Take a Trip Back in Time at Chinqua Penn Plantation
When you think of historic mansions in North Carolina, the renowned Biltmore Estate usually comes to mind, but there is another grand estate much closer to the Triad, and it offers tours of its distinctive architecture and eclectic collection of furnishings and artifacts from around the world.
Chinqua Penn Plantation is just outside of Reidsville and is about a 30-minute drive from the Triad. Previously managed by N.C. State University and then closed for several years, the home was purchased in August 2006 by Calvin Phelps, the founder of Renegade Tobacco Co. in Mocksville, and it recently re-opened for tours this past fall.
The 27-room English countryside mansion was built in the 1920s by Thomas Jefferson Penn and his wife, Beatrice Schoellkopf Penn, and reflects their extraordinary lifestyle of entertaining, traveling, and collecting art and furniture from 30 countries.
Even though I’ve lived in Greensboro for most of my life, I’d never been to Chinqua Penn Plantation, so one Saturday morning, my husband, Michael, and my daughter, Lily, 2, and I decided to take the short drive to tour this unique piece of history.
Driving up to Chinqua Penn, you don’t immediately sense the true grandeur of the estate. We first entered through the gift shop and ticket area, both located in a smaller building in front of the main home. This wood and stone structure originally housed the families of the Penn’s gardener and chauffeur.
Tours of the main house and gardens are given every 30 minutes. A volunteer shuttled our group on a golf cart up a private road to the main house, passing a chiming clock tower, a large cupid fountain and a Japanese Pagoda that surrounds the swimming pool. Just beyond that, we then got a better glimpse of the stately manor and the surrounding lush landscape.
Walking through the front doors is like stepping into a different world and time. Treasures from the Penn’s world travels line the halls and rooms. All furnishings and decorations are original and have been carefully preserved.
A tour guide took us room by room through the two-story, Y-shaped mansion, telling interesting antidotes about the Penn’s very unusual and extravagant life. Each item in the home, from the rugs to the china to the replica of King Tut’s chair has its own story of why and how it got there. The details in the home are remarkable, such as how each room has a plaster ceiling with a different pattern — no two ceilings in the house are alike. Each luxuriously appointed bedroom is decorated to represent a different country such as the French, Italian and Chinese rooms. For me, the most impressive room was the main living area, with its enormously high ceilings, Renaissance-style Italian columns, dark wood wall panels and Spanish-tile canopy.
Because we visited Chinqua Penn on a rainy winter day, we did not have the opportunity to explore the 23 acres of landscaped gardens. However, the tour guide told us there is an exotic horticulture collection, changing with each season, as well as live peacocks roaming the grounds. I wish we had been able to walk around the Plantation, because it would have been more enjoyable for our daughter, who had a tough time resisting the urge to touch everything inside! However, I think older children, 5 and up, would be fascinated with all of the décor and interesting objects in the home, and could better appreciate the history.
In addition to the main house and grounds, there is also a wine-tasting room at Chinqua Penn. The plantation itself has two wine cellars; one in the house and the other in the main entrance area of the plantation. The wine-tasting room is adjacent to the gift shop. Wines made from local grapes are available for tasting and purchase and in warmer months you can sit on the adjoining outdoor patio and enjoy a glass of wine.
Currently, the Plantation is undergoing several restorations including some to the main house, wine cellar, grounds and greenhouse, so more areas will be open for tours in the future. There are also plans for the opening of an on-site antiques store in 2008.
It’s very fortunate for North Carolina that the Phelps saw what a treasure Chinqua Penn Plantation truly is and once again opened its doors for visitors to appreciate its beauty. This is one tour not to miss.
IF YOU GO
Chinqua Penn Plantation
2138 Wentworth Street
Reidsville, NC 27320
Regular House Tour Hours
10 a.m.-3 p.m.
10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Garden and Gift Shop Hours
10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Wine Tasting Room
Cristi Driver is a Greensboro-based freelance writer and mother of one.