by Kim O’Brien Root
Warner Hall in Gloucester County offers luxury and romance, with a side of history.
A 30-minute drive from Williamsburg, about 3 miles from U.S. Route 17, sits the Inn at Warner Hall, a romantic getaway perfect for history buffs.
From the moment it comes into view as you travel down the long, pebbled driveway, flanked by wooden fences on both sides, to the moment you step into the foyer and see the grand staircase, it’s clear this is no ordinary bed-and-breakfast. Warner Hall is a place where history surrounds you and the past whispers from the shadows.
Today’s Warner Hall stands on what began as a 600- acre land grant in Colonial Virginia, eventually growing into a several thousand-acre plantation that served as a backdrop during the American Revolution and Civil War.
“The history is so prevalent here, but a lot of people haven’t found out about all the connections,” says Troy Stavens, who along with his wife, Theresa, has been running the inn for more than 20 years.
Established in the mid-1700s by early colonist Augustine Warner Sr., in what became Gloucester County, this grand estate has ties to several historical figures, all of them descendants of the founder, including George Washington – reportedly a frequent visitor to the plantation – Robert E. Lee, renowned American explorer Capt. Meriwether Lewis and Queen Elizabeth II. In England, the story goes, the house is referred to “the home of the Queen’s American ancestors.”
The Stavenses purchased the crumbling, overgrown property on the Severn River in 1999, painstakingly renovating it into a charming B&B that features 11 guest rooms named for the house’s historic ties, including The Queen’s Suite, Captain’s Quarters and Austin’s Desire. The land was initially referred to as Austin’s Desire after Warner, in exchange for bringing 12 settlers from England to Jamestown in 1742, received a land grant from the British Crown.
The original home was destroyed by fire in 1740, and the rebuilt home destroyed again in 1849. The current Colonial Revival mansion – listed in both the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register – was built on the plantation’s original foundations around 1905.
Nearby are many notable structures: Abingdon Episcopal Church, established around 1650 by English colonists; the early home of Walter Reed, a 19th-century physician who proved that yellow fever was transmitted by mosquitoes; and the ruins of Rosewell Plantation, once among the most elaborate homes in the American colonies.
Also nearby is Nuttall’s Store, a throwback to the past with its uneven wood floors and antique furnishings. It is the kind of place where you can buy everything from locally-sourced fresh beef and sandwiches to homemade soaps and fishing supplies. There’s a wine corner, a counter dedicated to varieties from Yorktown’s Mobjack Bay Coffee Roasters and souvenir T-shirts and hats. “You never know what’s going to bring people in,” says Deanna Murphy, manager. “There aren’t many country stores left.”
While dinner isn’t offered at Warner Hall, there are many options nearby. Downtown Gloucester’s picturesque, old-fashioned Main Street offers shopping and dining.
Back at the inn, the spacious, antique-filled guestrooms feature beds covered by the softest of sheets, down comforters and piles of pillows. A fresh carafe of water awaits guests on a dresser, along with a slice of pound cake on a coffee table. Some rooms have bathrooms with whirlpool tubs or fireplaces. For an extra fee, you can request flowers, Champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries in your room.
The Stavenses love to talk about the house over glasses of wine and plates of hors d’oeuvres, and Troy will gladly recite a poem that was scribbled on a cocktail napkin at a party held shortly after the inn opened its doors. It begins:
In easternmost Virginia one can find a favored spot,
That time with all its ravages apparently forgot,
The echoes of Virginia’s past extend their haunting call,
And greet you from the entrances of stately Warner Hall.
– John Pleasant
The poem naturally begs the question: Are there any ghosts at Warner Hall? Well, perhaps. The house appears in The Ghosts of Virginia, Volume VII by L.B. Taylor Jr., which tells the story of an unhappy maid said to wander at night, ruffling drapes and opening doors. Guests have told the Stavenses that they’ve been awakened by early-morning knocking at their doors, and one friend claimed to have seen a Revolutionary soldier standing by a fireplace.
But, Troy assures, “Our guys are all good.”
After a night that includes an incredible thunder and lightning show but no ghost appearances, breakfast is served on the four-season porch, which overlooks the river and a storm-scrubbed-clean expanse of green lawn. A fresh fruit plate, muffins, coffee and juice is followed by whatever mouthwatering dish Theresa settles on that day, such as French toast stuffed with homemade strawberry jam and cream cheese.
The leisurely meal isn’t complete without a visit from Martha the beagle (George died several years ago), who pads around throughout the day looking for a comfortable place to snooze. Guests might choose to take a bicycle out for a ride, paddle down the river in a kayak or relax in the modern-day boathouse or on the pier.
Warner Hall went on the market a few years ago, although the Stavenses say they aren’t in a rush to sell, admitting it could be years to find the right buyer for the $4.5 million property. For now, Troy and Theresa say they’re content to continue providing a place of relaxation and hospitality.
“Somehow,” Theresa says, “Warner Hall becomes a part of everyone’s life experiences.”