A historical, natural oasis beckons in Norfolk

Nestled in an established neighborhood off Norfolk’s busy Hampton Boulevard is the serene Hermitage Museum and Gardens.

The only Smithsonian-affiliated museum in the area, it began life as the late William and Florence Sloane’s five-room summer home. The wealthy New Yorkers came to Norfolk to operate textile mills and, over the years, expanded the home to 42 rooms and grew the gardens. There are 18 rooms on public display.

Opened to the public around the time William Sloane died in 1937, Florence Sloane continued to live in parts of the home until she died in 1953.

This is not a typical historic home because items are not historically arranged.

“Mrs. Sloane didn’t want the rooms to look exactly as they were when they lived in this part of the home. She wanted an open area to show her collections” said Jennifer Lucy, marketing manager for the Hermitage.

The kitchen is the only exception. It is set like kitchens were in the early 20th century.

“Many people come in here and remark how much it is like Downton Abbey,” Lucy said.

The art collection is diverse, including items from 50 countries spanning 5,000 years. They range from jade pieces to swords to Tiffany lamps. The music room has a custom-built Steinway piano that Florence Sloane’s sister Grace played frequently, Lucy said.

The wood-carved walls and doorways are an art collection of their own. The former on-site woodcarver, Charles Woodsend, spent more than 2,000 hours creating décor around the top of doorways.

In addition to collecting established pieces, Florence Sloane opened her home to working artists, especially women artists, to be inspired by the gardens.

The 12-acre semiformal gardens were inspired by her extensive travels. The Millstone Courtyard shows 105 millstones — she began collecting them in 1931.

Following the northeast corner of the back lawn leads to the Walled Garden, Children’s Garden and the Grotto. The walk features cedars, azaleas and daffodils. Once in the Grotto, there is a cherub and dolphin fountain that was purchased in 1920.

The East Garden shows native plants and overlooks the Lafayette River.

With the intent to preserve the garden and the area, recent 21st century environmental techniques have been employed. The Hermitage created a living shoreline in 2006 with more than 6,000 native marsh grasses.

Preservation efforts continued in 2011 and 2015 with restoration of 12-thousand additional square feet.

Two rain gardens populated with native plants are designed to echo nature. Oyster reef balls, installed by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, give a space for oysters to attach and grow.

Another restoration project, the boardwalk, has educational markers to show the wetlands’ importance to the overall area.

Want to go?

Hermitage Museum and Gardens

7637 North Shore Road, Norfolk

757-423-2052 or thehermitagemuseum.org

Open Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.- 5 p.m.

Daily house tours, 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Admission to museum $12 for adults, students and children $8.

Gardens only is free.

» Sunsets on the River concerts are every other Thursday May 10-August 16. Admission is $12. Children under 5 and members are free.

» A special exhibit, Proof, works by Hampton Roads Photographer Mark Edward Atkinson, shows his images taken in locally, nationally and internationally. It is on display until July 22.

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