It is not often you find yourself standing alone in a 16,000-square-foot home, but recently I had that experience. There was a deafening silence that made the elegance of my surroundings all the more dramatic. This historic building, which I have been inside many times, has always impressed me. However, there was something special about uninterrupted solitude and a mind free to wander.
In 1893 United States Senator Henry Gassaway Davis completed construction of a summer home on a prominent high point in the mountains of Randolph County. The mansion, the centerpiece of a 360-acre estate, is a sophisticated expression of Queen Anne Victorian architecture. The exterior is constructed of native sandstone and the interior is decorated in native hardwoods, namely quartered oak, bird’s eye maple, cherry and walnut. Senator Davis named it Graceland in honor of his youngest daughter. In 1939, the house was acquired by the West Virginia Presbyterian Educational Fund and donated in 1941 to Davis & Elkins College.
As I strolled in solitude through the house, my mind imagined hearing conversation over many decades reverberating from the wooden walls of the grand mansion. Generations of the Davis Family entertained guests from far and wide, including many famous politicians and celebrities of the time. Extravagant balls and everyday dinner conversations occurred in the same space that today hosts College events and community gatherings. The sounds of students from the decades of the 1940s through the 1960s can also be heard ever so faintly. Serving as a men’s dormitory for most of that time, frantic study sessions and laughter over adolescent pranks exists in that space.
Sadly, in 1971 as Graceland fell into disrepair, it was boarded up and its future uncertain. D&E students of the 1970s and 1980s tell stories of sneaking into Graceland, whether on a ghost hunt or to avoid being caught doing the things students do. It continued to play a role in the life of the College, though not the one intended.
Thankfully, during the presidency of Dorothy MacConkey, a fundraising campaign was completed with significant help from U.S. Senator Robert Byrd to restore the grand old mansion. Also restored was Halliehurst, the second mansion on campus that originally served as the summer home of Senator Stephen Elkins and Hallie Davis Elkins, the son-in-law and daughter respectively of Senator Davis. The grand historic restoration, completed with great attention to detail, blesses the D&E campus today.
Graceland, arrayed in splendor, is now an Inn with 11 guest suites and rooms open to the public. For those visiting Elkins and D&E, it is an unparalleled opportunity to experience history. The view of Elkins and the surrounding mountains from the veranda on the southern exposure of the house is breathtaking. While temporarily closed at present due to COVID, Graceland will reopen as soon as it is safe and will welcome guests once again.
Guest arriving by carriage in the 1890s, students living in the mansion during the turbulent 1960s, and future guests of the Inn later in 2021 will all share one thing in common. If listening carefully, their ears will hear the faint noise of a cacophony of voices that journeyed to a special place.
Thankfully, the journey continues….
Chris A. Wood
Davis & Elkins College