Upper Flowerdew is a contemporary family home on a centuries-old Prince George County estate. It is also a nexus of history, family and the future.
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Cypress clapboard siding and a slate roof were chosen for longevity at Upper Flowerdew.
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A 17th-century carved limestone fireplace from Poitiers, France, grounds the living room, which also features antique Persian rugs.
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Dining room withlate 19th-centuryiron and crystal chandelier hangingfrom gilded ceiling.
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The family room.
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18th-century French walnut commode.
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The kitchen has antique Delft tiles.
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Study, with 17th-century limestone fireplace mantel and built-in cypress cabinetry.
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Federal-style, grain-painted maple settee and antique Serapi runners.
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Lantern in the entry hall.
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The master bedroom.
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Antique Venetian-glass candelabra electrified for use in the dining room.
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Dining room table with sterling pheasants and circa 1804 sterling epergne.
When a modern family decides to build a country retreat on one of the earliest English settlements in the New World, nature and history are the essential guideposts. Ground that has been walked upon since 11,000 B.C. and that has heaved up thousands of artifacts is rare, watched over by eagles and scholars as well as the landowners themselves. So when George and Cindy Harrison laid claim to a riverside point on Flowerdew Hundred, part of an original land grant in 1618 to Virginia governor Sir George Yeardley, it was an opportunity to celebrate the unique convergence of time and place.
Upper Flowerdew, the Harrisons’ nine-year-old estate, is set within 88 acres of farmland on the river’s edge in Prince George County. George Harrison, 55, grew up on the surrounding property, fishing and hunting waterfowl, swimming in the James, exploring the woods and fields, even chasing the occasional pig. The land was purchased by his late parents, Mary and David Harrison, in 1967. The original land grant remains undisturbed despite a series of ownership changes, including the purchase several years ago of the rambling adjacent estate, Flowerdew Hundred (which was never inhabited), by Jim Justice, owner of West Virginia’s The Greenbrier Resort.
“It is the quietness, the lapping of water on the river, no city noises whatsoever,” Harrison says about the location’s enduring appeal. “The geese are talking on the water, the frogs are singing, the stars are amazing.” The couple’s challenge in building Upper Flowerdew was to respect its natural and historic bounty while providing quality living spaces indoors and out for an active, blended family of five children who range in age from grade school to recent college graduates. The family is based in Richmond and spends summer months on Cape Cod, but prizes time at Upper Flowerdew during holidays and weekends with guests.
They looked to the designs of architect Robert A.M. Stern for inspiration. “We wanted a home that would be timeless,” Cindy Harrison says, “with one side facing the fields, the other side the river.” No fewer than five copies of Stern’s seminal book Houses became so dog-eared as design and construction progressed that they began to resemble well-loved family Bibles. The house is built of cypress clapboard with a slate roof, copper detailing and stone foundations. A carriage house, twin-gabled pool house, bluestone terraces, boathouse and dock extend living spaces in all directions. Long views across the James show the edges of Westover Plantation and a filigreed tree line above the sandy beach.
At the approach to Upper Flowerdew, an enfilade of bald cypress trees encloses the entry drive, planted to affirm the Harrisons’ appreciation for this ancient, indigenous specimen. The brown gravel driveway, chosen instead of an asphalt surface, is consistent with the use of natural materials throughout, and will develop an authentic patina over time. Handmade exterior shutters, stone and slate steps, and doorway sidelights copied from an old Virginia pattern set classic rhythms into motion. Urns planted with flowers and vines are placed symmetrically near the portico to give a welcoming flourish.
Just inside the entry, decorative painter Kathleen Hill took the couple’s direction to follow the American folk art style of Rufus Porter and create murals that reflect the local scenery while imparting a bit of personalized whimsy. Hill added images of real and imagined flora and fauna and the famous but long-gone pontoon bridge that was built overnight in June 1864 by troops of Ulysses S. Grant. It was a record-setting feat of fast engineering that led to the Union army’s three-night encampment on the grounds before the Battle of Petersburg. Historians have ascertained the bridge site using an old photograph that showed a cypress tree, which still marks the spot downriver.
As befits a lodging on a former frontier settlement that survived an attack in 1622 by Chief Powhatan, a respect for history permeates the new house and its furnishings. Floors are made of random-width heart pine; ceiling joists come from a church in Norfolk. Paneling shaped from reclaimed wood, custom millwork and handcrafted hardware and light fixtures are substantial in scale and classical in form.
Carved limestone fireplaces in several rooms introduce a European accent that recalls Flowerdew’s early settlers and their ties to the civilized homeland. Fragments of blue and white Netherlands porcelain, which were discovered on the property, some dating to the 1560s, set part of the color palette now. Antique Delft tiles in the kitchen and master bedroom recall the property’s original windmill, built in 1621, which was America’s first. That unlikely structure was lost to time and a replica was later added and removed, but windmills remain in various motifs on paintings, fabrics and tiles as subtle accents in the home.
In the dining room, a gold-leafed ceiling shimmers above family treasures and pieces collected at Marston Luce Antiques in Georgetown. Interior French doors, salvaged from a hotel in Washington, D.C., open to a gallery of archways that link the first-floor rooms along an elegant axis. Sepia-toned murals of trees are deliberately subdued in contrast to the bright decorative fabrics on window treatments and upholstery. Jewel tones and primary colors complement the views of viburnum and star magnolias that burst from bow-front, bay and walkout windows on each elevation.
Living and family rooms face the river and are scaled for entertaining but arranged for intimacy and day-to-day comfort. Skillfully crafted wood detailing conveys the warmth and tradition of an English country house, but modern paintings and objects place the setting gently in the present. A chestnut inglenook in the family room is a charming feature for seating beside the fire. The living room’s 17th-century limestone mantel, which came from the Loire Valley in France, gives a formal grace note in a house that is full of such details.
Cypress paneling in the study, repeating the natural theme, is lightened by the south-facing bay window with its view of cypress trees and fields. Wormwood pine built-in cupboards in the adjacent master bedroom are made to look like old linen presses, contrasting with the Marshall Noice painting of aspen trees in brilliant hues. Cornice boards and billowing draperies are specifically tailored to punch up the woods and antiques in each room. Modern elements, such as a wine cooler in the dressing room and a geothermal heating and cooling system, are evidence of newer expectations.
The kitchen’s focal points are a butcher block-island that was made to resemble a French farm table, antique tile backsplashes and honed limestone countertops. Appliances are professional caliber Wolf, Sub-Zero and Viking equipment, and chestnut cabinetry offers significant storage within the sun-drenched gathering area. A chestnut breakfast bar and slate floor tiles are earthy and durable. Windows covered in Cindy Harrison’s favorite Tree of Life-patterned block-print linen add color and special meaning.
Cindy did all of the decorating in the 11,298-square foot structure, and each element was chosen with an eye for harmony and visual interest. “I thoroughly enjoy decorating; it’s such an adventure,” she says. “I’m the researcher—if we needed brass hinges, I would spend two weeks finding the right ones from Ball and Ball in Pennsylvania. It has been a dream project for me. And most of all, even though it’s a big house, I wanted it to have a cottagey feeling, to have a lived-in, family feel.”
Her designs go from soft elegance downstairs to more fanciful approaches in the family quarters. Bright fabrics and colors show personality in each of the home’s seven bedrooms, all with en suite baths in different colors. Rooms are oriented to capture the property’s best views while allowing sumptuous privacy and space. A third-floor aerie holds a surprise playroom and under-the-eaves sleeping quarters that are pitch-perfect for slumber parties. Below stairs, well-appointed games and crafts rooms, a media center and bunk room with a camouflage-patterned floor and adjacent shower room allow young hunters to rise early and prepare for the day’s action without rousing the rest of the household. The older Harrison sons are most likely to hunt with their father and friends, scouting waterfowl and occasionally deer on the property.
Anna Aquino, a Richmond-based garden designer, helped refine the landscape with a series of beds and parterres. Herbs, roses, clematis, hydrangeas, gardenias, rhododendrons, lamb’s ear and other plants offer fragrance and form that softens the checkerboard slate terrace and trellises. The combination of stone and foliage is one of the couple’s favorite contrasts and is repeated along the porches and walkways where lawns and shrubbery add texture and dimension. The Harrisons spent months planting boxwood hedges on the property to carry forward the Virginia legacy.
An unusually wide and private stretch of the James River expands the family’s recreational options beyond the pool with its fanciful pool house and stone fireplace. A dock, more than 100 feet long and crafted of South American hardwood, leads to a two-lift boathouse that is wired and lighted and has an outdoor shower and sound system as well as an upper deck and floating dock. River tubing, boating, exploring the rocky shoreline and lounging on the balconies are among the family’s preferred pastimes for entertaining and in times of solitude.
Arrowheads, tools, earthenware and other objects found on Flowerdew Plantation are now housed at the University of Virginia in a building named for George Harrison’s parents. The Mary and David Harrison Institute for American History, Literature and Culture holds a collection of more than 500,000 items from a series of excavations on the original 1,000-acre land grant led by the College of William and Mary, which began in 1969. Archaeologists and teams of students and volunteers have well-documented explorations of the land and its civilizations. It is a source of pride and responsibility, George Harrison says, to protect a property with such significance.
The goal in constructing Upper Flowerdew was to give the home a feeling of aged wisdom and to spark in its inhabitants a continuing delight in nature. “It has had a huge impact molding their future interests,” Cindy Harrison says of the children’s pursuits in marine biology, photography and science. “The birds are so abundant, and we’ve learned so much by watching them. They signal the time of year and the weather, and we can name them by the sound of their wings flapping. We know the sound of eagles squawking over a fish. We’re the family that has a blue heron standing in the driveway saying goodbye and welcoming us back every day.” •
To learn more, see “Flowerdew Hundred: The Archeology of a Virginia Plantation 1619-1864” by James Deetz, University of Virginia Press, 1993.