Reagan biographer and wife with her own political career thrilled to share Essex’s Ben Lomond | House And Home

When visitors on the Historic Garden Week in Virginia tour take in the Essex County house called Ben Lomond May 3, they’ll see two distinctly different sorts of history.

The tour presented by the Garden Club of the Middle Peninsula will focus largely on the history of the house and the region. Talking points will include everything from a cemetery on-site with graves for both Union and Confederate soldiers to a historical mural that stretches across several walls to show what the county looked like in the 1880s.

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The more recent bits of history involve the couple that currently owns the house, Craig and Zorine Shirley. They met while working on Ronald Reagan’s failed primary bid against Gerald Ford in 1976.

They both went on to play major roles in Republican campaigns and leadership, she running the Conservative Political Action Conference for years.

He was deeply involved in Reagan’s successful presidential campaigns and his time in office. He then founded a successful Washington public affairs and lobbying company with which he’s still connected.

In more recent years, most of his time has gone to writing four successful books about Reagan (with another on the way), Newt Gingrich and another on the turmoil America went through after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

All those ties to Washington over the years spawned many photographs that are hung in his office and elsewhere in the house. They show the Shirleys, together or individually, with Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Henry Kissinger and a host of other Washington heavyweights.

Touring the house with reporter a few weeks ago, Craig Shirley shared the story of how a couple who’d spent much of their lives working in Washington and living near Mount Vernon ended up moving to Essex County.

He noted that one of the standing orders at his PR firm was to pass along any good ideas for a book to the Thomas Nelson publishing house that the firm had connections with.

“It occurred to us that no one had ever done a book about Reagan’s 1976 primary challenge to Gerald Ford, the one Nancy Reagan said was the campaign that was the most fun,” said Shirley. When he tried to find someone to write that book and couldn’t, the publishing folks suggested that he do it. He’s been writing ever since.

“And you know what they say about all authors eventually moving to the country,” said Shirley, “It’s something we’ve wanted to do for a long time, and it made sense once I began moving away from the day to day running of the firm to becoming a full-time author.”

Shirley—who has a book about Mary Ball Washington coming out later this year, as well as his fifth on Reagan—said the search for the perfect house took seven years, as the couple’s wants were pretty specific. They wanted a house in the country that was a 1700s Colonial, either in the Greek revival or Georgian style.

They were thrilled to find the latter in Ben Lomond, a 1730 house that had recently undergone a thorough revitalization. It had become a “foursquare” home with a major addition in the early 1840s.

Many of the original brass H and L hinges, brass lock boxes and doorknobs remain. The walls are more than a foot thick, the ceilings 12 or 14 feet high.

Where there were once dependencies near each corner of the house—an office/school, a kitchen, a carriage house and a “men’s house for bachelor males”—only an original well and one dependency remain.

“Ben Lomond has gone through several periods of revival and decrepitude,” noted Shirley. “From 1880s to 1930s was a very bad period for the house, and several of those dependencies were knocked down so the bricks could be sold in order to pay taxes on the house.”

He added that the couple has decorated the house largely with pieces brought from their house near Mount Vernon, which helps to explain why there are several prints and paintings of George Washington adorning the walls.


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