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A Working House (1906-Present)

TCarr's Hillhrough the generations of presidents and changing times, Carr’s Hill has served presidential families remarkably well without major alteration. President Edwin Alderman and Mrs. Alderman insisted on touches that helped make the house what it is today – the University’s foremost site for social gathering. The beautiful gardens meet the needs not only of entertaining but also of the presidential families who have lived at Carr’s Hill.

The Aldermans had a clear idea of the house that the University needed for its presidents. With his new authority, the first president of Mr. Jefferson’s University of Virginia pressed McKim, Mead & White until he got what he and Mrs. Alderman wanted: a center hall colonial revival house. McKim, Mead & White had their say in the smaller structural and decorative details: the length and width of stairways, columnar order—Doric instead of the Alderman’s choice of Ionic order for the portico—placement of doors, woodwork, and other interior detailing.

The Foremost Site for Social Gathering

The house that the Aldermans built was from the beginning assiduously planned for receiving guests. Mr. and Mrs. Alderman’s insistence on the wide covered front portico, the sheltered carriage entrance, and the large entrance hall surrounded on all sides by public rooms resulted in a house that today is the University’s foremost site for social gathering. Approaching the hundredth anniversary, Carr’s Hill has changed, as has the University. As the student body, the faculty, and staff have grown, the number of social engagements held at the house has multiplied. During the school year, cheerful streams of guests file up the garden staircase and into the president’s home. What follows is a description of how the house has changed over the past century, and how the complicated mechanism of entertaining hundreds of guests each year actually works for the Casteen family.


Before the house was completed, there were a number of changes or additions made to its plans. The McKim, Mead & White architect W. M. Kendall decided that the radiators installed were too tall and replaced them with more appropriate hardware. The arch of the door from the vestibule to the hall was changed to follow the curve of the door from the vestibule to the portico. Colored glass for the window over the stairway was at issue in several letters between McKim, Mead & White and President Alderman. Mr. Kendall explains that the glass “will sufficiently exclude the light, and at the same time give a warm color effect.” Whether colored glass was ever installed in the window above the staircase is not known; there is now clear glass in this window.

Also altered were the pocket doors to be installed in the entryways to the library/living room, reception room, and dining room. Originally, they were to be solidly wood, eight feet six inches in total height. Instead, a large expanse of decorative glass replaced wood panels in the upper three-quarters of the doors. The top of the glass was seven feet from the floor, making a light, glazed effect for the heavy wooden doors.

The Completed House

When the house was completed in 1909, Mr. and Mrs. Alderman were satisfied, and most of the house’s early critics were mollified. Through the generations of presidents and changing times, the house has served presidential families remarkably well without major alteration.

In fact, it was not until 1954 that any renovations to the house were carried out. Even then, during the Darden administration, the changes were few. The kitchen and plumbing were updated, and the bathroom ceilings were lowered, perhaps to make cleaning easier.One of the earlier changes to the house was the removal of the pocket doors in 1959. Although grand and unique, the heavy doors must have been difficult to operate. They were replaced with conventional side-hinged doors, and for the last sixty years the glass doors have been in storage at Carr’s Hill.

The Shannon Family

The removal of the doors was part of a much larger renovation project in preparation for the Shannon family occupancy of Carr’s Hill. Fifty years had passed since its construction. Time had its way with runners, bolts, cabinets, and plumbing, which were rusting, bowing, and breaking. The doors were replaced, and so was the outdated kitchen; the doors between the entrance vestibule and the front hallway were removed; a door was created between the pantry and the patio; bookcases were added to President Alderman’s reception room, by 1959 known as the “sitting room.” Installed also was a second doorway between what is today called the library and the back hall.

At the west entrance, a curved railing and rounded stairs replaced the original square-shaped stairway. The bottom stair was removed and the road grade was raised almost six inches, thus expanding the porte cochere to accommodate larger vehicles. Perhaps also at this time, two china cupboards dating from the construction of the house were removed from the dining room and placed in the attic hallway, where they remain to this day. Additionally, a quasi-octagonal porch was installed over the original rectangular one on the east side of the house. Upstairs, a wall was added to the front bedroom, dividing it into two rooms, and a bath was divided in two to serve two bedrooms.

Renovations of 1960

In 1960, renovations continued. The first floor of the northwest porch, now used to hang coats during large social events, was enclosed, and a powder room under the stairway was added. Plans show that the lavatory originally was located across the side entry hall. That powder room was converted into a coat closet. Decorative legs from a second - story location were installed under a new lavatory sink and crown molding was added for further ornamental effect. Plans dating to 1960 indicate that the current guest house was used then as servants’ quarters. These plans also show a place for a slide, swings, a sand area, and perhaps a shallow pool, where now there is a kitchen garden.

The Hereford Family

When the Hereford family moved into Carr’s Hill in 1974, bookcases were removed from the west and east walls, and new bookcases were added to the south wall of the library; library sconces were removed. There was an addition to the porch; the partition added to the front bedroom was removed; and a door was added to the closet in the master bedroom. At the rear of the house a new vestibule and a bathroom were added for use by household workers. In the south vestibule, the two decorative niches were “blanked” (covered up) with drywall, and sconces were installed. From both doorways of the sitting room, the hinged doors were removed; in the front hall a new chandelier was added; sconces were removed in the living room, and in the dining room, sconces were removed and a chandelier added. In 1975, a bathroom and kitchenette were installed in Buckingham Palace.

The O'Neil Family

In 1985, for the O’Neil family, the vestibule and bathroom that had been added to the rear of the kitchen in 1974 were removed, and a sunroom built in their place. In the main hall, a more ornate mantel replaced a simpler one over the fireplace. Sconces were added in the main hall and in the dining room. Most dramatic of the additions, perhaps, was the large Chinese screen that was installed on the east wall of the main hall. In 1988, the guest house roof was replaced.

The Casteen Family

During the many years the Casteens have lived at Carr’s Hill, a number of changes have been made to the house. In 1990, the McKim, Mead & White balustrade, a threat to the water-tightness of the roof, was removed. A year later, a brick walkway that led to the rear entrance was built. In 1992, the support of Deborah and Eli Tullis, the Fair Play Foundation, and the Alumni Board of Trustees of the University of Virginia Endowment Fund enabled a new terrace at the back of the house, which has proved to be very important for entertaining at Carr’s Hill. During the next year, the powder room was redesigned.

As part of a general effort to restore the McKim, Mead & White decorative aspects to the interior of the house, the niches in the entrance vestibule were “unblanked.” The Carr’s Hill gardens were enhanced in 1996 with the construction of the pergola between the guest cottage and garage, and the construction of the Oval Garden to the west of the house. Before Betsy Casteen moved into the house, in 2003, the kitchen was redesigned, turning a family kitchen into a working kitchen to allow a greater capacity for food preparation. A second powder room in place of the house’s coat closet accommodates more guests.

Across from the dining room is the library, originally Mr. Alderman’s study. Whereas for most of Carr’s Hill residents, the entire first floor was used as family space, nowadays this is the only first-floor room the Foote/Casteen family use in daily private life. Recently, the walls were painted antique red, the floors refinished, and a new oriental rug was added. The room contains many of the family’s books, a television hidden away behind a cabinet, and items from Mr. Casteen’s collection of Scandinavian art glass. Occasionally, the library serves as overflow space for very large gatherings, and sometimes the Casteens will have working lunches and dinners on the drop-leaf table that stands by a wall of paintings by Lincoln Perry, who created the narrative mural in the Cabell Hall lobby.

The care with which Carr’s Hill has been decorated speaks to the importance of the house as a gathering place for members of the University community. The beauty of its exterior and interior design reflects also an American architectural era not often celebrated at the University, the Beaux-Arts era, 1885 to 1920. The presence of Beaux-Arts architecture on Grounds is significant and has its origins in the office of McKim, Mead & White. Beaux-Arts design is not only evident in Carr’s Hill’s grand portico, entrance hall, and staircase, but also in the grand north entrance of the Rotunda, in the buildings at the south end of the Lawn (Cabell, Cocke, and Rouss), and in Garrett Hall with its lobby’s soaring ceiling. The University owes the optimistic, architectural extravagance at the heart of the academical village to these great American architects.

The Meaning of Hospitality

For guests of Mr. and Mrs. Casteen, there is something Jeffersonian in being entertained at the president’s house. The urbane and eclectic approach to Carr’s Hill cookery and wine service, and the welcoming of large numbers of the University friends, faculty, students, and alumni to Carr’s Hill carries on two-hundred-year-old tradition of cultural refinement and unbound hospitality.

About his work in the Carr’s Hill kitchen, Peter Bowyer writes, “One of the highlights of working with Mr. and Mrs. Casteen is their insistence on the variety and diversity of the food that is served at Carr’s Hill. In complying with these wishes I have been introduced to many cuisines I might otherwise have never encountered, excellent cuisines such as Vietnamese, Indian, Cuban and Persian. This has broadened my professional horizons and enriched my personal ones. It is a great joy preparing food with such a gallery of flavors to call upon.”

When people speak of a “hard-working house,” they are of course really speaking of hard-working Carr’s Hill staff. Barbara Jett, housekeeper at Carr’s Hill for thirty years (1975–2005), said, “I worked hard, but I got to see the world there.” And the world got to know Mrs. Jett. “Wherever I go in this town, I meet people I met while I was working in Carr’s Hill,” she says. At Carr’s Hill, she had the chance to see notable national figures up close. “I met two presidents and their secret service and their staff there.” Nargis Cross, former manager of the President’s House (1996–2005), also found the hard work at Carr’s Hill to have its benefits.

The staff of Carr’s Hill have over the years played no small role in the University’s mission and history. Betsy Casteen sums up that mission well, when she comments on the work she and her husband do together with the assistance of their excellent staff: “We try to build University relationships—with and among students, parents, faculty, alumni, and all kinds of people who believe that the University matters, that it makes life freer and more substantial than it might be otherwise.”

In the Garden

With money so scarce at the time of the construction of the president’s house, the Carr’s Hill landscape, except for planting of lawn grass, remained fairly primitive. All funds available for exterior design went into the hardscape: the portico, the porte cochere, and the porch on the east side of the house.

For most of its history, the Carr’s Hill gardens were primarily created and tended by presidents’ family members. Bessie Alderman, Irene Darden, Colgate Darden, and Ann Hereford were known to be energetic and dedicated gardeners. When the Dardens moved to Carr’s Hill, Mr. Darden, a plantsman since childhood, brought with him from his native Norfolk crape myrtles, camellias, and azaleas. He planted them all over the Carr’s Hill grounds and in some of the more public areas of the University. A few of these camellias are huge and robustly blooming to this day around Carr’s Hill and in the Cabell Hall courtyard.

Ann Hereford

Like President Darden, Mrs. Hereford was similarly moved to create order and beauty in the green spaces around the president’s house. John Sauer, who has worked in the University’s gardens for thirty-three years, recalls Mrs. Hereford as a “keen gardener.” He has memories of her carrying into the house “buckets of long-stemmed roses” from the rose bed near the garage. There she and Mr. Sauer had planted seventy rose bushes. Roses from these bushes, Mr. Sauer says, decorated the table at which Queen Elizabeth sat when she visited the Rotunda in 1976 during the United States bicentennial. He also reports that Mrs. Hereford first created perennial beds at Carr’s Hill, and that she taught him “a whole lot about perennial gardening,” especially when by mistake he “weeded out all of the larkspur” that Mrs. Hereford had planted by the side of the house. She also had a tomato garden behind the wall at the Carr’s Hill–Architecture School property line. Ms. Munn remembers that tomatoes were always disappearing—into the hands of architecture students, she and Mrs. Hereford assumed.

Unlike a lot of serious gardeners, the Herefords were also serious dog fanciers. They kept their five dogs (Butch, Deep Creek, First Barney, Russell, Second Barney, and Rhubarb) in two different dog pens, one behind the back door and another behind the garage where Mr. Alderman’s out-of-commission carriage had been kept during the Newcomb and Darden administrations.

Needs of Different Families

Like most herbaceous designs, Mrs. Hereford’s proved to be ephemeral. Varying needs of different families at Carr’s Hill obliterated the work of imagination and physical exertion. The Shannon family, for instance, with five children necessarily looked at the area around the house in terms of family utility. A 1960 plan by landscape architect Alden Hopkins, who designed landscapes at Colonial Williamsburg and also the West Gardens, features a play yard and a wading pool by the guest cottage, where there is now a formal herb garden. It also indicates a patio a few steps down from the house’s original porch. This plan was never implemented, but it does indicate a particular interest in hardscape and hardware that superseded some of Colgate Darden’s greenscape.

Entertaining University Guests

As the house became a center of University gatherings, its exterior spaces became important for entertaining guests. During the Casteen administration, the gardens around Carr’s Hill have been developed for both beauty and utility. Visitors approaching the house today see on the east side of the hill an oval planting bed commemorating the yellow tulips given to the University by the Queen Fabiola of Belgium in 1976 to celebrate the nation’s bicentennial. Nearby is a beech tree planted by President Casteen. Growing under the shade of nearby oak and ash trees are dogwood and holly trees.

Down the sidewalk a bit is the formal entrance to the house. In 2001, Ian Robertson redesigned the front entry and walkway. Brickwork replaced the concrete walk and steps. Handrails, benches, and planting beds were added along the sides of the stairway.

The largest and oldest trees on the western side of the front walk are the Canadian hemlock and the black gum trees. On the east side are a white ash, Norway spruce, a sourwood, and a black gum tree. At the bottom of the stairway grows a Kousa dogwood. Dwarf abelia, rhododendrons, oakleaf hydrangea, hellebores, caryopteris, and spirea are planted in the deep shade of the trees. Around the front portico of the house, and following the paths to the parking area on the west side of the house and to the terrace on east side, grow azaleas and boxwood.

North of the House

In 1990, Lynn Rush, a landscape architect on the University’s staff, designed a series of gardens for the area north of the house. These consist of an herb garden, a flower garden, and trellis between the guest house and the garage, where in 1996 a pergola was built for sheltered gathering. Across the pergola grows Dutchman’s pipe vine. New Dawn rose climbs up the brick wall, and in a bright corner grows a fig tree. Mrs. Hereford’s espaliered rose beautifies the brick wall of the carriage house and is surrounded by shrub and hybrid tea roses. Flowering crabapples are vertical accents in the border garden in which peonies, coralbells, foxgloves, iris, flax, dianthus, daisies, columbine, hosta, and rose campion bloom in succession. Shrubs growing amongst the perennial flowers include hydrangea, deutzia, white-flowering quince, spirea, and viburnum.

Herb Garden

To the east and in front of the two-story Carr’s Hill cottage is a parterre herb garden enclosed by low-growing boxwood. The herb garden elegantly quotes the circular and rectilinear contours of the upper and middle sections of Pavilion Garden IV and the Kenmore House garden designed by landscape architect Charles Gillette. Crape myrtle, viburnum, sage, strawberries, and narcissus line the brick path to the house, and screen the small kitchen patio. A grassy lawn borders the herb garden and a row of spirea, which shelters the brick and slate tent terrace on the far side of the house.

When an enormous sugar maple died and was removed, hosta, astilbe, a collection of columbine, and a new maple tree were planted between the lawn and the patio. Two old European larches, unusual deciduous conifers growing to magnificent height, form a leafy canopy above the landscape here. In the corner mature fig trees grow beside a wisteria trained to a shrub form.

Up around the porte cochere grow two Kousa dogwoods, planted on a grassy mound and blooming through the early summer. Underplantings of daffodil and hosta add early color at the feet of the trees, and large white azaleas provide a bright white background. West of the parking area, steps from the driveway lead down beneath large white pines into the Oval Garden, which was conceived thirty-five years before its installation.

Meade Palmer Design

In 1995, when John Casteen expressed an interest in constructing a landscape that would serve as an outdoor space for entertaining Carr’s Hill guests, Lynn Rush recalled the existence of a design for a Carr’s Hill west garden that Meade Palmer had drawn as a young man for Eleanor Shannon. Ms. Rush showed Mr. Palmer’s early drawings to a delighted President Casteen. In these drawings, Mr. Casteen recognized the plan to be ideal for the space and for its purpose. He hired Mr. Palmer to execute the plan, which turned out to be one of the last projects completed before Mr. Palmer’s death.

Oval Garden

Across the driveway at the entrance to the Oval Garden is an iron railing designed and built by blacksmith Nol Putnam. He based the leaf design on Jeffersonia diphylla, or twinleaf, a native woodland plant named for the University’s founder. In Charlottesville, the plant blooms on Mr. Jefferson’s birthday, April 13. Meade Palmer brought Sternbergia lutea (winter daffodil) from his farm in Warrenton to be naturalized around the entrance to the garden. Down the stairs, a low stone wall surrounds a grassy, level oval perfect for warm weather entertaining. Planted on the outside are great masses of azaleas.

Both sun-loving and shade-tolerant plants make for a display that is at intervals cool and bright. Along the path, benches are placed among native woodland ferns, Christmas and maidenhair. The shade garden is planted with native woodland flowers such as bleeding heart, columbine, candytuft, sweet woodruff, hostas, astilbe, and Virginia bluebells.

To the south, the path winds around to the back of Buckingham Palace. Ladies mantle, veronica, and masses of “The Fairy” rose grow in the front of the cottage. Peonies line the brick walk to the cottage door. Annabelle hydrangea is planted on either side of the cottage, while a window box is filled with blooming seasonal annuals. To the north, the path leads to an oval walkway behind the carriage house, along which are planted camellias, photinia, fothergillas, beauty berry, and a Carolina hemlock.

Terrace for Entertaining

On the north side of the president’s house is a large terrace constructed in 1992 and now covered by a tent to accommodate outdoor entertaining almost year-round. This area is shaded by a Southern magnolia. The brick paths leading to the terrace are lined with azaleas, rhododendron, mountain laurel, and Burford holly. In the spring, along the brick paths anemone and crocus bloom along with Jeffersonia diphylla.

Survivor of the Rotunda Fire

North of the terrace at the very edge of the president’s house property is a cast iron capital that survived the 1895 Rotunda fire. It is now a picturesque landscape element around which are planted a variety of colorful perennials. Old boxwoods line one side of the patio, their mass lightened by the delicate yellow sprays of kerria. Bluestone paths provide access to Campbell Hall, the home of the University’s School of Architecture, and to the east, to the newly renovated Fayerweather Hall, housing the Art History Department.

East of the reception terrace is a great swath of lawn bordered by witch hazel and mahonia shrubs that blossom in early spring, followed by numerous daffodils and sweet-scented hyacinth. In summer, abelia blooms attract birds, bees, and butterflies, while magnolia blossoms perfume the air. In winter, red berries adorn cranberry viburnum and nandina, adding bright clusters of color to the winter-gray gardens.

We Are All Gardeners

About nature tamed beautifully, Mrs. Casteen notes, “Sitting in the Carr’s Hill garden reminds me that we are all gardeners. Even if we don’t dig in the earth, we tend to the important things in our lives: our interests, our professions, and, most important of all, the younger generation. This is what is so important about the University of Virginia— that it is a place that grows what matters most—human knowledge, human dignity, and human decency.”