate and gave Mrs. Tayloe the estate’s first orange tree.
Says Tayloe: “This house was meant to be enjoyed not just by us, but by many people. It was meant to show Virginia hospitality at its finest.”
In addition to weddings, the Emerys are also opening their doors for guided waterfowl, deer and turkey hunting—longstanding traditions at Mount Airy. “We have an abundance of wildlife on this property,” explains Tayloe. In order to minimize environmental impact, he says that instead of booking a duck hunt every day, he might book just four groups over the season. Hunts at Mount Airy are all-natural: “That’s the way they have always done it here. We do not put out birds. We shoot what’s available. Having hunted here my whole life, I can tell you there is no shortage of wild game on the farm.” (The 800-acre Tayloe Wildlife Refuge, established in 1996, borders the property to the west.) Hunters are invited to stay as guests of the Emerys in the manor house.
“The thrill of the chase, that’s what hunting is all about,” Tayloe explains as he describes the beauty of a flock of ducks coming in overhead as hunters and their dogs sit quietly below in the thrushes.
“If you get one quail, and your dog worked beautifully, and afterward we sat on the loggia and had a snifter of brandy and a cigar followed by a great dinner in the dining room, that’s the experience where you walk away and say, ‘That’s hunting.’”
The Emerys are working with the Virginia Outdoors Foundation and Conservation Partners to put the farm under easement to protect it forever. By not developing the rest of the land, there will be more room for wildlife.
While hunting is Tayloe’s domain, Catherine has found her niche in organic gardening. This summer, she established Mount Airy Gardens on the grounds behind the bowling green with 11 members who share in her weekly harvest. “I’ve always really been into gardening, and I’ve always had a farm dream,” she admits. Their sons like to help—or just romp around. “They love being outside, digging in the dirt and playing with their trucks.” Tayloe adds, “The Tayloe women have always been running the show here. No sense in fighting it.”
Catherine volunteered at Blenheim Organic Gardens in Westmoreland County to learn organic gardening practices. Using heirloom varieties when possible, she maintains Mount Airy Gardens with colorful borders of zinnias, cosmos and sunflowers to attract pollinators to basil, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, pole beans, figs and melons. Chickens in moveable coops fertilize the soil. One day, they hope to host farm-to-table dinners with fresh produce and game from Mount Airy and seafood from the Chesapeake Bay. Although the garden is in its first year, there is plenty of room to grow.
“It’s all about our kids. And their kids,” explains Tayloe. “What kind of working sustainable business can we create here for them? Today, one of the best gifts I can give my children is a working business and historical property at the same time.”
The Emerys hope their new enterprises will fund the restoration of the west wing, which has fallen into disrepair. (Tayloe’s uncle, Henry Gwynne Tayloe III, lives in the east wing, which was restored in the 1980s.) When the restoration is complete, they plan to use the west wing as an inn for historians, archaeologists, photographers, writers and others who may want to study Mount Airy. For now, Saturday afternoon tours of Mount Airy, preceded by tea in the great hall and followed by a tour of Menokin, are available by advance reservation only.
Tayloe describes it as an honor to continue the restoration work his grandparents started in the 1960s. “My grandfather was an incredible human being who was loved by many and respected by all. His legacy surrounds us still to this day,” says Tayloe with clear affection.
Tayloe describes his grandparents’ days at Mount Airy as “a time of Camelot” when they threw grand parties and entertained distinguished guests. (Still awestruck by his grandfather, Tayloe recalls the day a military helicopter landed on the bowling green: “It was one of his old friends. My grandfather ran out with two beers, and they took off.”)
“I’ve recently found his ledger,” says Tayloe, “where he recorded all of the things that happened here during the late ’70s. It is fascinating to hear his thoughts about things I’m still facing today—drought, crop failure, timber harvests, dove hunts, restoration. It’s like I have a small guide to my own future, and I’ve read it thoroughly to try and glean as much information from it as I can.”
Says Tayloe of the estate: “We don’t feel like the owners. It feels like we’re holding it and getting it ready to pass along to the next generation.”
Catherine adds, “Layer upon layer of generations have lived here, and the house reflects each of those families. It has taken on the life of the people who were here, and that’s part of the beauty of it.”