Carolyn Holmes began her work at the historic home of U.S. President James Monroe in Charlottesville, Va., on a 15-month contract. That was 37 years ago.
Earlier this month, Holmes retired as executive director of Ash Lawn-Highland, the William & Mary-owned property that was restored and revitalized under her leadership.
“President Monroe’s home provides a powerful reminder of William & Mary’s ties to the founders of our country,” said William & Mary President Taylor Reveley. “For nearly four decades, Carolyn Holmes ensured that this important link to William & Mary – and to President Monroe’s life – was enjoyed by people in our time and preserved for future generations. We owe her a great debt of gratitude and join her in looking forward to the next chapter in the story of Ash Lawn-Highland.”
A native of Raleigh, N.C., Holmes received her undergraduate degree from Wake Forest and her graduate degree from Duke. She began her career as a teacher, but soon found that her real passion was in restoring historic homes.
In 1974, Holmes and her husband, David – a longtime professor of religious studies at William & Mary – were returning from a trip when they picked up a newspaper and discovered that the College had received what was then simply called Ash Lawn as a gift from philanthropist Jay Winston Johns.
Holmes offered the College her help and soon found herself traveling to the 535-acre property with a contingent from the campus. When they arrived, Holmes saw Ash Lawn’s potential.
“It was just a matter of maintenance,” she said. “Every area had fallen behind – maintenance of the collection, maintenance of the buildings, maintenance of the grounds, maintenance of the interpretation to the public.”
After that initial visit, Holmes was offered a 15-month contract to help restore the property.
Thinking back to that moment, Holmes said, “It reminds me of my mother’s advice when I moved into my first apartment. She said, ‘Don’t get too much temporary furniture. You may find it’s with you until your dying day.’
“But this, at least, was only 37 years,” Holmes said with a laugh.
During her nearly four decades at the property, Holmes not only restored the home and reconstructed its outbuildings, but she also started a working cattle farm on the previously untended grounds. Holmes also built the estate’s collection of art and furnishings, adding pieces owned by the Monroe family or duplicates from the same era. She also brought “Highland,” Monroe’s original name for the property, back to the estate’s title.
“I feel like if the Monroes walked in, they’d say, ‘Oh, it feels a little different, but isn’t it great to be home again?’” said Holmes.
Holmes also ensured that the property generated revenue through both ticket sales and creative programing. Through earned income, the property was soon able to pay back all of its restoration costs. Holmes’ efforts also raised nearly $1 million to provide educational opportunities such as summer internships and Monroe Scholarships for students. In fact, the revitalization of Ash Lawn-Highland sparked new interested in Monroe, and, as a result, it has become the focus of modern Monroe studies.
The estate, which attracts about 60,000 visitors annually, has also become a prime event location and has hosted everything from craft fairs and wine festivals to symposia and Revolutionary War reenactments. This spring, the two-tiered Ash Lawn-Highland Barn was completed, and it has already been frequently used for dinners, weddings and receptions.
Although Holmes said she is “not very good at being bored,” that was never a problem at Ash Lawn-Highland.
“Frankly, sometimes I would think, ‘You know not much is happening right now. We’re kind of doing the same ol’, same ol’,’ and at that point, someone would have an idea, or a grant we’d written for and completely forgotten about would arrive,” she said. “Just like that, some idea or some resource would become available, and that would keep it interesting. And the people that I worked with were such good people that I wanted to be with them.”
Many of the staff members have worked at Ash Law-Highland for decades themselves, becoming something like family to Holmes, who lived at the estate for a while with her own family: her husband and their two young children.
“It was really very nice,” said Holmes of living at the estate. “We had these built-in ‘aunts’ and ‘uncles’ on the staff who were very nice to the children.”
But Holmes did not just maintain good relationships with those at Ash Lawn-Highland throughout the years. She also built strong ties with the William & Mary campus.
“I can’t say enough about the pleasure and the ease and the reassurance the security of working with the College year after year,” she said. “I just feel like we’ve been among the most fortunate of humans to have had this association with this remarkable space.”
The College obviously has similar feelings for Holmes. In early 2012, the Board of Visitors passed a resolution, thanking her for her work at Ash Lawn-Highland and naming her executive director emeritus.
But Holmes talks of the honor humbly, saying, “It’s not about me. It’s about them and their generosity. They were that courteous, and I feel like it’s an honor for all of Ash Lawn and all of the Ash Lawn staff.”
With the search for an new executive director now underway, Holmes -- who announced her intention to retire in November 2011 -- vows to remain a part of Ash Lawn-Highland family and watch as they use what she’s done “to move on to greater glory.”
“I won’t miss anything,” she said. “I’m going to be able to still enjoy the people. And watch the story go on.”