Many people live happily within a few miles of where they were born, journeying every once in a while, perhaps to see distant family, or embarking on a dream vacation upon their retirement. Others move around much more than that.
For those who do move around, and those who travel frequently, it’s not so simple. It seems that once wanderlust gets into one’s blood, it never subsides. For Chris and Anita Wszolek, who now reside in rural Union, West Virginia, the urge to go, see, and do became more than a desire. It became a necessity. It became necessary to see new horizons, new cultures and perspectives. This travel ultimately yielded a ‘patina’ of experience, as Chris likes to say, grinning, referring to the personal effects of age and the accumulated stress of managing multi-billion-dollar projects. Travel lead Chris and Anita to embrace a more open perspective and embark on a different and memorable way of life for more than 30 years.
After obtaining university degrees in the early 1980s, Chris and Anita accepted commissions in the US Navy. They met shortly after being assigned to the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base in San Diego, where they held positions in engineering and nursing, respectively. Recognizing their shared interests in adventure, a romance blossomed and continues today after 35 years of travel, discovery, and adventure.
Although advised never to volunteer for anything, Chris did, and ended up in charge of designing and rebuilding a Korean War era Marine Corps training base in the eastern Sierras. At an altitude above 7,000 feet, it was a location Anita loved, and she frequently made the 400-mile drive from San Diego to spend a weekend skiing, hiking, or exploring the high Sierras with Chris, who made many trips south to San Diego, with its beaches and sports, where they might decide at a moment’s notice to take-in a 10K run or a half marathon.
‘We realized early that we were a little different than most people,’ Anita said, reminiscing about the time during a weekend in the Sierras when they climbed 11,500-foot Sonora Peak by crawlingup the scree, carrying nothing more than a camera and a cooler with a couple of sandwiches. The view fromthere, seemingly of the whole world, was so intense that it fueled their enthusiasm for more. In good physical condition and accustomed to living at a high altitude, they hadn’t considered that many people would think the climb to the peak a major trek. They recalled this later, on December 31, 1999, during an ascent on a much more organized hike to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
After their time in the navy, Chris and Anita remained in San Diego, settling down and marrying in 1986. For their honeymoon, they took a long trip to a multitude of South Sea islands across Fiji. Vacations during these early years were often spent traversing jeep trails across Mexico and Baja California. Ghost towns in Utah, Nevada, and Arizona held particular allure.
They procured and restored several old homes in San Diego, which slightly assuaged their desire to see the world. But, after five years and the grind of separate careers, and although life in San Diego was very pleasant, they began to experiment with methods that could leverage their lifestyle to include international assignments.
After several unaccepted offers of overseas employment, including project-management support on a tiny bicycles-only island in the Pacific where the so-called ‘Star Wars’ missile defense system would be built, and an offer to build a house on a remote island in the Fijian Yasawa chain, they accepted an offer to work for the Saudi Arabian oil company Saudi Aramco. Leaving laid-back San Diego for their new assignment as the Gulf War was winding down, Dhahran, they discovered, was bristling with fighter jets, machine gun nests, and heavy armor. And it was windy, sandy, and extremely hot—the perfect place, they agreed, in which to establish a new life!
Although the first months required an adjustment in expectations, the Wszoleks adapted, and they soon established a network of friends from all over the world. In addition to visiting seldom-seen sights in the harsh climes of the Saudi desert, they began to travel in earnest. During their years with Saudi Aramco, they traveled ‘round-the-world four times, adventured on three safaris through Africa, embarked on a luxury train trip from New Delhi across northern India to the Taj Mahal, crossed the Saudi Empty Quarter twice, scuba-dived routinely in the Red Sea, visited the pyramids, took Eur-rail trips around Europe multiple times and, ultimately, wandered the northern and southern hemispheres and every continent. From the dusty souks of Fez and Marrakech to the bazaars of Istanbul to the bustling smelly markets of Hong Kong, Singapore, and China, Chris and Anita explored. Diving the Great Barrier Reef? ‘Sure!’ Snorkeling the second largest barrier reef in Belize? With sand sharks? ‘Yep!’ Hanging out in the rice paddies in Bali? ‘Absolutely!’ ‘Been there, done that’ could have been coined by these two.
After working in Saudi Arabia for ten years, because of Chris’s attainment of greater responsibility, they were selected for overseas assignments away from Saudi Arabia. In 2004 they resided in London. In 2005-2006 they lived in Buenos Aires. After a few years building a ten-billion-dollar petrochemical refinery on the Red Sea, Chris was assigned to Rome for nearly two years. Later assignments included more time in London, which became their second home, with many friends and even a godsonthere. At one point, Chris earned a million frequent-flier miles on British Airways alone. The hoped-for ‘patina’ materialized and bloomed to healthy proportions. Chris and Anita developed, evolved, and advanced throughout this long education. Their passports, fat with additional pages and stamps in exotic writing from exotic places, looked like miniature beat-up telephone books.
After years of this lifestyle, most likely while enjoying a libation with other expatriate friends, the Wszoleks began to consider life beyond indeterminate wandering. It was well known that some expatriates could never get the wanderlust out of their blood, and the concept of retirement home (to whichever country that had been) was not something most wished to consider. As years passed, Chris and Anita developed a plan for a new life that would involve putting away the fat passports, retiring from the jet-setting lifestyle, and returning home to the USA, where they would embark on a new and different chapter. Considering their passion for American history and architecture, one aspect of their future would involve procuring a historic property, restoring it, and afterwards enjoying a lifestyle that included plenty of social interaction.
“Even before we moved overseas, we loved saving old houses,” Anita recalled. Considering that their Point Loma home in San Diego had appreciated tremendously during their absence, it was placed on the market and quickly sold. In September of 2000, Chris and Anita flew into Dulles Airport, rented a car, and began visiting a list of for-sale historic properties they had compiled while in Saudi Arabia by searching the Internet and communicating with realtors from Connecticut to South Carolina. Most short-listed properties clustered around central Virginia, and that group reached west to Lewisburg and Union, West Virginia.
Halfway through the visits, they came to Union and glimpsed Elmwood, which had been for sale for several years, and they realized immediately that it was probably going to be the place.
“I recall mentally logging the amount of work it was going to require while touring the house for the first time,” Chris recalled, mentioning that the size of the project made him tired just thinking it through. To be sure, they visited the remaining properties on the list, completed a due-diligence, and eventually bought the place in early 2001. Tom Mitchell, who had sold them Elmwood, remained on the estate and continued to farm the land, keeping an eye on it until 2013 when Chris and Anita came back for good.
Elmwood’s restoration came together slowly—a good thing, according to Chris, who believed such an undertaking would benefit from a careful understanding of related history and architecture. From the day they closed on the purchase, and for the next 12 years, Chris and Anita made a hobby of learning about the scale and proportion of 19th-century classical architecture along with appropriate materials, hues, finishes and furnishings.
While living in Rome, for example, they learned about how the 16th-century Italian architect, Palladio, developed the Doric order from studying the ruins of the Theater of Marcellus, which had been, in fact, located directly across from the flat they were renting. The Doric order was employed extensively at Elmwood by its Jeffersonian builders. While living in London, they consulted country-house drawings by Vitruvius at the Royal Academy, studied 19th-century wallpaper designs at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and collected antiques and paintings. They shipped containersfull of objects and art back from London, Rome, and, later, Buenos Aires. Anita completed a course in period furnishings at Oxford University and several interior-design courses elsewhere in the UK. Additional help in developing a design that enhanced Elmwood’s original features was obtained from talented American architectural-historian Michael Gioulis.
Although a new roof and repairs to the front portico columns were carried out in 2001-2004, restoration work only began in earnest in 2014. Emphasis was placed on developing a contracting team lead by Monroe County craftsmen, and the Wszoleks were delighted to retain the services of John Steven Long II of Union, a talented joiner who greatly enhanced the project’s scope and became the leader of the construction team for several years. “Decisions that required careful consideration were made by involving the team in everything,” Anita said, referring, for example, to the selection of paint colors or wallpaper for a particularly challenging area. At one point, more than 35 paint swatches were applied around what would become the four-story center hall.
Anita invited carpenters, laborers, subcontractors, and, essentially, any visitors to the site, to review and comment on which colors they liked and which they didn’t, finally making a selection after months of review. Some people expressed surprise at being asked their opinions about form, color, and texture, but this environment was cultivated by Chris, who, from his experience in project management, knew the value.
“Opinions are free, and everybody has something to add,” he said, noting that several excellent design features evolved from input from team members “which we would have never thought of ourselves.” The project moved at a harrowing pace, seven days a week, and was completed, safely, in the summer of 2016 with magnificent results.
The main floor, while not the typical guest entrance, is as good a place to start as any. The original heart-pine flooring, thirteen-foot ceilings, and high, wide arches preface the home’s grandeur and aristocratic appeal. A colorful mural by artist and friend Michael Christie, who also created the faux finishes that adorn the walls throughout Elmwood, covers the entire entrance hall and depicts the development of Virginian mineral springs in the mid-19th-century.
Off the main hall are grand double parlors with impressive crown molding adapted by joiner John Long from Jefferson’s Monticello. An elegant Damask wallpaper covers the room, inviting visitors to relax and play a game of Whist (a classic English card game of the 18th-century) or enjoy the cool evening air on the veranda that overlooks the property.
Across the hall from the parlor is the Victorian-inspired library, a masculine recreation of libraries past, adorned with accents inspired by Henrietta Spencer Churchill’s design for crown molding and a portrait of Hugh Caperton that hangs over the fireplace mantle. Just beside the library is a formal dining room, ideal for gold-plated service lit by a colossal 19th-century crystal chandelier and a gilded mirror accenting the regal crimson wallpaper. Fabulous 18th- and 19th-century portraits adorn the walls.
The lower level of the home offers a more modern and relaxed space and is also where one finds a bartender serving mint juleps and craft beers. The bar is made from a cherry tree at which Mary, the daughter of Allen Taylor Caperton, might have sat and read her summer novellas in 1860. Black leather tufted bar stools and high-backs line the bar, and a large TV is perfectly situated for watching the big game. Adjacent to the bar is a lounge with faux grained paneling that adds Georgian flair to the room. The original fireplace, one of 12, makes a cozy fire by which to rest while reading a book or enjoying a glass of brandy on the leather Chesterfield couch.
The hallway features an antique-case grand piano as well as local artist Pete Ballard’s last painting—a bright sugar maple filled with yellows and greens with Peters Mountain in the background, which adds a touch of color to the darker hues of the paneled walls.
Traveling through to the upper levels of the home and its guest suites, the Henry Clay suite is a large king bedroom with blue toile wallpaper and a four-poster bed. The room flows through an elliptical arch into a sitting room that opens to an ensuite bath.
The adjacent Delilah Caperton suite is more of a feminine space, with screening columns, floral wallpaper, and a clawfoot tub in a large open bathroom. An interesting feature of this suite are the initials “L.A.C.” that had been carved into the pane of one of the windows. The initials belonged to Lelia Caperton, who married Robert Stiles at Elmwood in the 1860s.
The steps continue to yet another floor, where you will find a more relaxed, yet no-less-impressive suite. Exposed hand-hewn beams and reclaimed wood trim give the attic room a rustic elegance, while built-in drawers, a Hollywood regency baroque king headboard, and a Thai carved teak table add touches of eclecticism.
Now that the project is finished, Chris and Anita are focused on establishing Elmwood as an elegant venue for weddings and other events.
“For years, we had to carefully hold ourselves in check to get the restoration complete and avoiding distractions,” said Anita, referring to finally being able to redirect their energies to new and enjoyable scope, including advertising, website development, and hosting guests. Events and receptions have already been held at Elmwood, with excellent results, and in early May more than 500 guests from as far away as Texas visited Elmwood during the Monroe County Spring Historical House Tour. The adjacent ranch house, which was also renovated, is now available for overnights on Airbnb.
In considering those many years abroad, folks are tempted to ask Chris and Anita if they still long to travel. ‘Yes and no’ would be their reply. ‘Yes’ because it’s always an exciting and rewarding experience, and, after all, it was their way of life for more than 20 years. But, considering the Shangri-La they have created in rural Monroe County, greatly enriched and endowed with a bit of ‘patina’ of concepts, flavors, and textures from abroad, the urge to leave is now strongly tempered by the love of staying home, appreciating the beautiful seasons, and welcoming people to Elmwood from anywhere and everywhere.
For additional information about events at Elmwood, see elmwoodestate.com.