Home sales in residential developments rarely benefit art museums. Walnut Hill is a rare exception.

Harwood and Louise Cochrane, who raised cattle on the 458-acre Walnut Hill farm in Hanover County for 51 years, donated the land to the Virginia Museum Real Estate Foundation in 2001.

Two years later, the foundation, which facilitates real estate gifts that exclusively benefit the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, formed a partnership with Midlothian Enterprises Inc. to turn the farm into a residential community, with the proceeds of the land sales earmarked to increase an American art purchase endowment as well as an endowment for the position of Cochrane Curator of American Art.

The Cochranes’ land gift wasn’t their first contribution to VMFA. Harwood Cochrane, who celebrated his 101st birthday this month, founded Overnite Transportation Co. in 1935 and sold it in 1986 to Union Pacific Corp. for $1.2 billion. He and his wife have served on VMFA’s board of trustees, and their financial support of the museum dates back to the 1970s.

Among other donations, the Cochranes started an endowment for American art in 1988 with a $5 million contribution. With proceeds from the sale of the farmland and the Cochranes’ house along with parcels of land in Old Manchester, the endowment has grown to about $40.5 million and has allowed the purchase of 50 major works of art since its creation.

“The museum directly received $4.9 million from the sale of the lots and the original Cochrane house,” said David Bradley, a VMFA employee who served as chief development officer during the creation of the Cochrane endowment. “What they’ve done has been transforming in terms of the museum’s American art collection.”

Walnut Hill farm’s ability to boost aesthetics didn’t end with the Cochranes’ endowment, either.

“Midlothian Enterprises’ objective in developing the community was to create a unique, rural neighborhood while maintaining the natural character of the land,” said E. Bryson Powell, the company’s president. “The property combines varied topography with a combination of fields, woodlands and ponds providing beautiful vistas, some to the South Anna River.”

Lot sizes range from 10 to 60 acres. A 60-acre lot is currently on the market.

“The lot sizes create the density that is appropriate for country estates, and they offer homeowners the opportunity to have horses and stables, if desired,” said Richard Bower, a senior vice president with Joyner Fine Properties. “One lot has a small vineyard.”

The development, which is located north of the intersection of Rockville Road and Pouncey Tract Road, enjoyed early success, with swift sales and low turnover.

“With the exception of the original Cochrane home, which was sold in 2006 and now is available as a second sale, none of the homes in Walnut Hill have ever been on the market as a resale,” said Bower, whom VMFA hired to sell the Cochrane home the first time it sold. The home, a striking Georgian Revival, was built in 1954 and now occupies a 40-acre parcel with formal gardens and a guesthouse.

Most of the home sites at Walnut Hill have sold, and 11 custom-designed homes have been built.

“In the early years of construction, the preferred architectural style resembled stately but low-profile country homes with interesting porches and roof lines,” Bower said. “Some of the more recently built homes are classic Georgians.”

Of course, beauty is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. “Mr. Cochrane once told me that the prettiest thing in the whole world for him is black cattle on green grass,” Bower said.

By Doug Childers

Photo By Darl Bickel