W&L Dedicates Belfield as Guest House, Special Events Center
Belfield, once the home of Washington and Lee University’s legendary dean, Frank J. Gilliam, was formally dedicated on Saturday, Oct. 26, as a new guest house and special-events venue for the University.
Through an anonymous gift from an alumnus, W&L purchased the property in 2010 and has completed a careful restoration of both the home and the extensive gardens.
“This was a labor of love that began almost with a casual phone call from a person who made it possible for us to bring this wonderful place back into the University’s fold,” said Washington and Lee President Kenneth P. Ruscio. “It was a labor of love but, as Carole Bailey, the project manager, will attest, it was definitely labor. It was a hard project with a lot of very, very careful attention to detail, and we are very proud of it.”
Washington and Lee’s stories, Ruscio said, are of people and places, and Belfield cannot be seen apart from Gilliam, a 1917 graduate of the University who had a powerful influence on generations of Washington and Lee students during his three decades as dean of students.
“Washington and Lee has a tremendous impact on those of us who have gone through its doors,” said Ruscio, a 1976 graduate of W&L. “It shapes us in ways that we never really realize until we reflect on it. But there are a few individuals who have gone through this institution where the balance of trade goes in the other direction, where they shape the institution even more than the institution shapes them.
“And surely, Dean Gilliam was one of those individuals.”
Two other W&L alumni shared Ruscio’s sentiments in brief remarks to the gathering, which included several members of the Gilliam family, including his daughter, Louise Gilliam Hopkins, who joined Ruscio in cutting the ceremonial ribbon.
Garland Tucker, a 1969 graduate of W&L, from Raleigh, N.C., recalled walks through the gardens during his student days, with the woman who would become his wife and Frank and Louise Gilliam.
“It’s our hope that now Belfield will take its place among the historic buildings at W&L, and that when future students come through this place, they’ll have the same opportunity that we alums had,” he said. “They’ll have the opportunity to walk through Washington Hall, Lee Chapel and now Belfield and, in the process, come into contact with those great values and principles that have undergirded our university years and certainly undergirded Dean and Mrs. Gilliam.”
Billy Webster, a 1979 graduate of W&L and current member of the Board of Trustees, from Spartanburg, S.C., spoke of the personal relationship that he developed with Dean Gilliam from his first days on campus.
Said Webster: “When I think of honor, tradition, civility, gentlemanliness and character, it’s Dean Gilliam’s face that I see and his voice that I hear.”
Located on Liberty Hall Road just west of Wilson Field, Belfield was designed by Walter Rogers Crowe and completed in 1929. The home features exquisitely detailed, hand-carved woodwork.
“We were very conscious of the historic-preservation issues with this project,” said Bailey, senior project manager at W&L. “We have done very little structurally to the residence, and we have benefited from the expertise of interior designers with considerable historic-design experience.”
Because of the age and significance of Belfield, the University engaged Arcadia Preservation, of Keswick, Va., to produce a historic-structures report. The University detailed all architectural features, both interior and exterior, and inventoried design elements and materials used to build the house.
Assessments determined that the house was in good condition overall, with the original details largely untouched. The bathrooms and kitchen needed updating, and the house had to be made ADA accessible.
The special touches that will add to the visitor experience in Belfield include the display throughout the house of reproductions of a set of 1857 lithographs titled “Album of Virginia,” by Edward Beyer. The Gilliams had originally hung wallpaper depicting the Beyer works on the dining room walls
“While the lithographs are on walls throughout the house, we’ve kept several of those featuring nearby locations like Natural Bridge in the dining room,” Bailey noted.
Belfield features four guest rooms, all with similar finishes, on the second floor, with a variety of spaces on the first floor for social gatherings. A warming kitchen will be available for use by the University’s catering operation.
The gardens are a major feature of Belfield. Originally designed by renowned landscape architect Charles Gillette, the gardens were known throughout Virginia for their splendor. The Gilliams were avid gardeners, honored in 1960 with the Massie Medal for horticultural achievement from the Garden Club of Virginia, of which Louise Gilliam had been president in 1948–50.
To restore the gardens, the University turned to Higgins and Gerstenmaier Landscape Architects, of Richmond. The firm has experience working with other Gillette gardens; as Bailey explained, “their expertise has given W&L insight in preserving and reviving the gardens in a manner consistent with Gillette’s style.”
The initial efforts have targeted the rehabilitation of existing garden plantings and the elements that create the “rooms” of the garden. Original plantings, and those added through the years consistent with Gillette’s style, have been preserved and progressively worked to bring them back from an overgrown state.
“This has been an extremely demanding project,” said Bailey. “The grounds had been neglected for years. We have reset the walkways but have taken care to maintain them in their original style. For instance, in several areas, we photographed and numbered the pavers, set them aside and then reset them. A lot of care has been taken to try to match mortar colors in the walkways and wall elements. We have tried to save all the patina that built up on the bricks. We preserved the lichens or moss, wherever possible, to maintain that feeling of age.”
Preserving the many English boxwoods has been one of the major challenges, Bailey noted.
“The boxwoods are all very old,” Bailey said. “They’ve been cared for in such a way that if we had killed any of them, we could not have replaced them. We were very careful to take good care of them. There were a couple of close calls, but we were able to preserve them.
“That said, the rejuvenation of the boxwoods will take multiple growing seasons before they return to their stately condition of the past,” she added.
Through its use as a guest house, Belfield will complement the Morris House, which located on W&L’s front campus and both hosts visitors and serves as a seminar and meeting space.
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