Karen Barrs resisted a visit to Little England plantation when searching for the perfect home for her family. It had been on the market about nine years and unoccupied for 25—until she gave in and rolled down the cedar-lined lane leading to this circa 1716 Georgian brick estate.
“I don’t even think all four tires pulled into the gate before I said, ‘This is our home,’” she says. “But, then, you have to love this house to buy it.”
Little England is in Gloucester County, on a point bounded by the York River and Sarah’s Creek. The property has approximately one mile of water frontage, 9,000 square feet of living space, 13-foot ceilings and 14 well-preserved rooms (a frame wing was added in 1954). The house was used as a lookout for ships during the Battle of Yorktown, later as a hospital during the War of 1812 and as a garrison during the Civil War. The interior features some of the finest colonial paneling and woodwork in Virginia. No doubt this property is a historic gem but one that needed some TLC and major restoration when the Barrs came knocking.
Four years ago Karen and her family were “busting at the seams” at their more traditional house in Yorktown and needed “more elbow room.” Though she says that Little England was not their plan, she now describes it as a perfect fit.
“I like Gloucester,” Karen says. “We wanted a farm on the water, and it’s hard to find. We needed to commit, including emotionally.” That commitment included writing a letter of intent describing her family’s plan for the home in order to evaluate their level of commitment.
You see, the amount of work involved with purchasing a plantation home is too overwhelming for most—unless you are the daughter of a house contractor and married to the president of a land development contractor.
“We have the background that removed the intimidation factor,” Karen explains. “I grew up seeing houses renovated.”
And that renovation—removing 4–7 layers of laminate to get to the original hardwood floors throughout, chipping away centuries of plaster to bring the Rumford fireplaces back to life, and opening it up to more light by revealing old windows—started immediately after the sale was finalized.
“We tried to keep it as original as possible, but we also needed to make it functional for our modern family, and we live in every inch of it,” Karen says.
That family includes husband Steve, three teenage sons who love to hunt, Great Pyrenees mountain dogs, sheep, palomino horses, chickens, ducks, Apple Bottom (the potbelly pig) and lots of visitors. Thank goodness the property covers 58 acres.
Inside the house, like with most active families, the kitchen is one of the most lived-in and important rooms. Karen started her interior design plan here with her colleagues from Sisters Unique, an interior design and furniture shop in City Center in Newport News. Everything is centered around a large island topped with emerald green- and subtle purple-hued granite—“I am a color girl,” Karen says—and flanked with rustic leather barstools. She coated new cabinets with Annie Sloan Chalk Paint to give them a worn feel, painted doors a bright turquoise and installed modern appliances. A focal point is the sitting area in front of the restored fireplace, with a mantel made from a piece of barn wood, re-covered King and Queen chairs and large crystal chandelier.
“I wanted that barn, hunt-house feel,” Karen says. “Like you want to come in and light up a cigar, but I am the only girl, so I had to have something shiny.
Karen describes her style as an “eclectic layered look,” and you can see elements of that throughout each room.
“The house is antique enough,” she says. “I didn’t want to bring in anything antique. If you keep the bones of the house, everything else is icing on the cake.”
Karen iced the bones of the dining room—original wallpaper hand-painted with battle scenes, chandelier and gorgeous paneled wainscoting and over-mantel paneling (now painted glossy taupe)—with modern lamps, a Theodore Alexander table with daffodil centerpiece (Little England used to be a daffodil farm in the 1950s) and some comfy sofas and pillows.
“I love couches in a dining room,” Karen says. We use this space at least three times per week.”
The bright main living space with nearly floor-to-ceiling, small-paned windows (one with the etchings of soldiers in tact) was accented only with paint on the paneled trim and original chandelier. Karen says she needed the room to function with a lot of people, so she created cozy groupings of Lee Industries furniture conducive to conversation.
A striking picture above the sofa states what many may think about the Barrs family when learning about their massive undertaking—“We’re All Mad Here.” But to them, Little England is more than a project. It’s home.
“It excites me to know that this is our time to be good stewards to this place,” Karen says. “Hopefully we will eventually pass it to one of our children. We want to stay here.”