Decaying Virginia Mansion Looks For New Owners

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Poplar Hill/Dunnington Mansion | Prince Edward County | c. 1840, 1897

Steeped in history dating back to 1743, this Virginia mansion holds the tales of a bygone era. Though the current structure hails from the 1840s and has undergone extensive renovations throughout the years, it now awaits a visionary owner who can see beyond the superficial scars of neglect and vandalism. However, restoring this grand estate will require deep pockets and expertise in historic preservation. It’s a gargantuan undertaking, yet one that promises to breathe new life into a remarkable piece of history.

Early Property History- The Woodson & Watkins Families

The earliest property records for this site date to 1743 when Richard Woodson purchased 1,152 acres from King George II. On this land, Woodson established a farm that he called Poplar Hill and on this farm, he built a modest, two-story, four-room log house. In 1775, after Rochard passed away, his property was willed to his daughter, Agnes Woodson Watkins and her husband, Francis Watkins.

The Wood Family At Poplar Hill Plantation

In 1826, Francis left the property to his daughter, Frances Watkins Wood and son-in-law, James D. Wood. During this period (around 1840), Frances and James Wood built a new brick structure, replacing the earlier two-story log cabin.

The c. 1840 brick house at Poplar Hill, sometimes referred to as the Old Wood Plantation House. This brick structure was built by Frances Watkins Wood and her husband James Wood. This structure later formed the central portion of Dunnington Mansion which was built around it.

In 1849, Frances and James passed the home to their son, Francis (Frank) Wood, and his wife, Paulina. In 1860, Frank and Paulina Wood sold the property to Captain John Hughes Knight, Jr., a captain in the Confederate Army, which ended 100 years of ownership in the Woodson-Watkins-Woods line. When Captain Knight moved to Poplar Hill with his wife, Cornelia Alice Bland, they hosted many veterans from the Revolutionary and Civil Wars here. After the Civil War a Union garrison was established at Poplar Hill and subsequently, the commander and his wife became friends with the Knights. After the garrison was deactivated, the Knights visited them in NYC several times.

Captain John Hughes Knight, Jr. (1829-1914). He joined the Confederate Army as a sergeant in Company K of Virginia’s 3rd Calvary.

India Knight and Walter Grey Dunnington

When Captain John H. Knight, Jr. passed away, Poplar Hill was willed to his daughter, India Knight (1857-1960), and her tobacco baron husband, Walter Grey Dunnington (1849-1922). Walter was one of Virginia’s most prominent tobacco barons.

Walter Grey Dunnington.

Walter worked for the Dunnington Tobacco Company, which had been formed in 1870 in Farmville, Virginia, by his father, James W. Dunnington. Dunnington Tobacco Company first sold dark-fired tobacco but eventually transitioned to brightleaf tobacco which took off with the cigarette manufacturing business in the late 1800s. The tobacco that they grew in Farmville at Poplar Hill was so popular that Walter traveled regularly to Europe to sell it.

The Dunnington Tobacco Company in Farmville, Virginia, established c, .1870.

Walter was also involved in Farmville’s First National Bank and was a co-owner of a fertilizer manufacturing company as well.

Creating a Mansion Home

When they took ownership of Poplar Hill in 1897, Walter and India wanted a home that reflected their wealth and place in society so, they set out to take on an extensive renovation of the c.1840 brick home, originally built by the Wood Family. Onto the original house were added four large rooms, a massive tower, and a stately front entrance in the Victorian style. Their new home was 8,900 square feet with a total of 14 rooms.

When Walter and India added on to the home, they changed the orientation of the entrance which formerly faced north-south and now faces east-west. The exterior of the home was inspired by the Romanesque Revival while the interior carries both Italianate and Victorian elements.

Dunnington Mansion c. 1920s, with India’s atrium in the background. Photo courtesy of the Dunnington Family.

India was a passionate gardener and on to the house, she added one of the most stunning features of the home: a garden greenhouse and atrium with a hand crank window that opens the vibrant green glass to allow in more light. 

The Dunningtons were known for the exquisite parties that they would hold in their home during this period, up until his death in 1922.

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The Dunnington Family at Dunnington Mansion in the 1930s or 40s. Photo courtesy of the Dunnington Family.

Walter left the house to his wife, India Knight Dunnington, and she lived here until her death in 1960. 

India Wycliffe Knight Dunnington and her sisters on the steps of Dunnington Mansion.

The Bolts

Following India’s death in 1960, the property was sold at auction and purchased by Glen and Freeda Bolt. The Bolts logged the land and converted it into a large working cattle farm, adding many barns and outbuildings during this time.

Image courtesy of the Bolt Family.

During their time in the home, Mr. Bolt and his family made many upgrades to the house, including updating the electricity, converting the coal furnace to oil, and modernizing the plumbing. Water for the home came from a gravity-fed, private water tower that they installed along with a modern pump system for the pond. The Bolts also worked to restore the inside of the house whose beauty had faded over the years.

Investors & The Golf Course

The Bolts passed the house and farm to their son, Nelson, who continued the cattle operation here. He and his wife, Marsha, also married inside the home in 1995. In the late 1990s, a group of investors approached Nelson Bolt with a plan to convert his land into a championship-level golf course, with the former Dunnington Mansion planned as the centerpiece of the development. When he sold it to the developers, the interior of the home was reportedly in pristine condition, thanks to years of work that the Bolt Family put in to maintain it. 

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[You can see a fascinating collection of before and after photos that document the damage to the home over the years here]

The group began development of the golf course but ran out of money which forced the property into foreclosure. A portion of the property was sold off which included the mansion and while the golf course was completed in 2004, the house has sat empty and neglected ever since.

In the last 20 years, the mansion has passed through several versions of corporate ownership, under the control of foreign investors who have resisted previous offers to sell off the mansion. In that time, the property has suffered from extensive vandalism and damage from neglect and disuse.

The Dunnington Mansion Foundation

In recent years, a non-profit was formed by historians and interested local citizens who were concerned about the fate of the mansion called the Dunnington Mansion Foundation. Their mission is to preserve the building and to work alongside the eventual owners to restore the building. The current owners have been cooperative with the Dunnington Mansion Foundation to raise money for small restoration projects on the property. They have also agreed to allow limited public tours of the site to raise money and awareness about the property. If you would like information on tours, you can find that here.

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In 2021, an agreement was made and the house was finally sold to a group of local investors who intend to protect the house from further damage. To that end, they have boarded up windows and doors to deter trespassers and vandals. They have also begun work to shore up one side of the mansion that was collapsing. Local rumor is that the group will soon list the property for sale if they can find the right buyer.

Update

In 2023, the property was listed for sale by Sotheby’s for $12.5 million, including 766 acres and multiple buildings that have been developed around the golf course, although this price doesn’t include the sale of the golf course itself. That price was later reduced to $10.9 million and as of this blog being published in February 2024, the house is still listed for sale.

This property is monitored by cameras, police, and golf course staff. DO NOT TRESPASS HERE.

Instead, you can sign up for a tour here at the link below.


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