Painted House: Grisham reveals his country life

Historic Garden Week isn't just for those with a green thumb. It's a traditional favorite of nosy-parkers who like to peek into other people's exquisitely landscaped lives, and this year proved especially gratifying.

John and Renee Grisham provided the hot ticket for the Albemarle County country estate tours by opening the gardens of Oakwood, their Covesville farm, and Riverside, their auxiliary farm, during the same week that the CBS adaptation of Grisham's semi-autobiographical Painted House aired. The $20 tickets to see Grisham's real-life painted house sold out almost as soon as they went on sale.

Directions to Oakwood weren't included in the Garden Week guidebook, as they were for every one of the other 250 properties across the state on the tour. The secret location was revealed only on the tickets, and those were promptly confiscated upon arrival.

Ticketholders were directed on a route winding through North Garden to Riverside, a Victorian farm the Grishams purchased and renovated a couple of miles down the road from Oakwood.

There, buses took visitors to the main attraction.

The driveway passed white-fenced pastures and crossed the train tracks, and a train rolled through the estate shortly after the bus discharged its passengers.

The 240-acre Oakwood proper was part of a 1758 King George III land grant. The 1785 house was remodeled in the 1870s into a neo-French Renaissance style. That means it has a mansard roof, sort of like the house in Psycho, only not scary at all.

In fact, the first surprise of the yellow-painted house is that it looks more livable than grand, although the interior of the house was not included on the tour. Nor were the horse barns and the indoor riding arena. But the bus did squeeze through white gates and cruise by the horse facilities, allowing a quick peek.

In a note about the gardens given to all visitors, Renee Grisham writes that when she moved here 10 years ago, her two goals were to learn to ride horses with her daughter and to attempt gardening. She admits that many of her attempts were disasters, and she called in Ivy Nursery's George Carter for professional help.

"It's a very understated mix of mature and new," says one of the many Garden Club hostesses positioned throughout the grounds. For instance, the Secret Garden takes 100-year-old boxwoods and adds a tucked-away koi pond for a scenic hideaway. The garden was inspired by the Grishams' daughter reading the book, The Secret Garden, according to another hostess.

At the vegetable garden, in between beds of hundreds of tulips, the early spring vegetables are just coming up, and visitors learned that the Grishams eat their greens: chard, mustard, kale, and Thai green lettuce.

The rose garden with its low white fence prompted many of the tour-goers to ask how they keep deer– the bane of local gardeners– from eating the roses. None of the Garden Week hostesses knew, although one quipped, "Maybe they hire someone to guard them."

There's also a hydrangea garden and a camellia garden, the latter a gift from the late Senator Emily Couric, a hostess informs visitors.

Other additions to the grounds are a fancy-sounding allee that leads to the blue and pale pink splendor of crystal blue pansies and angelique tulips, Rover's Garden, and a butterfly walk.

At the croquet greensward, visitors were treated to tea and little scones and muffins, and could gaze upon the cemetery of the Harris family, original owners of the property.

Women touring the grounds and 99 percent of the visitors are women commented on the "human scale" of the gardens and how "friendly and warm" they are.

The house's back porch is a huge outdoor room, and behind that is the old summer kitchen where Grisham writes. Its proximity to the pool with some 17th-century carved stone lions– sort of like those in front of the New York Public Library– makes for a tantalizing distraction.

Besides the lions, the statuary scattered on the grounds includes a baseball slugger with a bat guarding the front door– instead of the now politically incorrect lawn jockey as well as sculpted horses and peacocks.

Also off limits on the tour were the former two-story school, now a guest cottage, and the gym, which includes a batting tunnel, according to another helpful hostess. Still, there was plenty to take in during the allotted one hour.

John Grisham told the audience at this year's Virginia Festival of the Book that he never wanted to leave the farm. It's easy to see why.

Grisham isn't the first Oxford, Mississippi, writer to find solace in Charlottesville. William Faulkner also enjoyed a hiatus here in 1957 at the height of his fame and his heavy drinking.

After tour buses started driving by their house in Oxford, the Grishams moved to Charlottesville for privacy, and Renee Grisham describes Oakwood as their "haven and escape."

But their decision to share their gardens was a goldmine for organizers of the 70th Historic Garden Week, grossing $28,000 for just one tour. That'll help restore a lot of historic gardens.


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