Distressed: Historic Tonsler house needs help

The Benjamin Tonsler House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places but has not had proper upkeep. (Photo: Stephen Barling) The Benjamin Tonsler House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places but has not had proper upkeep. (Photo: Stephen Barling)

By Ben Hitchcock

The roof of the front porch is missing, leaving exposed wood visible from the road. A notice from the Board of Architectural Review approving a window replacement has hung on the front door since 2017. Unused scrap wood sits piled in the side yard. Neighbors report that until last week, the grass in the front lawn was more than a foot high.

This isn’t just any house in need of repair: It’s the former home of Benjamin Tonsler, a self-made educator and prominent Charlottesville citizen who led the Jefferson School for more than 30 years, at a time when African Americans struggled to get an equal education.

For 38 years, Tonsler lived in a handsome house on Sixth Street SW in Fifeville. His home was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983, a recognition that reflects Tonsler’s impact on Charlottesville’s black community.

Now, the house has fallen into disrepair. The poor condition of the property has raised questions about the city’s ability and responsibility to oversee the maintenance of historic, privately owned dwellings.

Tonsler was born a slave in 1854. He attended the Jefferson School himself, and then the Hampton Institute, where he befriended Booker T. Washington. He returned to the Jefferson School and served as principal from 1883 until his death in 1917.

When discriminatory laws made it illegal for black students to receive education past eighth grade, Tonsler held secret classes for high schoolers at the Jefferson School after hours. If the white superintendent visited, the students would quickly hide the books.

An exhibit at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center describes Tonsler as “a stern disciplinarian” who “believed in academic education” rather than vocational training. Tonsler also served on the board of directors of the Piedmont Industrial and Land Improvement Company, an organization dedicated to providing opportunities for black people to purchase and finance homes at affordable prices. He is the namesake of Charlottesville’s Tonsler Park, and is buried in the Daughters of Zion Cemetery.

“Mr. Benjamin E. Tonsler was one of Charlottesville’s most prominent citizens,” says Edwina St. Rose, who works as part of a group dedicated to preserving the cemetery. “[He] was largely responsible for the education of hundreds of local African Americans.”

On June 3, C-VILLE Weekly and the city both separately contacted owners Ryan Rooney and Kevin Badke about the house. Later that day, a crew was spotted cutting the grass.

Rooney and Badke purchased the property in 2016. The pair also own of a handful of local restaurants, including Trinity Irish Pub, Coupe’s, and The Fitzroy.

The Tonsler family owned the home until 1983, when they sold it to Curtis Morton Jr. Morton worked to restore it to its original state, and the house was added to the National Register of Historic Places less than a year after he bought it. “He put a lot of time and energy into the house,” says Harold Timmeny, a friend of the late Morton.

But Rooney says when they acquired the place, “The inside was extremely distressed, and we felt at risk of actually collapsing.”

Some work has been done, stresses Rooney. “We have installed all new plumbing, electrical, HVAC, gas lines, and insulation.”

He acknowledges the planned renovations have been progressing slowly. “To be very honest, we have not done a very good job with [landscaping] because we assumed the work and construction would have killed most of it by this point.”

Rooney says the pair have no plans to sell. “We wanted a house with a lot of character that was a ‘project.’”

Jeff Werner, the city’s preservation manager, oversees the maintenance of historic sites like this one. In this case, he says, the renovations require time and money that the city isn’t in the business of providing.

“Restoring that front porch, it’s not something you go buy at Lowe’s,” says Werner. “It’s not as easy as the city simply coming in and saying, ‘This time we’ll do it, we’re gonna do it for them.’”

Says Werner, “We as a community, we value history. We’ve established that…but it still is someone’s property.”

The house is listed as one of Charlottesville’s 74 individual protected properties, a historic designation that requires Board of Architectural Review approval for all exterior changes. The IPP designation does not mean that the city is responsible for carrying out updates and renovations on the building.

Werner fears that threatening to fine the owners for a zoning violation would result in more inaction. If the two sides reach another impasse, “the house loses, the property loses, and the community loses,” he says.

St. Rose suggests the city could have taken a more proactive approach to the situation. “The owner of an historic property is responsible for its upkeep,” she says, “but when the owner neglects that responsibility, it is incumbent on the municipality to take whatever means available to ensure that the historic property is not lost.”

June 13: The house’s exterior damage was clarified.