Virginia and Butch Hamlet love their Virginia home. It's where they've lived since 1987. It's where they've raised their three boys, Harrison, Lee and Mitchell, as well as Yesid, Kevin and Kaleb. Eltham Manor has the feel of a family home, complete with dogs, pick-up football games and skeet shooting.
The home, listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register, also tells part of the story of the once predominantly agricultural area's rise to preeminence in American industry.
The Hamlets' residence at Eltham seems fitting. Virginia's family, the Walkers, played a part in the area's early industrial growth through their textile company, Bassett-Walker, Inc. It was a member of the Bassett family, William McKinley Bassett, who built Eltham.
W.M. Bassett was the eldest son of John David Bassett, Sr. In 1902, the father, along with two relatives, founded a furniture enterprise that mushroomed into an empire. The son, who grew up in the business of manufacturing furniture, eventually headed Bassett Furniture Industries Inc., which became the largest producer of wood furniture in the world.
The area's furniture industry dovetailed with the textile industry. Textile mills tapped a natural labor force by providing steady work for women whose husbands worked in furniture factories - a perfect marriage. The area spawned a number of textile companies, and was known as the Sweatshirt Capital of the World.
Through the two industries, the once-sleepy Smith River Valley hummed with factory life. In the early 1930s, W.M. Bassett hired architect William Roy Wallace, a protege of Charles Barton Keen, who drew plans for a classic Virginia river house. In 1936, the plans were realized as Eltham Manor rose on a prominence overlooking the Smith River.
A Palladian Influence
Eltham's Palladian features echo the Veneto, an area of Italy dotted with agricultural villas that evolved from Roman agricultural compounds. A number of later villas and palazzos designed by architectural icon Andrea Palladio still stand. Virginia Hamlet studied in the Veneto, focusing on Palladio's hometown of Vicenza, as part of her training as an architect.
The Veneto "exported" the designs of Palladio, which have long influenced Virginians, including Thomas Jefferson whose tastes and appreciation also embraced wine. As in so much of Italy, vines lace fields and hillsides of the Veneto. Both influences live on in Virginia in such places as Eltham.
Eltham also has an agricultural aspect. Not far from the main house stands a gambrel-roofed barn built by Millard Mason. Virginia and Butch Hamlet wanted to make a natural, agricultural use of Eltham's barn and 300 acres.
In the spring of 2010 after 2 years of preparation, they planted 3500 grape vines on a rolling hillside beside the winding drive that leads up to their home, creating Hamlet Vineyards.