GREEN BANK — Jay Rockefeller described the first time he laid eyes on the tract of Pocahontas County land where he would later build a family retreat as “love at first sight.”
The new owners of the getaway built to foster quality time for the former West Virginia governor and U.S. senator and his family share that sentiment.
“We explored other options from Colorado to Maine,” said Andrew Sparks, who has lived at the former Rockefeller vacation home with his wife, Heather, and their three young children for a little more than a year. “But the beauty of this valley and the wide open spaces surrounding it communicate freedom,” Sparks said. “That resonated with us.”
The Sparks’ new home, perched on a gentle, grassy slope overlooking a pasture-filled valley with the wooded highlands of the Monongahela National Forest in the background, is a far cry from their previous homes in Marina del Rey and Beverly Hills in Los Angeles, and Manhattan’s Gramercy neighborhood.
It was in Los Angeles that Sparks founded the Sparks Agency, a firm specializing in commercial real estate and investment properties, for which he continues to serve as managing broker. Sparks served on the board of directors of the Commercial Brokers Association of California, and in 2018, was named Commercial Realtor of the Year by the Beverly Hills Greater Los Angeles Association of Realtors. The agency has offices in Los Angeles, New York — and now, Pocahontas County.
The remote location of the Sparks Agency’s new home office poses no barrier to conducting business, Sparks said. Having a wife who is also the firm’s legal counsel on site is also a plus.
“We had already transitioned to working nationally and internationally from a single location,” he said. The arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, which coincided with the Sparks’ move to Pocahontas County, hastened a transition from in-person meetings with colleagues and clients to remote conferencing, enhancing the ability “to work from places where you want to be,” he said.
At times, working from the place you want to be has its distractions. One wall of Sparks’ office is mostly window, offering a panoramic view of farmland, forest and mountains extending into Virginia. “I had my desk facing that wall at first,” he said, but in the interest of work efficiency, “I had to move it to this wall,” which offered a less beguiling vista.
That said, binoculars mounted on a tripod could be seen leaning in a corner to enable closer looks at deer or hawks passing along the landscape.
The Sparks kept about 20 acres of the 2,265-acre tract Rockefeller bought to insure privacy for his retreat. Rockefeller assembled the property in the late 1960s under a veil of secrecy, using land agents who bought parcels in their own names, prompting rumors the land would be used by the government for a missile launch site or a prison.
Once the tract was acquired in 1969, Rockefeller, then West Virginia’s secretary of state, hosted a picnic at the site for residents of the area, during which he announced his plan to build a vacation home there.
The new home made use of a 240-square-foot log cabin segment built by one of the area’s early settlers to serve as its main entry, and eventually included 10 bedrooms, all with en-suite bathrooms; a 1,000-square-foot living room with two fireplaces, a vaulted ceiling and floor-to-ceiling picture windows; an indoor racquetball court and swimming pool; and indoor and outdoor tennis courts.
After the couple closed on the home in April 2021, Heather Sparks began the work of refurnishing the house. She selected antiques and commissioned art work and worked with a team of designers to spearhead the effort to decorate in the English country home mode.
Recent additions include a huge new white cedar outdoor playground set and a new indoor sauna from Almost Heaven Saunas in Lewisburg. Plans are being made to refurbish the racquetball court, currently filled with an array of Nautilus weight resistance and exercise machines.
Before learning about the Rockefeller retreat, Sparks said he and his family had vacationed at Snowshoe Mountain Resort and other locations in and around Pocahontas County, after their interest in the area was piqued by a documentary about the Green Bank Observatory. They explored the Snowshoe, Green Bank and Lewisburg areas, looking for possible vacation home sites.
Eventually, they became acquainted with both the retreat and Jay and Sharon Rockefeller.
“We got to know the Rockefellers and were invited to visit them at their home in Washington,” Sparks said. By then, he and his wife had become intrigued with the possibility of buying the Pocahontas County home, little used by the Rockefellers since Jay opted not to seek reelection to the U.S. Senate in 2015.
“We had really grown fond of the area and this place,” said Sparks. “Eventually, we asked if they were interested in selling it. At first they said they weren’t sure, but if they did decide to sell, they would sell it to us. We looked at other places in the area and at Telluride, Colorado, but when we got a call from the Rockefellers saying they were ready to sell, the search was over.”
While the Sparks initially envisioned the property as a summer home, they soon opted to become year-round residents. “We loved spending time here and we quickly began making great new friends,” explained Andrew Sparks. “We’ve been in and out of West Virginia for years, but we’ve really enjoyed getting to know the state by living here,” Sparks said.
For Hannah, Michael and Ava, the Sparks’ three 5-and-younger children, their new home is “is a perfect playground for them,” said Heather Sparks. “They love to be outside and go for hikes in the woods.”
Last week, Andrew Sparks’ eldest son, Nathan, an engineering student at the University of Southern California, completed an internship at the Green Bank Observatory that involved working on protocols to reduce potential conflicts with radioastronomy by the planned SpaceX Starlink communications satellite network.
Sparks also has a daughter Deborah, who is on law review at Columbia University Law school.
Sparks grew up in Maine, where, he said, he spent as much time as possible in the outdoors.
His educational background reflects diverse interests. He holds a master’s degree in business administration from Temple University and a master’s in sacred theology from Yale Divinity School. Before founding the Sparks Agency in 2013, he was CEO of a faith-affiliated educational center based in Beverly Hills.
Heather Sparks, who grew up in New York City, was involved with estate and trust planning prior to transitioning to real estate. After contracting Lyme disease while in law school, she became an advocate for increased research of the tick-borne autoimmune malady. She also helped expedite the licensing of non-traditional medical equipment, hosted a podcast on natural health practices and plans to begin work soon on a master’s degree in business administration from West Virginia University.
“I see us as lifelong students,” she said.
The two said they look forward to doing what they can to help their adopted state move forward in the years to come, starting close to home, with the Green Bank Observatory.
“It’s one of the most important scientific institutions in the state, but it has fundraising needs to help it catch up on deferred maintenance and to help make people more aware of the work that it does,” said Sparks, who has experience with fundraising and marketing.
The observatory also operates “one of the best education programs in the country,” he said, working annually with thousands of students from third grade through graduate school. “Why not expand it?” he said.
Sparks said he is encouraging investors to investigate business opportunities in West Virginia, as he has done himself, including recently making a substantial offer on an office building in the state.
West Virginia, he said, has a number of untapped but potentially commercially viable resources to be developed by those willing to consider enterprises other than the traditional.
“While we need to be respectful to what has worked in the past, we also need to be aware of new opportunities so we can move in new directions, using an approach that’s not subject to only immediate needs or politics,” he said.
“There are ways to figure out what will work if people are willing to work together. And we’re very cooperative people.”