Long Branch guide returns to historic Clarke County property
MILLWOOD, Va. (AP) — Driving up the long, private lane to Long Branch Historic House and Farm, visitors may suddenly feel a world away from the hustle-and-bustle of traffic they were in just a few minutes earlier along the John Mosby Highway (U.S. 50) in Clarke County.
They are unlikely to pass another vehicle along the narrow passage. Mostly what is seen are green pastures where horses graze, with the Blue Ridge Mountains for a backdrop. A large, imposing manor house sits at the end of the driveway.
With its lavish architecture and landscaping, as well as the bucolic scenery, Long Branch is “a magnificent place in an exquisite setting,” said tour guide Colette Poisson.
She treasures it.
Long Branch is a historic property on about 400 acres on Long Branch Lane, off Nelson Road near Millwood and Boyce. The manor house was built in the early 1800s under the initiative of Robert Carter Burwell. Soon after construction started, Burwell left to fight in the War of 1812 and later died of diseases he contracted while stationed in Norfolk.
It is not known whether Burwell finished building the mansion before he died or if relatives continued the construction after they inherited it. But the estate remained in the Burwell-Nelson family until the late 1950s, after which it was sold several times.
The two-story, Federal-style mansion is on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register.
Wheat and livestock have been raised on the grounds over the years.
Harry Z. Isaacs, a textile executive and horse breeder from Baltimore, bought the property in 1986 for $1.35 million. He launched an extensive renovation but a short time later learned he had terminal cancer. He established a nonprofit foundation to which he donated the estate, which was opened to the public following his death in 1990.
Anyone wanting more details about the property’s history can find it at www.visitlongbranch.org.
Better yet, they can visit Long Branch and let Poisson give them a tour. Having been Isaac’s personal assistant for almost two decades, she probably knows more about the estate than anyone else living today. And she is eager to share what she knows in hopes that others will come to love the estate as much as she does.
It is her home, physically as well as emotionally. She lives in one of two smaller houses on the estate; the other is occupied by the farm manager.
Along with relating its history, Poisson can tell stories about the estate that are probably not written anywhere.
For instance, she recalled a boy who entered an ornate upstairs bathroom and asked about the device that partly resembles a toilet and partly a sink. After a family member modestly explained to him the purpose of a bidet, he said, “Eww, gross,” and ran out of the room.
His remark might not be what a visitor anticipates hearing from Poisson, who speaks with a thick French accent. But while she is passionate about Long Branch and serious about educating visitors about its history, she is relaxed, personable and vivacious for her 84 years. Those who spend an hour with her may feel as if they have known her — and Isaacs, too — practically all of their lives.
Born in Paris, Poisson and her late husband came to the United States in 1959 to be closer to relatives here and experience a change in lifestyle.
“Fifty-nine years later, I’m still here. I guess it kind of grows on you,” she said of American culture, laughing.
Shortly after Isaacs bought Long Branch, Poisson’s husband died. Isaacs immersed Poisson in his efforts to improve the estate, taking her mind off her loss.
“I’m so eternally grateful” to him, she said.
Poisson and Isaacs developed a close, professional friendship during the 19 years that she worked for him. Because he never married, she likely became one of the strongest female influences in his life.
“Mr. Isaacs was married to business,” she said pointedly. “He was definitely a workaholic of the worst kind.”
After buying Long Branch, Isaacs spent about $12 million to restore it. Among his work, he spent more than a year just cleaning the woodworking. He also bought antique furnishings from some of the world’s most well-known dealers, including Sotheby’s,
“It was fun to go shopping with him,” Poisson recalled.
Although his ultimate goal was to restore the home, “he brought a historical house into the 20th century,” including installing a bathroom, she said. After all, “he was in his 80s. He wasn’t going to rough it,” Poisson said.
The mansion now “looks mainly the way that Mr. Isaacs left it,” said Poisson.
Her favorite things about the house? An elaborate spiral staircase that is believed to have been installed as part of renovations in 1845, plus the panoramic view.
“The staircase is breath-taking,” she said, and “he (Isaacs) couldn’t have picked a better location” to buy an estate because of its scenery.
Poisson surmised that after Isaacs got sick, his devotion to restoring the mansion “probably gave him an extra year or two” of life, giving him a reason to battle his illness as long as he could.
“He had money,” she said, and in terms of historic preservation intuition, “he had good taste.”
“That’s a good combination to me,” she added, laughing again.
Following his death, Poisson chose to remain with the Harry Z. Isaacs Foundation because, as she put it, “I thought his dream to leave a legacy (for the public to enjoy) was wonderful. I would do my best to keep up with what he wanted.”
Yet despite having lived at Long Branch since 1991, Poisson ended her association with it for a while after disagreeing with how a previous executive director of the estate was overseeing it, such as by selling some of Long Branch’s furnishings.
“Mr. Isaacs was probably turning in his grave” that his work was being destroyed, she said.
Kelli Scarrow Patterson was named the estate’s new executive director earlier this year. Poisson said she came back because “I saw in Kelli ... respect for Mr. Isaacs’ legacy. That’s important to me.”
“Long Branch needs to reclaim its place as one of the most beautiful houses in Virginia,” Poisson said. Based on comments she recently has heard, she said a lot of people were not aware that it remains open to the public.
She is not sure how long she will continue giving tours. She is not getting any younger, she chuckled.
For now, her tours are being held from noon to 4 p.m. on the last Saturday and Sunday of each month. The cost is $8 per person.
Information from: The Winchester Star, http://www.winchesterstar.com