Founder's Farm: James Monroe's Historic Oak Hill Estate
James Monroe's country estate floruishes as an inviting and beloved family home.
When President James Monroe built Oak Hill in the early 1800s, it was a full day’s carriage ride from Washington, D.C., a distance now made metaphorically longer by the vast difference between northern Virginia’s scenic countryside and D.C.’s limestone-and-marble pomp. Here in Aldie, Va., roughly 40 miles from the nation’s capital, the scenic countryside of northern Virginia’s Piedmont region continues to draw Washington powerbrokers, who choose it as a favored weekend retreat of mountain vistas, historic towns, vineyards, and family farms.
Stretching out across 1,200 fertile acres, Oak Hill today is one of the only privately owned early presidential residences in the country. As such, current owners Tom and Gayle DeLashmutt have not only worked to honor the Monroe history, but also to create a hospitable and cherished family home.
The property, which was an original British land grant to Thomas, Lord Fairfax and has been a working farm since 1724, was purchased by Tom’s family in 1948. Since then, three generations of DeLashmutts have dedicated themselves to caring for the place.
Monroe purchased the land with his maternal uncle Judge Joseph Jones in 1794. Jones resided there in an early 1790s timber-frame house until his death in 1808, when Monroe assumed ownership and moved in with his wife Elizabeth, and two daughters, Eliza and Maria. After the British burning of the capital in 1814, they set about designing a grand country house, which became a fitting place for the fifth president of the United States to unwind, entertain, and contemplate, and eventually to draft the Monroe Doctrine, which he delivered to Congress in 1823.
To design and construct his country manor, Monroe solicited craftsmen who were working in Washington, including architect James Hoban and famed planner Benjamin Latrobe. Dublin-trained Hoban, who had won the competition for the design of the White House, became Oak Hill’s principal builder.
But Oak Hill’s neoclassical interior also bears the unmistakable touches of Monroe’s friend Thomas Jefferson, who designed much of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. A surviving letter dated July of 1820 explains the plan Jefferson submitted for consideration: “Instead of the unintelligible sketch I gave you the other day, I send it drawn more at large. Mrs. Monroe and yourself may take some hints from it for a better plan of your own. This supposes [10 feet] in front, and [eight feet] in flank added to your sills, a flat of [12 feet] square is formed at the top, to make your present rafters answer, and to lighten the appearance of the roof.”
The early 19th-century building, with its symmetrical wings, simple portico, ground-floor arcade, and airy front door fanlight, attests to Jefferson’s influence, as does the absence of grand staircases, which he famously avoided because they were “expensive and occupy a space which make a good room in every story.”
Construction of the house was completed in 1823, and after two terms in office, Monroe returned there in 1825 to farm, write his autobiography, and enjoy country life. “But,” cautions Gayle DeLashmutt, “there is so much emphasis on the Monroe history, it is easy to overlook the other 183 years of ownership. The house has been very fortunate that none of the five families who lived here had done any harm.”
Only once was Oak Hill in any potential danger. During the Civil War, the property was occupied by both Union and Confederate troops, and the DeLashmutts' Oak Hill archives indicate that the Fairfaxes, then owners of the property, were hosts to Union General George G. Meade while he moved his army towards Gettysburg. The general forbade desecration of Oak Hill because it had been a president’s house. However, a decorative section of one of the marble mantels was nonetheless knocked off by a recalcitrant soldier, and its absence is a constant reminder of the conflict.
In 1920, the estate was purchased by Frank C. Littleton, a stockbroker from Leesburg, Va., who expanded the wings and planned extensive 19th-century-style formal gardens. Years later, Gayle tried to maintain the classical symmetry of Littleton’s landscape, but after repeated attempts, she declared her ambitions “the hardest thing in the world to do” and opted for a more naturalistic scheme. “You can achieve symmetry with bricks and mortar, but it’s too difficult with plants that have minds of their own. Consequently, now,” she says, “what thrives, thrives.”
Tom DeLashmutt, who was 7 years old when his family moved in, says that living at Oak Hill has been “an incredible experience. My parents instituted many careful changes and upgrades that included new wiring and heating systems, as well as the removal of the 1920s staircase from the library and the installation of a wet bar and bathroom in its place.” Today, the elaborate woodwork and imported wallpaper they added make it one of the most inviting rooms in the house.
When Gayle, Tom, and their two young daughters, 11-year-old Abigail and India, 9, moved into the house after Tom’s mother died, Oak Hill needed additional updates to function as a family home. “There was a lot of beautiful stuff here,” says Gayle, “but it was frayed and dated and needed so much work. Everything needed attention. We did a lot of compromising on how and what to do, and consequently we learned to compromise very well.”
Those compromises started with modernizing systems such as the air-conditioning and the electric. Then they tackled the business of living in the enormous historic home with 14 working fireplaces. At ground level on the garden side of the house, the DeLashmutts installed a family kitchen, dining room, sitting room, and an office in place of the servants’ kitchen. Up a flight of stairs, dual drawing rooms, a dining room, and the comfortable library where they entertain frequently whisper of the past, while the long portico is their preferred venue for outdoor dining.
Throughout the house, antiques from the Monroe era seem right at home alongside newer furnishings. The twin marble Adamesque fireplace mantels in the drawing rooms were a gift from the Marquis de Lafayette when he visited in 1824, in gratitude for saving Madame de Lafayette from the guillotine in 1795 when Monroe was U.S. Minister to France.
Outside, more than 20 historic and useful structures populate the sprawling estate. In addition to Judge Jones’ house, there is a water tower and nearby ice-house, a blacksmith shop, a farm office turned library, a stable/carriage house and smokehouse, 10 tenant houses, grain barns, sheds, and other farm buildings. A greenhouse facilitates flower and vegetable propagation, while cold frames allow the production of lettuces and green vegetables in winter.
Surrounding the house are plantings lush enough to be mistaken for public gardens. This two-acre landscape tumbles away from the house over five terraced levels that suggest a 19th-century formality -- symmetry and balance of structure and color guide the garden’s design. Each terrace rewards the eye with delightful seasonal surprises such as the bobbing, round, lavender and white alliums Tom loves; luscious tree peonies and tumbling roses; as well as shade-loving columbines and bleeding hearts. Within the golden vicary privet that encircles the tall birdbath at the garden’s center, an intersecting Morris midget boxwood knot garden adds an extra touch of interest.
Beyond the soaring oaks and tulip poplars planted by the former president, a serene black pool nestles in ornamental grasses on the other side of a 100-year-old stone garden wall, and 30 acres of lawn and non-grazing land segue into sod production and corn and soybean fields.
If vistas appear choreographed, they didn’t happen overnight. “I had done some gardening,” says Gayle, “but nothing on this scale. The 100-year-old American boxwoods create a wonderful outline, but they had overwhelmed the garden, walls, terraces, and stairs. As we tackled the job, our first positive move was the ‘chainsaw massacre’ approach. We removed several of these culprits as well as a stand of very old arborvitae that totally obscured views. Suddenly we could see the different shades and textures, especially the Ward’s yews, robusta green junipers, and spiraeas that give the garden its depth from a distance, as well as the Sargent’s crabapples at the [farthest] end of the garden.”
Through it all, Gayle acknowledges challenges. “As I look back, I realize when I took on the gardens, I didn’t know what I was doing. Add the fact that I had two small children, a demanding husband, and a women’s clothing business in Middleburg—I honestly don’t know how it all came together. Ultimately it was the Yankee in me that took over, and with relentless effort and assistance from perennial expert Karen Rexrode, who is here three days a week, we are able to prevail.”
Still, Gayle admits to aiming for perfection when the house and gardens are open to visiting groups, such as garden clubs—she was active in the Loudoun and Fauquier garden clubs—as well as conservation and historic associations in which she and Tom have personal interest. The Mosby Heritage Area Association, of which she is a past president, has a school program that brings students here; The Journey Through Hallowed Ground, on whose board she served for three years, also brings teachers for visits. “We are enthusiastic about sharing the garden and history of the house with interested groups but generally confine prearranged dates to the spring so we’re not tied down or fluffing the cushions all year.”
But getting the house and grounds ready for just a few visits a year can make the myriad tasks seem endless, she says, and confesses it took two years for her to realize “the work would never be done. As soon as you accept that, it’s easier when something goes wrong because you are expecting it. We have the triage approach now; what needs our attention most, gets it.”
That approach fosters a sense of stewardship. “One of the most important things,” says Gayle, “was the realization that although we owned Oak Hill, it never actually belonged to us. As a result, I feel both a sense of gratitude and a great responsibility, and hope we can pass it on in good order to the next generation. I think the thing that makes me most gratified is that I feel if Elizabeth and James Monroe walked in the front door and crossed the drawing room to stand on the portico they would pretty much recognize the view and know where they were. Actually, we could have them to tea, and I know they would feel right at home.”