Often, brand-new houses are dubbed “homes” by real estate agents. That’s an untruth, because if it hasn’t been lived in, it’s nobody’s home. Findowrie, as its atmospheric name would suggest, dwells on the far opposite end of the spectrum.
It’s been unoccupied for decades, but nonetheless it’s dripping with habitation, layered with time, all but haunted. Its vintage isn’t totally clear (Albemarle County lists its year of construction as 1733, while historian K. Edward Lay puts it 45 years later) but it’s certainly one of the oldest houses in the county.
The question is, could it be someone’s home again? The 150 or so Keswick acres with which it’s offered—a chunk of the larger estate, Airslie—are quietly magnificent. A counterpoint of forest and open bottomland create the kind of place which a poet, turkey hunter or just about anyone would feel privileged to inhabit. And, in recognition of that type of value, the property was placed under conservation easement through the Virginia Outdoors Foundation in 2005.
What that means for the next owner is that enjoying and inhabiting this property will be a very real challenge. The house is in a condition that we’ll call demanding. As contractor Mike Ball, president of Element Construction, said when we visited together, “You’d have to be dedicated to the house”—that is, to save it from the entropy that’s currently overtaking it. And yet the easement obligates future owners to consult with the VOF and the state’s Department of Historic Resources before altering the house.
So, we are left with Findowrie as is, and a host of questions about how to save it.
First, get to know the house: a two-story, wooden-frame structure with a steep gable roof and brick chimneys. Originally, it was two rooms on each floor. Various additions were made, none of them very recently. For example, a tiny room on the back of the house seems to have served as a kitchen, with evidence of an electric stove and a woodstove having been installed at different times.
The general condition of the interior is about what you’d expect in a house that’s been sitting untended in the country for 40 years or so. Plaster is flaking off walls and ceilings; windows are broken; wrecked furniture lends a Gothic air. Strewn on the wooden floors, you’ll find everything from a fallen fireplace surround to chunks of wasp nests to feathers.
But that’s not the heart of the matter. “The foundation is going to be your primary issue,” says Ball. A structural engineer could really suss out the situation, but Ball supposes it would be necessary to lift the house and replace the foundation, or at least to majorly shore it up. In a rear bedroom, a hole in the floor gave us a glimpse of a completely soft supporting beam underneath. “It would be a serious job to rework this place,” says Ball.
After stabilizing, you’d have to gut the interior, redo the exterior siding and the roof, and rework the floor plan to include a more modern kitchen and bath. “You’re not leaving much,” says Ball. And, he points out, “You’re ending up with a relatively small house.”
Still, there’s no doubt this is a very special place. Anyone who, like Ball, notices when the nails in the walls are made by hand, or when floor joists are hand-cut and mortised into a beam, can appreciate that. It was never a grand house, but it’s like a time capsule in its way, connecting us to an earlier era.
“If somebody loved it, they could make it work,” says Ball. Not because they’d be saving money by renovating instead of building—quite the opposite—but because there’s just nothing else like this.
Address: 728 Campbell Rd., Keswick
Year built: Approximately 1733
Square footage (finished): 1,734
List price: $1.25 million