Monday, April 20, 2009

Salamander Farm

Sheila Johnson's 165-acre estate, Salamander Farm, is located on Zulla Road between the Plains and Middleburg. When Johnson discovered that the property’s second owner, Rhode Island governor Bruce Sundlun (who was given the code name Salamander in World War II and received honors for his valor as a pilot), had called the farm "Salamander," she changed the name back. A salamander is the only creature that can mythically walk through fire and still come out alive.

“My daughter’s love of horses brought me to the area,” Johnson says. “But I bought the home because of the view. The view is hard to duplicate.” Johnson lives on the majestic property that overlooks the Blue Ridge Mountains with daughter Paige (a Grand Prix horsewoman), son Brett and her husband.

Recently Sheila Johnson became an owner of the Washington Mystics, Wizards and Capitals sports teams. A former music teacher at Sidwell Friends School in Northwest Washington, billionaire Johnson still plays violin and remains passionate about music. She recently donated $3 million to endow a Performing Arts Center at the private Hill School (Middleburg).

Entrepreneur Johnson lived in a double-wide trailer on the grounds of Salamander Farm while renovations to the stone house were taking place (the relatively modest home was expanded to 14,500 sq. ft.). In order to preserve the original stone facade, the additions were primarily constructed on the lower floor and in side wings. Consequently, contrary to the layout of most estate homes, the principal rooms of the house are on the lower level. She employed Washington-DC-based interior designer Thomas Pheasant to realize her vision for furnishing her home.

Ms. Johnson created resistance and much controversy when she announced plans to develop another property (the estate of former ambassador to France, the late Pamela Harriman) into a hotel/conference center complex right at the edge of the village of Middleburg. Approval was eventually granted, and construction is still underway. An opening date for the 120-bed Salamander Resort and Spa has been pushed back to early 2011.

700 guests descended on Salamander Farm when Ms. Johnson married Arlington County Circuit Court chief justice William T. Newman Jr., in 2005. An avid cook, these days he spends much of his time in the elaborate kitchen at Salamander Farm, baking cakes, pastries and making home-made ice cream. Coincidentally, Newman was the presiding judge over Johnson’s divorce from Robert Johnson in 2002, with whom she founded the cable network BET.

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