Accessing the attic of the Massie-Wills residence means literally climbing the stairs, using both hands to scale the approximately seventy-degree incline. Reaching the top provides a fresh perspective on the historic designation of the house at 215 4th Street NE. The space contains a small library arrayed in bookshelves and boxes along the far wall, as well as loudspeakers, paints and a piece of unfinished artwork propped against the exposed brick. Strands of digital cables hang from a crossbeam, left by an Internet startup that rented the space in the 1990s.
The Massie-Wills historic building at 215 Fourth St. NE is one of the few remaining that is close to its original condition. Owner Pooh Johnson bought the property in 1989 and after years of tenants, she decided to put it up for sale.
Nothing in the attic is nearly as old as the domicile itself, but no other room in the house feels quite as lived-in. Built in 1830 by Harden Massie and then renovated by F. M. Wills around 1870 to add an apartment on the ground floor, the house has changed hands several times. Since owner Pooh Johnson purchased the Massie-Wills house in 1989, the place has headquartered a gift shop, a publisher, an art consortium and a real estate company, meanwhile accommodating tenants from married couples to the college-aged.
Recently, however, Johnson put the property up for sale.
“Taking on tenants worked up to a point,” she says. “And we’ve been very fortunate in a way, because people have always been wanting to rent it.”
But lately, she says, a declining market has left the house unoccupied, and continuing to rent the house is no longer worth the trouble.
“I don’t want to rent it like a boarding house again,” says Johnson. “It’s hard when you let it out to kids who don’t care about it, who don’t realize what it is. Three months later, there are four broken windowpanes.”
Johnson has devoted years to restoring the house to its original condition, stripping layers off the kitchen floors and stairs to reveal hardwood pine, reinstalling antique doors and light fixtures. Fixing a shattered window isn’t as simple as finding a capable smithy; for Johnson, it requires tracking down the right type and dimension of 19th-century glass.
215 4th Street NE is listed as a contributing structure in the National and State Register district, an honorary designation given to properties that help preserve the historic integrity of the area. Charlottesville’s Zoning Ordinance lists a variety of factors that determine whether a local property may be deemed “historic,” including the structure’s age and condition, character of design, overall aesthetic quality, and state of preservation. Sites associated with a historic person or event or with a renowned architect or master craftsman also qualify. If one or more of these qualities were altered drastically, says Johnson, the residence would lose its contributor status.
The Massie-Wills house also falls within the North Downtown Architectural Design Control district, which means that any exterior change to the property is subject to evaluation by the Charlottesville Board of Architectural Review. The Board’s guidelines generally require that commercial “rehabilitation” restore and maintain as many historic elements of the structure as possible, and that any contemporary modifications must be aesthetically compatible with the original design. Regulations prohibit the application of “false historical appearances, such as ‘Colonial,’ ‘Olde English,’ or other theme designs,” as well as additions that would “duplicate the form, material, and detailing of the structure to the extent that they compromise the historic character of the structure.”
In many cases, such as with the recently Urban-Outfitted ex-Hardware Store, these regulations deal with matters of taste, and become points of contention for locals who resent the corporate appropriation of their culture.
The house on 215 4th Street NE is one of a local few remaining so close to its original condition. “There aren’t a lot of them around,” says Johnson, which is why she has resisted bids from bargain-hunters and wealthy tourists who hope the sluggish economy might cut them a deal. Johnson is looking to sell for a little over $1 million, and says that if the house doesn’t fetch a suitable price, she’ll take it off the market and renovate it. “It’s such a jewel, because it’s so unusual. Plaster walls. Beaded paneling. Everything is pretty much original,” she says. “This is the way it looked.”
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