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Gergen, Tim Gunn Join Horsey Set at Sheila Johnson Resort

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Salamander Resort Opening
Donna Karan, fashion designer, and Sheila Johnson, chief executive officer of Salamander Hospitality. Photographer: Stephanie Green/Bloomberg

Aug. 31 (Bloomberg) -- A horse-drawn carriage stood before the main entrance of the Salamander Resort and Spa in Middleburg, Virginia. Horseback riders in top hats trotted among guests as they sipped Prosecco at the opening-day reception Aug. 29.

Sheila C. Johnson wants the latest entry in her property empire to reflect her philosophy of hospitality.

“When people come to visit me, I already have an idea what they want to do and eat,” said Johnson, the chief executive of Salamander Hotels and Resorts and one of the wealthiest black women in the world with a fortune estimated at more than $500 million.

The guests Johnson greeted at the reception included designer Donna Karan, Harvard professor David Gergen, supermodel Beverly Johnson and “Project Runway” host Tim Gunn.

A pack of hounds from the Middleburg Hunt did their own baying take on a welcoming committee.

“I think the horses may be jealous,” one guest quipped at the sensation the canines created.

“The Paints in your barn are phenomenal,” gushed Karan, an avid horsewoman, to Johnson, who happened to be wearing a blue Karan design.

The Salamander Resort and Spa occupies 340 acres of prime Virginia horse country and offers 168 rooms, a spa and an equestrian center. Rooms start at $425 a night; suites are named for Johnson’s daughter’s horses.

It’s about 45 miles west of Washington, where Johnson made her fortune with ex-husband Robert Johnson as the creators of the BET network. Sheila Johnson, 64, is also the owner of or partner in three professional sports teams as well as a producer of the recently opened movie “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.”

Healing Effects

She moved to the Middleburg area in 1996, and said that the land’s “natural grace” has been inspiring and healing for her during the most “challenging” times in her life.

Her background as a violinist, music teacher and photographer is reflected throughout Salamander. She took the photographs on the walls and chose the pianist, Jennifer Warren Baker, as well as the music she plays.

The resort’s artwork includes a tapestry she said once belonged to Napoleon, and the library features books from her private collection and by Virginian authors.

“It’s not intimidating,” Johnson said, “but it’s still elegant.”

Landed Gentry

The resort hopes to cater to those who want to experience the lifestyle of Jackie Kennedy and other landed gentry who have fox-hunted for centuries in the Middleburg area.

The restaurant, which features Piedmont-inspired cuisine, is aptly named Harrimans, as in Averell and Pamela, the Washington grande dame and ambassador to France. The resort’s property was once owned by the Harriman family.

Johnson never met Pamela, but she recalled sitting near her at a funeral in the 1990s.

“She must have known who I was, because I remember she leaned over and waved at me,” Johnson said.

In retrospect, she views that exchange as Harriman’s “spiritual blessing” of the resort.

“I know Pamela must be smiling in heaven,” said Gergen.

(Stephanie Green is a writer and photographer for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are her own.)

Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on theater, Greg Evans on movies and Zinta Lundborg on weekend.

To contact the writer on this story: Stephanie Green in Washington at or on Twitter @stephlgreen.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at

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