What makes a home historic? Is it the age of the structure, the year it was built? Is it an historically significant architectural style, along with excellent craftsmanship that exemplifies and clarifies that style? Is it that headline-making history “was made here?” History is whatever we choose to value, but however we define it, we’re blessed with a lot of it in central Virginia. We have eighteenth century architecture; we have exquisite workmanship; we have stories we know and stories we can only guess at, and do.
Consider Findowrie in the hunt country northeast of Keswick, for example, and feel the lure of an old and well-preserved home. Built around 1778 in one account, but as early as 1733 in another, the four-bedroom, 1734 square foot house is for certain the earliest extant house in Albemarle County. Four guest homes, a stable complex and a cattle barn have been added to its 150 private acres with their open pastures, hardwood trees, and views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The house itself boasts many interesting architectural features including a chimney pent with shelves between the chimneys.
Or take Tipton House in Scottsville, a two-story, brick house constructed over a raised cellar, with a paired-column portico, five fireplaces, heart pine floors, and a beamed ceiling in family room. Built circa 1842 by John T. Blair, a Confederate Sergeant and later 1st Lieutenant, it’s been renovated in period style, the main floor painted in colors determined to be original through microscopic lab analysis.
Esmont’s Old Woodville was built in 1796 by a prominent Virginia planter John Coles II, as a gift to his son Walter. Politically, socially and militarily prominent, the Cole family eventually owned 11,000 acres in the area, and family members were friends and colleagues of Presidents Jefferson and Madison. The estate’s 176 acres of pasture have been continuously farmed since the house was built. A woodland path leads from its Georgian-style house to its five-acre lake.
Elsewhere in Esmont, Twenty Columns was built as a summerhouse for display at the Jamestown Exposition of 1907, then dismantled and relocated to its present location on a private lane on an 18.5-acre site. The current owner has upgraded the house while carefully preserving original architectural details like the wrap around porch.
Historic homes typically possess “a distinctive character in terms of architecture, size, layout, and location,” says REALTOR® Jim Bonner, who’s been selling them about as long as anyone around here. “The setting is as important. When people developed this territory, they picked the prettiest sites to build their homes, so you have fabulous old magnolia trees or big oaks and boxwoods that you simply can’t obtain anywhere else. Oftentimes these homes are quite private, on large tracks of land, in lovely idyllic settings. That natural setting would be the home place for a plantation. It would be self-sufficient. So there are water resources nearby and good agricultural land, and often a beautiful mountain view.”
“It’s a pretty house usually,” is how another longtime veteran, REALTOR® Justin Wiley puts it, the kind of house that makes you say, “’they don’t make them like that anymore.’ A lot of people are accustomed to living in an older house and like the solidness and the good woodwork – the nice heart pine, high ceilings, and large windows. They like the fact that it has history and usually has established large trees around it, large boxwoods, etc. Buyers come from all over. Typically they’re a little older. They want a little bit more land, for privacy.”
An old Virginia home offers buyers, “an experience that’s different than a new construction house and development,” says REALTOR® Murdoch Matheson, who specializes in estate homes, equestrian and working farms, and large country properties throughout Virginia. “Where they live and what they own is an expression of themselves, and they are drawn to the soul, the character, the aesthetic, the narrative of the property. There is no story to a property that was built in 1996 in a development like there is to a property that was built in 1896 or 1886. Buyers who live in, say, California, don’t have properties as old as what we have here. The attraction of moving to Virginia is to own something that might be noteworthy.”
Renovation and Preservation
“There are a lot of folks here who are very sensitive and preservation oriented, and they want to preserve the sense of place that we have,” Bonner says. “They don’t want to see further development. These houses are little treasures because they’re so unique and so special.” To that end a number of public and private bodies designate older properties as historical, a recognition that enhances their appeal but allows only for renovations and enhancements in keeping with period style.
The National Register of Historic Places was established in 1966 and is managed by the National Park Service. It lists nearly 3,000 structures, sites, objects, and districts that embody the historical and cultural foundations of the nation. The Commonwealth’s own official list of historic properties, the Virginia Landmarks Register, dates to 1966 as well. It meets quarterly to consider which sites to add; nomination forms may be found on its website.
Preservation Virginia is a private non-profit group with a mission to preserve, promote and advocate for the state’s historic places, and for their cultural, economic and educational benefits. The group’s website includes online resources to help homeowners find artisans and other professionals skilled at preservation and restoration.
Some buyers drawn to older homes are looking for a project, and enjoy redoing an old house.
While official designations restrict the manner in which owners can renovate, they can provide financial benefit as well, since historically accurate renovations qualify owners for tax credits on both the state and federal level. It’s the owner’s choice. “If you are designated on the National Historic Registry, it doesn’t necessarily prohibit you from making changes that are not in the same language as the history of the building,” Matheson says. “You can put a big modern addition on an historic building; but you might lose the designation.”
“Some people think the designation is not worth getting because it might be putting limitations on the property in perpetuity,” Matheson notes, “but you can look at the tax credits as off-setting the price of the architect or general contractor. By utilizing the tax credit program you might be able to offset some of your expenses in restoring the property.” In fact property owners, Bonner says, “are usually the driving force behind designation.”
“The main thing is that they don’t want the facade or any of the original woodwork inside altered,” Wiley says of the designating bodies. “If an owner wants to have items changed, it has to be presented to make sure it’s allowed.” But few do. “Most of the houses could be given that designation because of their historic value, but do not have it, and owners are allowed to do whatever they want to. There aren’t many who go through with the whole historic easement. I’ve only listed two of those in my career.”
So what’s involved in restoring an historic home? “Money and patience,” Matheson says—and experienced help. Owners can find a wealth of assistance from sources like the Albemarle Historical Society in downtown Charlottesville, and from architectural historians at the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture. “There is a lot of documentation,” Matheson says. “There are a lot of old pictures. There are a lot of people you can talk to who can give you the back story on farms, land, and history, on what was happening there before the house, what was torn down.”
“Of course with anything that’s old, you’ll hear a craftsman say we don’t know what we’re going to get into,” Matheson cautions, and while that uncertainty intimidates some owners, it excites others. “You can get very, very specific about how restoration work is done,” he says. “Sometimes it comes down to renewing the chinking on the brickwork, or whether certain things are left raw or painted. It’s all in the eye of the beholder, and sometimes once people start on the project of restoring a house they can be fastidious about the details. They don’t really know when to stop.”
Restoring an old home and updating it with modern conveniences is meticulous work, but “we are very blessed in that we have a lot of period craftsmen in the community,” Bonner says. “Simply because we have a good collection of period homes we have a good collection of period craftsmen that do fine work.”
It takes a knowledgeable craftsman to know how to renovate and preserve an official designation, agrees Bill Norton, founder of Rockpile Construction. Adding a modern kitchen to an historic house might be fine, but “typically they won’t let you fool much with the exterior of the building. A lot of the design I like to leave to the professionals. There are a lot of really good architects around who have experience designing for historic renovations.”
But it’s up to Norton to figure out how to work new brick into old brick, for example, or how to cut new trim to match the antique stuff. “The old mortar is typically faded because it’s so old. One of the challenges is trying to match the mortar so that you can’t really tell when a wall has been fixed, or worked on, or when an opening has been changed. The other thing is, the trim back then had different profiles. You have to take some of that trim to a custom millwork shop. It can cost as much as $250-$300 just to make a knife that matches that profile.”
Pride and Responsibility
While renovation isn’t easy or simple, Matheson says, its challenges just add to the satisfaction of owning an old home. “People with historic homes love to point out all the little details and things that they’ve worked on, because as they were learning about the house, they were consuming its story and thinking about its history. It was fun, so they’ll be very keen to show you, ‘we did this, and we chose not to patch the concrete or the pillars on the house because if you see these divots here they’re from musket balls that were shot at the house during the Civil War’ . . . those kinds of details.”
Renovating an old home “is always a little more expensive, because you’re trying to save what’s there,” Wiley says. And the history itself doesn’t come cheap – the price tag is typically a little out of the ordinary for a fixer-upper. But there is a feeling of wonder that comes of inhabiting a home that has stood since the Revolutionary War, and has seen so many generations of human life. That feeling is rarer still.
An old property is “a connection to the past,” Matheson believes, and he recalls a home inspector who likened a house to a human body: “It evolves over its lifetime, and if it’s cared for it keeps on going strong. Country properties and farms and houses live much, much longer than we do. It’s our duty as owners of historic homes to be good stewards of that home, because that home is older than us and it’s going to live way past us. Stewardship is paramount. When you buy an historic home, you’re taking on that responsibility.”
By Ken Wilson