More or less following the Dan River from near South Boston to Pittsylvania County, River Road meanders along the rolling countryside of an old stage route that preserves an architectural record of nineteenth-century life in Halifax County. The road's most sophisticated houses, Berry Hill and the more modest Tarover (HX23), were constructed for the Bruces, who, along with the Cocke family, were responsible for some of the finest nineteenth-century rural architecture in Virginia.
Berry Hill is Virginia's most imposing example of residential Greek Revival architecture. From its hilltop setting, the house commands attention with its pedimented eight-columned Doric facade. Preceding the house and to each side of it are one-story dependencies, each with a four-columned pedimented Doric portico, thus echoing and framing the main house. Built for tobacco planter and merchant James Coles Bruce, Berry Hill is a mirror of his prosperity and economic might. Wanting to use the Parthenon as a model for his house (or at least the front of the Parthenon), Bruce had Johnson draw the house's plan and supervise Dabbs, its builder. Johnson, who had spent time in Philadelphia, must have seen the Biddles' Greek Revival house Andalusia, also based on the Parthenon.
According to the Bruces, Johnson was "a gentleman of elegant tastes" but "not a professional architect" (Henry W. Lewis, More Taste Than Prudence, 1983). The judgment was borne out in several ways, not the least by the design of Berry Hill's majestic facade—with the windows' views blocked by the placement of the columns. Although the house's colonial predecessors such as Westover in Charles City County and Mount Airy in Richmond County have elevations that are symmetrical on both the front and the rear, Berry Hill reveals the importance of an elaborate facade in denoting status. The Doric entablature, six-and-a-half feet high and finely detailed with metopes, triglyphs, and guttae, continues around the sides and rear of the main house, uniting the symmetrical main facade of the house with its decidedly asymmetrical sides and rear. The long service ell extending from the rear of the house expedited service to the house, but destroyed the harmony established in the facade and its forecourt.
This lack of symmetry between front and rear shows a transformation of the mind-set of the Virginia planter from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century. Colonial Virginians seldom acknowledged architecturally the presence of slaves in their households. Their perfectly symmetrical houses embodied the symmetry of the hierarchical society they created. But when antebellum Virginians pointed proudly to their role in establishing a society rooted in the principle that all men were created equal, they also had to acknowledge the contradiction of that principle in their own backyards. Virginians of the nineteenth century presented themselves confidently to the world by building a facade. But attached to the back of the big house was the architectural expression of their moral dilemma. Some of the stone houses for Bruce's slaves were arranged in rows in a corner of the plantation, others were sited picturesquely throughout the landscape.
Inside the house an elegant curved divided stairway, built by free black Thomas Day, sweeps majestically up to a landing and then to another, more modest, double stairway leading, in turn, to a small upper hallway. The house's finishings are luxurious and include mahogany doors, silver-plated locks and hinges, and marble mantelpieces, with one in the drawing room featuring caryatids.
Once the embodiment of agricultural power, a power that is fast waning in Virginia, Berry Hill has become a resort and conference center. The Bruce family sold the estate in 1950. The main house has undergone restoration, and new wings have been added for classrooms, a dining room, and offices, as well as buildings for ninety guest rooms, a restaurant, and a health spa.