The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has sold the historic Carter's Grove Plantation to Virginia native and CNet founder Halsey Minor for $15.3 million. The house, situated on a 400-acre property that includes a mile-long frontage on the James River, was built for Carter Burwell in the 1750s. It is considered one of the best examples of Georgian architecture in the United States and had been owned and operated as a museum by the foundation since 1969.
Listed as a national historic landmark by the National Park Service, the structure struggled to maintain an audience after it was opened to the public. The house is located eight miles southeast of Colonial Williamsburg, whose other historic sites are contained within an easily walkable district. The house had been closed for three years prior to the sale.
Preservation easements will protect both the house and its property from development incompatible with its historic character. Calder Loth, senior architectural historian for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, worked with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation drafting the easements prior to the estate's offering on the market. Virginia has one of the oldest established easement programs in the country. It allows the value of the easement—the difference between an appraised value established before the sale and the actual transaction price—to be taken as a charitable donation on federal taxes and as a tax credit for state taxes. These valuable assets were retained by the foundation, which is currently selling them to further its proceeds from the property.
Most residences listed as national historic landmarks remain privately held. Virginia's rich history places it on the front lines for the changing fortunes of house museums like Carter's Grove. The Washington, D.C.–based National Trust for Historic Preservation currently owns 28 structures throughout the nation that are open for public access, many of them houses.
“The National Trust retains title to properties, but they're trying to establish local foundations to take more responsibility for maintenance, staffing, interpretation,” says Loth. That's what happened at James Madison's Montpelier, near the town of Orange, Va., which has seen annual attendance approach 60,000 after an extensive restoration was completed a few years ago.
A precursor to Carter Grove's reversion to private ownership was the Robert E. Lee Boyhood Home in Alexandria, Va.'s Old Town that was operated as a museum from 1967 to 2000. No restrictions were placed on that sale, although the eventual purchaser completed considerable renovations, donated easements to the National Trust, and periodically opens the home to the public. According to Loth, that home is once again on the market.
Woodlawn, located only 3.5 miles from Virginia's Mount Vernon and built by close relatives of George Washington on land he personally gave them, is facing similar circumstances—dwindling attendance driven in part by its proximity to better known historic attractions. Woodlawn was the first property to be acquired by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, in 1952.
One house museum, of a more recent vintage, is doing considerably better. Philip Johnson's Glass House in New Canaan, Conn., finished its first season of public access last year with its tour schedule booked well into the future. “Something like that is very different,” says Loth. “I think it will always have an attraction.”
The new owner of Carter's Grove will be required to open the house to the public one day a year, at the request of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. While specific renovation plans have not been announced, it has been reported that Minor plans to raise thoroughbred racehorses on the property. The 12-bedroom house requires minor changes; upgraded plumbing, a new kitchen, and a downstairs bath are to be added by a New York firm that specializes in classical and traditional design.