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10816 Staples Mill Road in Glen Allen
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Over the years, many have mistaken Saguaro Hill for a restaurant. On a few occasions, a beer truck sought to make deliveries and even meat sellers made inquiries. Others have driven up to the place believing they'd found some off-kilter museum of Western lore. Chloe Pemberton, who must have a tremendous sense of humor, laughs a little. "We have covered wagons and Remington statues. People see those and think it's some kind of display. We had another wagon, but our donkeys absolutely ate it up."
I caught up to her while her husband, J.T. "Buzz" Pemberton, was outside somewhere, working on a project. His enthusiasm for projects is, in a fundamental way, the reason something of the West, as in Arizona, arose in Glen Allen.
Pemberton isn't a builder. He retired from a Verizon management position around 1992, after which he built a couple of houses elsewhere, reliving his youth when he worked with construction crews. Chloe was a personnel manager for Robert Shaw Controls before her 1997 retirement.
"He's kind of a maverick," Chloe says of her husband. "Very talented — he can do anything he sets his mind to, and he likes to do everything himself. And he doesn't know what he's going to do until [he] gets down and starts."
Which is how they've come to live in a 6,000-square-foot, landscaped ode to the West, complete with cacti and donkeys.
The concept for Saguaro Hill began in the late 1970s when their former house was cramped by the widening of U.S. 33. The widening of the road took out their septic system. Although that house was moved, the Pembertons decided to build another one nearby.
"We built this one, designed and contracted for its construction," she says. They began working on plans in 1977, poured the foundation a year later and in 1979, moved in, though the house wasn't finished for another year. "It's always a work-in-progress, always, always," Chloe says. Saguaro Hill has 10 rooms, including a gym and three baths.
Inspiration came from when Buzz was stationed at the desert-surrounded 29 Palms Marine Corps base in California, as well as a trip to Arizona the couple took just after beginning work on the house. They named their house after the long-lived cactus native to the Sonoran Desert of Arizona.
At the Pembertons' home, water is diverted in unusual ways; there is a pond in the house that visitors cross via a bridge when entering. A large koi pond in the back is equipped with a waterfall, and the horseshoe-shaped, 48,000-gallon, 7-foot-deep pool features a rock outcropping. At parties, people like to sit on the rock, though diving is discouraged.
Saguaro Hill elicited curiosity from the outset of its creation. A Tucson, Ariz., reporter, based in Washington D.C., learned of an unusual number of cacti getting shipped East. Chloe chuckles, "So that was our first big newspaper spread — in Tucson." This began starring roles in numerous publications and television programs about unusual abodes, such as PM Magazine and HGTV's Extreme Houses.
This is home for the Pembertons, and it isn't as unusual to them as it may seem to outside visitors. Schoolchildren studying desert environments visit, as do seniors on day trips. For about a dozen years (although no longer), the Pembertons opened the place to a gala for the Henrico Humane Society during which more than 2,000 people would come through. The couple's interest in animals extends to the grounds of Saguaro Hill, with donkeys (Juanita and Petunia), countless fish, a few domesticated ducks, four cats and various German shepherds.
For me, one question persists: Isn't Virginia's whimsical climate difficult for the cacti?
"We've lost some in some years," Chloe says. "But when it looks like it's going to be really cold, [Buzz]'ll store them back in the greenhouse."