We used the historic Westover Plantation as the backdrop for our November Short Run lookbook. There are many beautiful estates in the commonwealth, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one as magnificent as Westover. The house is considered one of the most outstanding examples of Georgian architecture in America and the scenic views overlooking the river are incredible. After the photoshoot, we caught up with Andrea Erda, the fourth generation of her family to call Westover home, to find out more about the rich history of the grounds and life on the estate.
Westover has a tremendously rich history and there’s a connection to the city of Richmond. Could you tell us a little more about both?
William Byrd I bought Westover and it stayed in the Byrd Family through the life and death of William Byrd III. William Byrd owned and operated a trading company at the falls of Richmond but he thought that it was too close to the frontier so he moved his family here to Charles City, closer to Williamsburg, to provide more protection for his family.
William Byrd II founded the city of Richmond – he stood on Libby Hill Park in Richmond’s Church Hill neighborhood and looked out over the James River and saw that the view reminded him so much of the scenery of Richmond on the River Thames that he named the city after it.
The house is incredibly designed, could you tell us about its construction?
The house is a classic example of Georgian architecture and was built sometime between 1730 and 1750. It was based on the current architecture and design books in England at the time. The house is known for classic Georgian elements – the steeply-slanted roof, the matching chimney peers and two wings. The doorway on the riverside is considered one of the most replicated doorways in America – the broken arch pediment with the pineapple in the middle.
There are several historic plantations scattered throughout the region, what helps to make Westover so special?
We like to say that the birds have saved us again. William Byrd built Westover and the birds, particularly the bald eagle, have saved our viewshed. We have a federally protected bald eagle preserve directly across the river from us, so our viewshed is guaranteed for perpetuity. Many of these historic plantations have factories across the river from them and there’s nothing that can be done about it; we’re very fortunate.
One of the most distinguishing characteristics is that Westover is an example of living history. We are living in the house — we do not hang our plates on the wall, we eat from our plates. In a lot of plantations you get to see history as it was lived — the homes have been preserved magnificently. At Westover you get to see how history continues to be lived. These houses were built to house people, to entertain and have life in them. Westover is lived in and I think this really speaks to people.
You mentioned bird watching and this being your family’s home; how else is the property used today?
This is a working farm — we have a third generation farmer and we’ve been here for five generations. It’s a lovely relationship and we feel like we’re all family. The grounds and gardens are open daily for tourists and we participate in Virginia Garden Week. We also give private tours and host weddings and special events.
What is the best part about visiting the plantation during the fall?
We have a full vista and we sit right on the water with the enormous forest across from us. You get this incredible artist palette right across the river and you really get to see the colors change. On our land, whether it’s forest or field, there’s so much diversity in the animals and topography. It’s quite extraordinary, but I think the light in the fall is my favorite thing here. It comes in at low angles and is a very rich gold. Shadows are casted across the lawn from those enormous trees — some are 180 years old. You look out on the lawn at the end of the day and you see the sun setting over the water and the bald eagles soaring overhead.
What do you love most about calling Westover home?
Having grown up here, knowing my father and grandmother grew up here, and watching my children grow up; it’s a very special continuity. The tradition and the history of what this entails is very fortunate for us.
This is an extraordinary place, but this is not the life of luxury; it’s hard as hell. As you could imagine, any old house is expensive to maintain. There’s always a challenge to find balance. You always want to do the right thing for the house but doing the right thing for historic houses is often the most expensive thing. It’s a constant challenge of everybody out here, trying to find models to keep the houses going. We feel very strongly about making the houses accessible to the public while also managing to balance private life as well. My husband and I just want to continue the legacy of keeping the house up and running beautifully and available to the public because it’s such a special part of American history, especially those of us from this area.
Westover Plantation is open daily for tours and located in Charles City, Virginia just off the scenic drive of Route 5 between Richmond and Williamsburg. Visit their website and Facebook page for more information and to plan a trip. November Short Run is now available.
*Photograph of Andrea Erda with husband Rob by Adam Ewing for Richmond Magazine