By Stephen Yowell
With unparalleled natural beauty, rich history, and a quality of life that draws visitors and new residents from around the world, Albemarle County is widely regarded as one of the choice regions in our land. For centuries, the old roads leading west from Scott’s Landing (Scottsville), Keene, and Charlottesville have moved travelers through the beautiful rolling hills of western Albemarle, described by one British writer as “…more like the countryside of England than anywhere in the world.”
While the topography of western Albemarle did not lend itself to large-scale agricultural development, the scenic landscape did provide the ideal setting for country estates and the landed gentry lifestyle familiar to those of some wealth and standing. With its mature forests and verdant pastureland, one sprawling yet rather ill-defined area simply came to be known as Greenwood. By the mid-19th century, estates with houses of significant stature and architectural design began to grace the landscape. Through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Greenwood became home to places like Mirador, Rose Hill, Casa Maria, Wavertree Hall Farm, Tiverton, Seven Oaks, and Blue Ridge Farm among others.
Then, as now, the estates and the houses were largely characterized by an air of understated elegance and cultured tastes. In contrast to the larger plantations of the Deep South, the homes and properties in Greenwood embodied a smaller-scale version of the great country estates of England. The buildings—mansions, cottages, stables and other dependencies—were wedded to the land with care and intention, creating a sense of place and a feeling of permanence. Well-maintained for raising horses, fox hunting and social gatherings, these country estates provided the stage for entertainment and gracious living on a grand scale.
Around the turn of the 20th century, a new house was constructed on a parcel of land that commands some of the most beautiful and expansive mountain views in the area. On the north side of U.S. Route 250, just west of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Greenwood, lies Ramsay, a Classical Revival-style frame house begun ca. 1900 by William H. Langhorne. The Langhorne family in Virginia had important ties to early American history. Lieutenant John Langhorne—the family’s founder—came to Virginia in 1673, eventually becoming a member of the Virginia General Assembly.
At the time of its original construction, Ramsay (not then so named) was said to be the largest frame house in Albemarle County. William sold the property in 1914 to his cousin, Chiswell Dabney Langhorne, the owner of Mirador, the stately Federalist mansion just to the east. Widely known by his nickname, Chillie, (pronounced Shilly) he was planning to move to the new property, but a lingering illness intervened and he eventually deeded the property to Genevieve Peyton Langhorne, his long-time caretaker and the widow of his second son, Harry. The house then passed briefly to another family member, Effie B. Langhorne of Lynchburg.
The original house, situated on a little less than 80 acres, featured a two-story main section with a gabled roof, flanked by one-story wings—the entire structure anchored by four prominent, corner chimneys. The main (front) elevation was highlighted by a Greek Revival portico supported by two Doric columns. The rear elevation presented twin doors under a flat-roof portico trimmed in Chippendale railing. The first floor offered an entrance hall, parlor, living room, dining room, kitchen and one bedroom. The second floor, accessed by an L-shaped stairwell from the entrance hall, contained two bedrooms and a bath.
In 1936, one of Chillie’s grandsons, Langhorne Gibson, and his wife Parthenia inherited the property and returned from New York to take up residence in Virginia. Langhorne’s mother was Irene Langhorne Gibson, the famous Gibson Girl, queen of the turn-of-the-20th-century social scene in America. The Gibsons named the estate Ramsay, in honor of a late 18th century British settler who received a land patent for the property. In 1937, Gibson hired Charlottesville architect Milton Grigg to make major modifications and additions to the house. This move proved fortuitous, as Grigg worked his architectural magic over the next 15 years, creating what many consider one the finest estates in the area—if not beyond. To this day, Ramsay remains one of the finest examples of Milton Grigg’s architectural style and skill.
Milton LaTour Grigg (1905-1982) studied architecture at the University of Virginia in the late 1920s, and during the years 1929-1933 he worked extensively on restorations at Colonial Williamsburg with the Rockefeller family. Grigg was also a consultant for restoration work at Monticello for 18 years. Under his masterful “restoration” eye, the original frame farm house at Ramsay received a major transformation, resulting in the classic profile and configuration that remain to this day.
Grigg’s work at Ramsay is a prime example of his ability to convert a rather simple country home into a refined classical estate. The house now stands a full two stories high through all three original sections, with distinctive three-bay, full- height porches on both front and rear elevations. The porches feature a modillion cornice with a full balustrade, and are supported by square posts and pilasters, all with molded caps. The columns are clustered in threes at the porch corners, just one of many special touches that add to the distinctive architectural achievement of the house.
The front elevation has six-over-six, double-hung sash windows with molded sills and louvered shutters. The windows throughout the main section of the house are of identical size—another subtle touch. Molded cornice lentils cap the windows flanking the main north entrance, and the hipped roof features a modillion cornice that runs the full perimeter of the main section of the house. Four corbel-capped brick chimneys mark the ends of the earlier sections of the original structure, giving a strong, grounded appearance to the all-frame construction of the house. Viewed from Route 250, or even at some distance from I-64 along Afton Mountain, the house at Ramsay strikes an impressive, classical pose—a perfect marriage of house and land.
The interior floor plan of the original house received slight modification during the restoration, while the greater alterations were expressed in the architectural details of the custom woodwork and other accents throughout the house. These include paneled walls, chair rails, wainscoting, custom mantels and original hardwood floors. Throughout the house, on both floors, the working fireplaces with individually styled mantels provide a striking focal point in many rooms. The dining room fireplace features an overmantel with broken pediment, a molded cornice and detailed scrollwork. The frieze displays intricate carvings reflecting a Classical design motif.
As with the exterior of the house, the interior has a number of unusual and distinctive expressions incorporating the Milton Grigg style. A special touch in the dining room is a built-in cupboard featuring three scalloped shelves over a two-door cabinet, all contained within a round-arched, shell-headed opening. The earlier entrance hall remains, providing access to a beautiful maple stair featuring a Chinese Chippendale-style balustrade. The entire second floor boasts full, 10-foot ceilings—the same height as those on the first floor—another subtle architectural detail that adds to the sense of space and accessibility.
The views from Ramsay are panoramic—and depending on the season—quite breathtaking. The view across Rt. 250 to the southwest toward Nelson County seems to have no end—the hills and gentle mountain slopes ramble into the distance. To the north side of the house, the rolling green pastures give way to the ancient Blue Ridge Mountains. The grounds at Ramsay also evoke a sense of stability and permanence. Mature trees and shrubs, gardens and pathways, outbuildings and dependencies—all come together in an expression of purpose, intimacy and good stewardship of the land.
For seven generations, Ramsay was the home place of the Langhorne family. Langhorne Gibson died in 1982, and his widow, Parthenia continued living there until her death in 1998. The next year, the surviving children sold the estate to the current owners, Susan and Harry Lankenau. With their oversight and painstaking effort—Susan’s professional designer’s eye—and considerable expense, the house and grounds at Ramsay have been lovingly and meticulously restored. In April of 2005, Ramsay was officially entered into the National Register of Historic Places, and is also listed as a Virginia Historic Landmark Property.