David and Charlene Scibal enjoy renovating homes. They’ve done 14, so far, and their last project is one of their most ambitious. In 2009 the couple bought the historic plantation house in the town of Orange called Willow Grove. The house, originally built in 1778 and on the National Historic Register, operated as an inn for 22 years before closing about four years ago.
Enter the Scibals, who own a horse farm in the area. They gave the main house and the surrounding 37-acre property an 18-month, multi-million dollar overall. The project has transformed the 18th century structure into the decidedly upscale Inn at Willow Grove, a country redoubt that opened this winter with four rooms in the main manor house, five cottages on the surrounding property, a cozy pub and restaurant, and lots of luxurious amenities. It is located about 40 minutes from Charlottesville—near Montpelier and fairly close to the popular Barboursville Winery—and offers some impressive views of the Piedmont’s rolling hills and, in the distance, the Blue Ridge Mountains.
David Scibal, a New Jersey native who owns a property-and-casualty insurance business, has said that the building “was falling apart at the seams” when he and his wife bought it. Their goal, he says, was “to preserve the historic character of this beautiful Virginia landmark while incorporating the comforts of today.” Of the extensive restoration effort, which involved contouring the grounds along and engineering fixes to stop the main house from sinking, he says: “It’s taken a lot of work and a lot of love, but we’re getting there. It’s a very unique property.”
True: The inn was originally a classic two-over-one Federal-style home, then got a Greek Revival addition in the 1850s, which added two floors to the structure. The place functioned as Clarke’s Tavern in the mid-1800s. One example of architectural beauty is the balcony off of what is now the Master suite: It is a so-called Jeffersonian balcony, with no visible means of support.
Charlene Scibal, who decorated the inn, is a New Orleans native who has worked as a chef and art gallery owner. She has described the décor in the Inn at Willow Grove as “urban meets plantation.” That is an apt way of putting it. While the main rooms feature wet bars, gas fireplaces, comfy divans, king-size beds with Anichini linens and bathrooms with soaking tubs and heated marble floors, the mansion still retains its antebellum charm: There is a salon, complete with a stuffed butler named Jeeves, where guests can relax with hors d’oeuvres; a library with leather couches and mid-1800 Jeffersonian sash windows, and every room has a painting of a cow—even the bathrooms. Old shoe molds serve as doorstops throughout the inn, and there are antique if not original fireplace mantels, as well as gas lamps. The entrance hall features both a large, old street map of Paris, a farmer’s table and antique mirrors juxtaposed with Matisse-like prints.
“Charlene likes to mix old with new,” says David Scibal. The couple spent two years buying and warehousing furniture and antiques for the property until it was ready to be appointed. “Everything Charlene has ever done is comfortable,” says David Scibal—put your feet up and enjoy. We’re all about the fun—why go someplace and not have fun?”
One can enjoy the civilized tranquility of the place. David Scibal says that four of his employees received training at the McPherson School of Butlery, and they are eager to serve the needs of guests. In the late afternoon or early evening, mansion guests can relax in their contemporary sitting room with an elegant cheese tray (complete with grilled pita bread and candied pecan pesto, perhaps) and a wine of your choice—Sommelier Kader Seddik will be happy to recommend one. One might also find some tasty treats in the salon—seared shrimp or a piccolo red-pepper sushi roll, for example.
Downstairs, there is a cozy pub (accentuated by two reclaimed stained-glass windows) and 60-seat artisanal restaurant named Vintage, led by Chef Jason Daniels. There, one might be treated to an amuse bouche of quail eggs or short ribs, while the starters include crab crostini, roasted beet salad with parmesan cheese and fennel, slightly fried tuna and black bean micro vinaigrette, butternut squash ravioli, among others. Main dishes include grilled rack of lamb with five spice pear and quinoa timbale, curried yogurt and braided chard; forest mushroom risotto, tempura fried mushrooms, mascarpone and parmesan cheese; seared diver scallops with pan roasted mussels and a stew of hominy, chorizo, cilantro and lime, along with shaved cabbage; root-beer braised pork tenderloin with buttermilk mashed potatoes, apple sauce and bourbon corn pudding. The space is warm, the wine menu extensive, and the food impressive.
What one does most of all at the Inn at Willow Grove is… relax. There is a chef’s room, seating up to 16, for private parties—and afterwards a group could move outside and relax in Kargell chairs around a fire pit—ideal for a brandy and a cigar. There are also two special event spaces, one adjacent to the restaurant (in what used to be an old schoolhouse) and the other a converted barn for even larger crowds. David Scipal says he has plans to build a fitness room in one of the outbuildings, and an old smokehouse is being converted into a small, one-room spa that should be open soon.
The private cottages are cozy and modern. The Weaver’s Cottage, for example, has a king-size bed, gas fireplace, exposed wood beams, private porch and bathroom with heated travertine natural stone floors.
David Scibal says that that attracting wedding parties is a big key to marketing the inn—“the only way to make money.” With its elegant rooms in the manor house, together with the surrounding cottages and the fine restaurant, the Inn at Willow Grove has an ideal location and configuration for group parties. But it’s also a very nice place for two people to hunker down for a day or two, during a leisurely tour of central Virginia. It’s just a very comfortable place to unwind.