It was reputed to be America’s loveliest Colonial-era plantation house, a jewel of Georgian architecture. Its interiors, with opulent walnut and yellow pine paneling, parquetry and grand staircase — the work of a master joiner summoned to Colonial Virginia from England — are lauded in its National Historic Landmark paperwork as the most beautiful in the South.
For the better part of three centuries, Carter’s Grove rested serenely on the northern bank of the James River. It was built in 1750 by Carter Burwell, grandson of Robert “King” Carter, the English colony’s early land baron, to awe visitors with physical evidence of the bountiful riches that could be wrung from the New World wilderness.
Before the house, the land was the site of Martin’s Hundred plantation and Wolstenholme Towne, an ill-fated English settlement founded in 1620, just a few years after the establishment of Jamestown five miles upriver. Wolstenholme was destroyed during a native Powhatan massacre of English settlers in 1622.
But Carter’s Grove had better luck. For 260 years, it steadfastly survived looting, flood, hurricane, earthquake, a Hollywood crew filming a now-forgotten Cary Grant movie, and a marauding Revolutionary War colonel who billeted his Redcoats there and, legend has it, rode a horse up the main staircase, hacking the grand railing with his sword along the way. A 1928 renovation diminished the Palladian perfection of its exterior, but still, it endured.
Carter’s Grove may have finally met its ruin, however, in the unlikely form of Halsey Minor, a brash 40-something technology investor living in San Francisco.
Minor bought Carter’s Grove from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in 2007 and vowed to restore it to its former glory as a palatial private home. It was a suitably high-profile homecoming of sorts for Minor, allowing him to reassert his family’s long history of prominence in Virginia.
The Minors are an old Charlottesville family, and sitting near the center of the University of Virginia campus are Minor Hall (named for John Minor, an early law professor) and Halsey Hall (named for Minor’s relative, World War II Adm. William “Bull” Halsey). Around the same time as his Carter’s Grove purchase, Minor broke ground on a luxury hotel in downtown Charlottesville. In many ways, the local boy made good was returning to his native soil.
Minor made a large fortune in the first Internet boom. Shortly after graduating with an anthropology degree from U-Va. in 1987, Minor set out for San Francisco to stake a claim in the nascent Internet industry. He and another U-Va. grad, Shelby Bonnie, co-founded CNET, an Internet media company that went public and was eventually acquired by CBS Corp. Minor went on to cannily fund start-ups such as Salesforce.com and the company that became Google Voice. He had a knack for spotting good talent and good ideas.
Many of these investments yielded spectacular financial returns. The young entrepreneur beamed from the cover of Forbes in 1998 as one of the “Masters of the New Universe.” Fortune celebrated him as one of the wealthiest Americans younger than 40, along with fellow phenom Jeff Bezos, and ahead of Tiger Woods and tech investor Marc Andreessen. Minor opined on technology for Charlie Rose, and the Clintons dined at Minor’s house in San Francisco while in town to drop Chelsea off at Stanford.
In about 2006, however, Minor and his wife, Deborah, divorced, and he recast himself as a Los Angeles-based bachelor and investor. He embarked on a $100 million post-divorce spending spree: houses in Bel Air and elsewhere, thoroughbred racehorses, major art, and a deposit on a new $59 million Gulfstream G650 to shuttle between California and Virginia.
He soon remarried and bought another San Francisco house, an almost comically formal stone manse officially known, in all seriousness, as Le Petit Trianon for $22 million. Minor hired Michael S. Smith (who was later also tapped by the Obamas to redecorate the White House) for what Minor promised would be a $15 million transformation.
Though he already had a country house near Charlottesville, Minor bought Carter’s Grove in 2007 intending to make it his part-time residence and a thoroughbred farm. He announced a plan to buy racetracks on the East Coast, including Miami’s Hialeah Park and Baltimore’s Pimlico. Moreover, a splendidly renovated Carter’s Grove would have been a fitting stage from which Minor might launch a long-hinted run for the Virginia governorship.
But Minor never moved into Carter’s Grove. It has sat empty and neglected for years. The historic treasure is falling apart.
In February, inspectors from Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources found a leaking roof, broken climate-control system, pervasive rot, cracked paneling and indications that the house is shifting and may be unsound.