Appeared in September/October 2006
Today’s guests can thank Prince Hubertus Fugger of Bavaria for the transformation of this luxury resort an hour northwest of Atlanta. Engaged by the property’s history, Fugger bought the land in 1988, spent more than $3.5 million to restore the elaborate gardens planted a century and a half earlier, and opened them to the public in 1992. Five years later, Barnsley Gardens became Barnsley Gardens Resort with the addition of 33 English-style guest cottages, a Jim Fazio-designed golf course called The General, and other activities, including fishing, horseback riding and sporting clays.
The original owner, Godfrey Barnsley, would have been proud, for he intended the estate to be a place of respite. Barnsley, an English cotton baron, was married to Julia Scarborough, a shipping heiress from Savannah, Georgia. When Julia fell sick, Barnsley moved her to north Georgia, hoping she would benefit from the gentler climate, but she died of consumption before the gardens and luxury manor he envisioned were completed.
According to legend, Julia appeared to Godfrey in the gardens a year after her death and told him to finish the work for their six children and future generations. He did finish, building a mansion and a garden inspired by the principles of Andrew Jackson Downing, designer of the White House grounds and the Washington Mall. But Barnsley soon lost his fortune in the Civil War, and Union soldiers ransacked the estate, helping themselves to the manor’s imported furnishings, Italian marble and other treasures. Godfrey’s daughter Julia struggled to rebuild the property, but the sad saga continued when a tornado blew the roof off the manor in 1906. (Julia, incidentally, is said to be Margaret Mitchell’s inspiration for the character of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind.) In 1935, one of Godfrey’s great-grandsons murdered his brother during an argument over control of the property. Barnsley descendents continued to occupy the estate until it was sold at auction in 1942.
The property sat in disrepair until the arrival of Fugger, who also looked to Downing’s writings when building the resort’s pedestrian village. Like spokes on a wheel, footpaths extend from the “town hall.” The grand Woodlands clubhouse sits at the southern edge of the village, while on the northwestern perimeter are the mansion ruins, gardens and the resort’s fine-dining restaurant, Rice House.
Fugger, who sold the property to local investors in 2004, was so intent on maintaining the Downing-inspired gardens that he hired a horticulturalist to travel the country with Barnsley’s receipts, searching for the same plants. The result is a stunning array of boxwoods, more than 140 species of roses and the largest collection of private conifers in the Southeast, with more than 80 species of pine dating to the 1850s.
On crisp fall afternoons, these grounds beg to be explored on foot. The cottage-lined streets and paths give way to open, rolling fields, which in turn lead up to wooded ridges criss-crossed by 12 miles of hiking trails. Evenings offer pleasant outings as well: Many guests gather at the Bavarian Beer Garden, where an open fire pit is the staging area for staff-led walking tours punctuated by ghost stories from the estate’s sometimes-spooky past.
During the day, golfers can negotiate Fazio’s broad-shouldered 7,189-yard layout, routed along 378 acres of woodland. There are a number of dogleg holes and semiblind tee shots—a repeat round is crucial for familiarization—but the challenge is clear on an outstanding set of par 3s. Three of four play downhill, including the 240-yard 8th and the 227-yard 14th, both tumbling nearly 100 feet from tee to green.
Barnsley’s homey cottages come with a private porch and rocking chairs, heart-of-pine floors, wood-burning fireplace and four-poster feather beds dressed in Egyptian linens. Adding a personal touch to each guest’s stay is Denise Webb, otherwise known as the Fairy Godmother. Employed as a sort of down-home concierge, Webb describes her mission as seeking to “overwhelm guests with good things.” That can mean everything from in-room gifts like cards, stuffed animals and rose petal-strewn floors, to learning someone’s favorite afternoon snack and personally delivering it to their cottage. Sadly, there is much pain in this property’s past. But thanks to the efforts of people like Prince Fugger and the Fairy Godmother, only the good life abounds at Barnsley Gardens these days.