Former W&L retreat sold for $3.25 million

Skylark’s panoramic view of bucolic valleys and the picturesque Blue Ridge Parkway is priceless. But upkeep on the 365-acre mountaintop farm isn’t cheap and in tough economic times, luxuries sometimes have to be cut.

Washington and Lee University recently sold Skylark, the school’s retreat and conference center about 35 to 40 miles from campus, in an effort to trim expenses and provide more funds for capital projects and university operations.

“It was hard to justify the cost of maintaining in a responsible manner a property far from campus that received little usage by our employees or students,” said W&L President Ken Ruscio.

The house and 365-acre farm on the Blue Ridge Parkway were sold recently to a couple from Charlottesville. Skylark has a 360-degree view of the Shenandoah Valley. (The Rockbridge Report/BROOKE SUTHERLAND)

Craig and Anne Colberg of Charlottesville took formal ownership of the property Nov. 1 after reaching a contract agreement this September. Skylark had been on the market for about four months with an asking price of $4.5 million.

According to Nelson County public records, the new owners paid $3.25 million for the farm.

Craig Colberg co-founded Rivanna Capital LLC, an investment company based in Charlottesville, in 2005. According to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing from Nov. 1, Rivanna Capital reported a total of nearly $235 million in stock holdings through Sept. 30.

Amid a troubled real estate market, commercial and residential sales remain down across the country. And million-dollar transactions like the sale of Skylark are a particular rarity. But Colberg said he fell in love with the beauty of the property and jumped at the chance to make it his own.

“This is truly a one-off,” he said. “This is not for investment purposes. It’s nothing like that. It was simply an opportunity to purchase a pre-eminent piece of property. That’s really what it came down to.”

Designed in the 1960s to resemble an 18th century farmstead, Skylark boasts a three-bedroom main house with a guest apartment, a guesthouse with a large meeting room, a barn-style caretaker’s house, a stable and a Christmas tree farm.

But the university struggled to find a use for the land that was both cost-effective and beneficial to the school, said W&L Treasurer Steve McAllister.

Situated near milepost 25 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the farm is about 45 minutes away from W&L’s Lexington campus.

And the drive is not an easy one, particularly in the winter.

“The parkway tends to close when there’s inclement weather,” McAllister said. “So anywhere from November to March, a use of it is chancy.”

Additionally, being on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the farm can’t be reached by most commercial vehicles, which limited the university’s opportunities for expansion of the current facilities, he said. 

Events at Skylark included the annual employee picnic in August and retreats for student groups. But the university used the farm only between 20 and 25 times a year, McAllister said.

Meanwhile, the net expense of maintaining the property ranged from $75,000 to $125,000 per year, he said. “It’s one of those things you look at and you say, ‘We can’t afford this luxury,’” McAllister said.

W&L employed a staff of three to take care of Skylark. But no one is out of a job as a result of the sale, McAllister said.

Lowell and Viola Humphreys, holdovers from before the university took possession of the farm in 1977, retired from their positions as farm managers about a year before the property was placed on the market at the beginning of the summer, McAllister said.

The third employee, Sandy Nicely, will now work in facilities management on campus, he said.

Skylark was a gift to W&L from the Cheek family. Leslie Cheek Jr., former director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and his wife, Mary Tyler Cheek, had taken over the farm in the 1960s and begun transforming it into the perfect countryside retreat.

But the labor-intensive upkeep and the challenges of the location, in addition to Leslie Cheek Jr.’s faltering health, drove the family to hand the property over to W&L, said Leslie Cheek III, the original owner’s son who now lives in Warrenton.

The gift was made in honor of Mary Tyler Cheek’s father, Douglas Southall Freeman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of both George Washington and Robert E. Lee.
Freeman, an alumnus of what is now the University of Richmond, was also editor of The Richmond News Leader from 1915 to 1949.

The only stipulation was that the property be used to benefit the university community, McAllister said. W&L reserved the right to dispose of Skylark as it saw fit.

“Certainly we weren’t accepting the property with the goal of selling it, [but] we would not commit to holding it in perpetuity,” McAllister said.

The university did, however, consult the Cheek family on its decision to sell the property. One consideration both parties agreed on was a desire to find a buyer who would preserve the rural integrity of the land.

W&L couldn’t mandate a restriction on development in the sale, but Colberg has already expressed an interest in placing a conservation easement on the farm.

“Because it’s right on the parkway, it has such a presence there,” Colberg said. “Maintaining that look is important to us.”

The Colberg family will not move to Skylark, but rather will maintain the farm as a retreat and rent out the existing buildings for conferences and weddings.

Christmas tree sales will still take place at the farm this winter, Colberg said.








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