An L-shaped bar defines the kitchen, once a family parlor. (Photo by Andrea Hubbell)
Many house buyers might shy away from a place known to neighbors as “The Cat House.” Especially if the nickname derived from the fact that more than 100 felines had lived there.
“As soon as you walked up on the front porch, you could smell it,” said Nancy Spahr of the Victorian house, about 115 years old, that she and her husband John bought in 2005. “And when you walked in, it made your eyes water.”
|(Photo by Andrea Hubbell)|
But the Spahrs could see past the smell. “We loved the architecture,” Nancy said. They were living in Waynesboro, where they’d raised their children, and hoping to move to Staunton; their initial idea was to buy a building on Beverley Street downtown, live upstairs, and rent out retail space below. “I never envisioned I’d buy a Victorian home,” said Nancy. “But when we saw it, it was so beautiful.”
With a long and colorful history—and architectural interest to spare—the house also offered a prime location near Stuart Hall School and within easy striking distance of downtown amenities. The Spahrs, who had only a little previous experience with renovation, decided to go for it. “We saw its potential, and it ended up being a monumental project,” said John.
The result is a testament to history: both that of the Haun family, who owned the place for many decades, and the recent chapter written by its loving new owners, who have made it all their own.
Updating a classic
Upon purchasing the house, the Spahrs took possession of a place that had witnessed decades of family and community life. Built in 1895 or 1897 by the Palmer family, it passed just a handful of years later to the Hauns, who held onto it through three generations.
A portrait of the first Mrs. Haun sits on a table in the Spahrs’ central hallway, and other signs of the family exist in the tidbits of oral history that arise in conversation with locals. “[The second generation Haun woman] had ballroom dancing lessons in here,” said John, indicating the dining and living areas, which open to each other through a wide pocket doorway. “We’ve encountered a dozen or more people who remember dancing in here.”
The scene changed in the following generation, with the addition of scores of cats plus, the Spahrs said, a jukebox, jet ski and pinball machine on the front porch. The small front yard was converted to a driveway where a boat was parked.
Another aspect of the house’s history connects the Spahrs to a much different, but not so distant, Virginia. Lottie Jackson was the Hauns’ live-in cook and maid, an African-American who occupied a small bedroom in the back of the house along with her husband. She came to work for the family at age 14—cooking every meal except Sunday dinner—and didn’t leave until she was 65, dying shortly thereafter. Her name was embossed on the original mailbox along with those of the Hauns.
|An upstairs bedroom serves as a light-filled painting studio. (Photo by Andrea Hubbell)|
Just before the Spahrs bought it, the house had another, short-term owner who’d attempted to clean it up. “She tried all kinds of things guaranteed to get rid of the smell,” said John—to no avail.
Drastic measures were necessary. “The cats were contained to just one end of the house,” said Nancy. “But all the downstairs floors were ruined.” Crossing their fingers that the odor could be conquered, the Spahrs committed to replacing both floors and subfloors throughout the ground level. “That was our biggest challenge,” said John. Fortunately, the move paid off.
Even in a house dripping with character—the ceilings are 12 feet high and each of four fireplaces has its own style and finish—the downstairs floors were notable, sporting a different intricate parquet pattern in each room. The Spahrs decided not only to replace the floors, but to replicate them.
“We wanted to keep it authentic,” said Nancy. After photographing and diagramming the parquet patterns, they hired a local floor expert who sent the specifications to a company in Wisconsin. “They sent it in pieces and he put it in,” said John. The new floors even make use of the same species of wood—cherry, oak, and walnut—as the originals.
|(Photo by Andrea Hubbell)|
Queen Anne Victorians are distinguished by their asymmetrical forms, often with a prominent front gable; wraparound porches; and towers or turrets. The Spahr house has all of these, as well as the ornate wooden trim on its brick exterior that, for many people, defines the Victorian look.
Inclined toward a preservationist frame of mind—and seeking historic tax credits for their renovation work—the Spahrs wanted to honor their new home’s past. At the same time, they needed to make it liveable in the present, while confronting the damage wrought by decades of neglect.
Not only had the house been divided into rental units, it had numerous areas in need of repair, from a falling-down back porch to crumbling plaster walls inside. “Everything needed painting. The inside was a mess. All the infrastructure—plumbing, electric—needed redone,” said John. But, he added, “The basic bones and structure were fine.” Even the dramatic staircase, which curls through the space inside the round tower and had been, for Nancy, “the selling point,” was essentially sound.
The Spahrs hired contractor Vailes Home Improvement Services, and work began within a month. Having so much nitty-gritty work to do “gave us time to think,” said Nancy—that is, to figure out how to reimagine a century-old home for a contemporary way of life. “When the house was built, people had different ideas,” said John.
One of the main differences was that, in the Victorian era, well-off families often had domestic help, and kitchens were hidden toward the rear rather than serving as gathering places for guests as they do now. The room where Lottie Jackson toiled for more than five decades was small, not particularly well-lit, and badly located. So the first thing the Spahrs decided to do was to move the kitchen to what had been the family parlor, which opens onto the wraparound porch.
They also moved the dining room, and converted the old pantry into a half-bath plus a storage area. Upstairs, next door to the master bedroom, they converted a smaller bedroom into a bathroom and closet, creating a master suite.
Art on view
All these changes, said John, “led to a number of design and structural challenges.” But they created opportunities, too. One of these came from Nancy’s realization that they didn’t need this much living space. A landscape painter herself, she decided to let the dining room double as an art gallery.
She took on 17 artists, all of them outside a 25-mile radius from Staunton, since she felt local artists were already getting plenty of exposure in town. (These included Charlottesville names Tavia Brown and Rick Weaver.) Though her hours were limited, she participated in monthly gallery walks and saw some success—perhaps partly due to the gracious backdrop of the dining room, with its mahogany fireplace and extra-tall windows.
Gallery 234 stayed open for six years, until John Spahr retired and the couple started traveling too much to hold consistent hours. Still, modern art enlivens the room, along with imaginative furnishings: a dining table built by local craftsman Paul Borzelleca of Modernboy Workshop (it’s the same width as the pocket door opening into the living room, in case a buffet is called for, and features two storage drawers at ankle level) and matched with a hodgepodge of vintage chairs. Borzelleca also created a large entertainment unit for the nearby living room, whose shape mirrors that of a pointed archway in the central hall.
Many of the windows along this side of the house feature new stained and frosted glass—a way of ensuring privacy from the very nearby house next door, without having to install heavy drapes as had originally been present. The Spahrs ordered custom glass from local vendors including Sunspots Gallery and Lew and Lisa Morrison. “That was part of the fun—for everything we had to do, we got local craftsmen,” said John. “We didn’t have to go to Washington or New York or Richmond.”
|Local artisans created this custom stained glass panel for the first-floor hallway. (Photo by Andrea Hubbell)|
Into the future
The couple was unafraid to add bold new elements to their home. They commissioned the Morrisons to create a large-scale stained glass forest scene for a window in the central hall. A new half-bath, Nancy said, was “designed around” a decidedly modern honey onyx sink. The former kitchen is now a library with a Murphy bed, and the rooms sport rich, bright paint colors. “In our old home, everything was Navajo white,” explained Nancy. “In this home I wanted color.”
Yet the Spahrs also protected original detailing wherever possible. All the doors and radiators are original, for example (though the radiators had to be flushed out to remove cat hair). Upstairs, the original heart pine floors still bring warmth and a pleasant creakiness to the space. Fireplaces retain their pride of place.
The kitchen represents the ultimate in this marriage of old and new. With a fireplace and an exterior door, it presented a layout challenge. “I liked the idea of a bar because guests can participate or watch us cook,” said Nancy. “That was the only place it could go.” A large L angles around the cooktop and creates ample space for onlookers.
Contemporary materials—cork floors, corian and granite countertops—complement traditionally styled maple cabinets, plus a cherry bar unit with a built-in freezer. The fireplace and operable transom windows above the doors keep temperatures comfortable and preserve the historic feel. “We enjoy eating in our kitchen,” Nancy said. “When it’s casual we eat here.”
In the details
The Spahrs enjoyed some notable good luck during the renovation. For example, they found original shutters for most of the downstairs windows stored in the attic, as well as original metal fencing for the front yard, piled against the side of the house.
Such touches helped them meet their preservationist goals, as did the dedication of contractors who performed feats both tedious (repainting every slat in those old shutters) and daring (lifting an enormous finial off the peak of the turret for restoration).
As for the aspects beyond the purview of historic guidelines—i.e., décor—the Spahrs have a distinctive style. Artifacts from travels in Papua New Guinea, Africa, South America, and Alaska are displayed in a custom glass-front cabinet made by a friend. Nearby stands an emu skeleton—impressive, but less so than the ostrich in John’s study. A large Chinese wardrobe at the top of the staircase contrasts with classic Victorian details like curved glass turret windows.
It all speaks to sophistication, but pleasure is hardly neglected. In the rear, reconstituted porches provide space for eating (downstairs) and lounging (upstairs). “This is one of my favorite places,” said Nancy, taking in the view from the upper porch. “You can look out over the city, and no one can see you. I come up here every afternoon with my tea and my book.”
The house feels as though it, and its inhabitants, have settled into a new era, with the gritty days of renovation receding into memory. Seven years after they bought the place, while escorting a reporter through the rooms, John sometimes asked Nancy, “What was in this space before?”