A personal touch

Founder’s imprint is found throughout Salamander Resort & Spa

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Print this page by Paula C. Squires

The most striking thing about Sheila C. Johnson’s long-awaited resort is the personal touch. When the $100 million-plus Salamander Resort & Spa opens in Middleburg on Aug. 29, there will be no escaping Johnson’s imprint throughout Virginia’s newest luxury property.

The bronze statue of the horse in the lobby? Johnson purchased it during a trip to France. The framed prints of landscape photography in the resort’s rooms? Johnson shot the photos.  The colorful, handmade Italian scarves in the gift shop?  The images on the scarves also come from Johnson’s photography.

The library offers a nook where patrons can read books from Johnson’s collection. 

Even the design of the spa’s pool area is patterned after the design and dimensions at Johnson’s farm a few miles away.  “We drew inspiration from all the facets that Sheila has created at the farm … The landscape, the grounds, the inside and outside, the architecture,” says Prem Devadas, president of Salamander Hotels & Resorts, the hospitality company founded by Johnson that owns a portfolio of luxury properties.

Horses, of course, are welcome at this equestrian-style resort. After all, horses are what brought Johnson to Middleburg in the first place. She and her family moved here in 1996 after buying the 200-acre Salamander Farm where Johnson’s daughter, a skilled equestrian, trained for part of the year.  These days Johnson says her daughter “has her own business and is still active in the equestrian world.” 

The 340-acre resort includes an equestrian center with a 22-stall stable, a practice ring and miles of trails with views of the Bull Run Mountains.  Dogs are welcome, too. “We have guest rooms on the terrace level, adjoining the grand lawn, where people will be able to walk their dogs without going through the lobby,” says Johnson.

‘It’s been a long journey’
It must bring comfort for Johnson to see the expansive lawn, the fieldstone terraces and a Labor Day weekend opening date on the calendar. Her dream of building a 168-room resort in the heart of Virginia’s elite horse country proved to be one of the most vexing projects she ever faced. Of her many pursuits as a hotelier, filmmaker and the first African-American woman to hold an ownership interest in three professional sports teams, no other business project has been as much of a challenge.

“It’s been a long journey, a long ordeal,” she says.  Johnson began thinking about getting into the hotel and resort industry back in 2002. Back then, she was a rich, 53-year-old divorcée who had recently parted ways with Robert L. Johnson, her husband of 33 years. The two co-founded BET (Black Entertainment Television), which was sold to media giant Viacom in 2000 for a reported $3 billion.

Johnson always had enjoyed entertaining. Flush with funds, she donated millions to charity and then set out to build a five-star resort.  In 2002, she bought 340 acres of Middleburg land from the estate of Pamela Harriman, an A-list socialite and former ambassador to France.

Johnson’s plans, however, didn’t sit well with some locals.  They felt a resort would be out of character in this quiet area of rolling hills and stone fences. For years, Middleburg had been home to celebrities, equestrian champions and diplomats who enjoy the rural seclusion of a historic Virginia town located less than 50 miles from Washington, D.C. 

During the Civil War, troops from Union and Confederate armies camped and fought here on their way to Gettysburg. Confederate Colonel John S. Mosby also used Middleburg as a base camp, from which he conducted raids in the region. 

Middleburg’s location, so close to a major metropolitan area, was one of the reasons Johnson thought her project could succeed. Shortly after she announced plans for the resort, however, bumper stickers started appearing around town that said, “Don’t BET Middleburg.”

Work stopped for 18 months
Fast forward 11 years.  After receiving racist hate mail and threats, surviving a recession, adding an equity partner and building an $11 million water and wastewater treatment plant for Middleburg — which will accommodate the town and the spa’s water needs — Johnson’s project is about to become a reality.

Junius Real Estate Partners, in New York, a real estate investment division of J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. bank, became involved in 2012.  The company’s stake in the project was not disclosed, but the new infusion of capital came along at a good time. Construction on the resort stopped for 18 months, from late 2010 to summer 2012, as resort properties like Salamander tried to ride out a bad economy. Plus, other problems cropped up as well, such as leaky windows that had to be replaced. 

These days, naysayers seem to have fallen by the wayside. Perhaps they have been lulled into silence by another of Johnson’s strategic moves. She put nearly 200 acres of the property into conservation as part of an agreement with Potomac Conservancy. “It assures that these pristine woods will remain,” she says. “I think it softened the resistance.” 

Johnson’s 260,000-square-foot project has remained true to hunt country design.  The resort’s main building of stucco, slate and fieldstone rises gracefully from the countryside. It’s minutes away from Middleburg’ s main drag, West Washington Street — tucked behind Johnson’s gourmet country market, Market Salamander. Guests will be able to take carriage rides to town or they can enjoy a leisurely 10-minute walk along the property’s winding driveway.  “We have something authentic here. We want them to enjoy the town,” says Johnson.

The grand lawn leads to a circular drive where guests step into a lobby with bluestone and French antique floors. Not far off the lobby is a wine-tasting room. Devadas says a wall of wine will offer vintages from around the world, including some Virginia wines. The resort is within a 30-minute drive to 20 wineries. It also will have access to Creighton Farms, a private golf course, about 10 minutes away.

In addition to the wine, there’s a fireplace in the bar area and a billiards table.  “We want it to feel like home, not a hotel,” says Johnson.

Two-floor spa
The kitchen and spa are two of her favorite areas. In what Johnson calls the “culinary teaching kitchen,” guests will be able to watch meals being prepared through monitors and glass windows.  The resort plans to offer cooking classes and will have a garden where vegetables and herbs for the restaurant will be grown.  “We want to bring families in to have a wellness weekend where we can talk with them about cooking,” she says.

Guests will know when they are nearing the spa. Marking the transition to this part of the resort is a room with an octagonal-shaped entry.  At the entrance of the spa is a stone and fountain passageway with copper-lined fountains. Inside, a 14-foot, tiled glass and stone waterfall drops into a whirlpool tub.

The 23,000-square-foot spa has two floors and includes separate areas for men and women. Guests can work out in fitness rooms, swim in either an indoor or outdoor pool or relax in a whirlpool under a star-like ceiling of tiny white lights. There will be an array of treatments from mud wraps to facials.

Terraced fieldstone walls and trellises set off the outdoor pool and cabana area. Couples wanting more privacy can opt for the couple’s suite where they will find a double-sided fireplace, whirlpool tub and their own outdoor terrace. 
Devadas says interest in the new property has been high, with reservations already taken for eight destination weddings and several conferences.  All this luxury doesn’t come cheap. Rates during the peak season will range from $425 to $575 per night for a room, depending on views, while pricing for the larger suites goes from $775 to $3,500 per night.

When the property opens, Devadas says, it will employ 300 full- and part-time workers. Richmonders might remember Devadas as the managing director of the city’s Jefferson Hotel, who presided over its extensive renovations in the early 1990s. He also directed the development and opening in 2004 of The Sanctuary at Kiawah Island, a 255-room luxury hotel.

Devadas joined Johnson’s company in 2005 to lead the development of Salamander Resort & Spa. The project broke ground in 2007.

Despite all that has happened over the intervening six years, Devadas and Johnson don’t seem discouraged. In fact, they’re already planning a second phase of development in conjunction with the resort’s equity partner. The plan is to build 49 luxury homes and 12 cottages not far from the resort. 

“I’m not bitter about anything,” Johnson says. “I’ve learned a lot about people. You have to compromise and come to a consensus to make things work.”

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