A second look: For a historic tavern, another life on a hilltop

Photo: Stephen Barling Photo: Stephen Barling

In a part of the Shenandoah Valley where history is prized especially deeply, just outside the village of Brownsburg,
a relocated log cabin called Briar Hill is full of a special sense of the past. It embodies its own history dating back to the turn of the 18th century, when it was originally built on a different site nearby. And for current owner Dave Perry-Miller, it harkens to his past as a student at Washington & Lee.

“I took an American architecture class,” he recalls, “and I did my architectural paper on Brownsburg in 1977.” He didn’t forget the little village, either: “For years I would fly from Dallas to visit my parents in Lexington, and it was a rare instance when that I didn’t drive out to Brownsburg to go by some of the houses where I’d interviewed the owners. I always harbored the hope that I would be able to go back to that part of Virginia.”

Photo: Stephen Barling

Beloved Brownsburg

Happily isolated within a sea of farmland, the village of Brownsburg looks out at the world with an exceptionally well-preserved face. A visitor might be astonished to stumble across such a concentration of log cabins, especially cabins in fine repair with matching placards to announce their dates of construction (most in the late 1700s) and original functions (tavern, smithy, etc.) There are also a historic bank building and schoolhouse, brick and wood-frame houses, and an antique store.

The village is recognized as a state and national historic district, with several nearby historic landmarks including Wade’s Mill. The little Brownsburg Museum’s current exhibit shows local handmade items from furniture to quilts and is open weekends through November. Even better, a Christmas house tour offers the chance to peek inside historic homes, including Dave Perry-Miller’s Briar Hill, on December 8-9. See brownsburgva.wordpress.com.—EH

After retiring from a real estate career in Dallas, Perry-Miller bought a notable home in Staunton called Waverley Hill in 2013 and soon embarked on its renovation. When he realized that house would be unlivable for more than a year during the work, he looked around for a place to fill the gap. “I thought, ‘I’m just going to have to get an apartment in town,’” he recalls—but Perry-Miller, the owner of five homes in three different states, isn’t really a renting kind of person. He soon decided to purchase Briar Hill, which had been relocated and renovated under the direction of architect Bethany Puopolo back in the mid-1990s.

Perry-Miller was drawn to the view from this hilltop—a panorama of the Valley and Jump Mountain—and, in fact, had been gazing at it already for years in the form of a painting he’d purchased years before, likely painted from a neighboring hilltop. “It was in my library in Dallas for all those years,” he says. “I can’t believe it: I was looking at the view from my house.”

The cabin atmosphere extends inside, as well, with exposed chesnut walls and a mix of traditional Americana décor. Photo: Stephen Barling

Fine details

Puopolo took on the project after she was approached by Lois Key, a local resident who had noticed a Rockbridge County cabin falling into disrepair and convinced its owners to sell it. From the beginning, Puopolo was struck by Key’s commitment to the historic nature of the structure, probably a onetime tavern.

“She salvaged as much material as she could,” says Puopolo. “And she wanted it to stay in the same county; she didn’t want it to go out of the home area.”

Puopolo’s role was not only to help coordinate the dismantling and rebuilding of the cabin, but to design a kitchen addition that would modernize it—but not too much. “I teased Lois, she was such a romantic—the cabin had one bedroom and three fireplaces,” she remembers. Key was willing to access the basement from an outdoor entry and live with other less-than-convenient features, for the sake of preserving the cabin’s character.

For the writer’s studio, a separate outbuilding, the homeowner enlisted Glenn Wilson, the same builder who’d worked with the original team, to shore up stonework. Photo: Stephen Barling

While the new kitchen would be a very important living space, Puopolo didn’t want it to overshadow the original cabin. “I wanted to let the main volume be dominant,” says Puopolo, so instead of building the addition directly against the house, she designed a small connector or “hyphen” space, containing a mudroom, between the two. A wraparound porch helps to knit the two volumes together.

The details made the project. “This wasn’t a really crude log cabin,” Puopolo says. “Someone who had some skills had created it initially. You look at the mantel in the old part and it’s a pretty nice mantel.” She matched detailing on the beaded beams and chamfered posts, and tried not to alter anything unnecessarily as she found ways to fit closets and a bathroom into a structure from a very different era.

Photo: Stephen Barling

The kitchen design, with custom cabinets by Jaeger & Ernst, local soapstone sink, and salvaged wormy chestnut countertops, is “unfitted”—meant to look like a collection of furniture pieces rather than a uniform run of cabinetry. Continuous with the cook space is a cozy sitting room with a stone fireplace and one contemporary touch: French doors to the porch.

Inherent simplicity

For Perry-Miller, the cabin was largely perfect as he found it. He’s made a few minor changes, enlisting Glenn Wilson, the same builder who’d worked with Key and Puopolo years ago, to shore up stonework and enlarge the writer’s studio (a separate building). Craftsman Matt Johnson also built entry gates on the driveway, using traditional techniques with no nails or screws.

“What people respond to in contemporary houses is the openness and bareness of the lines,” says Perry-Miller. “The log cabin has that, except it’s made out of chestnut logs. The simplicity is inherent in that property, and yet in the framework of a beautiful, old structure. I think [Puopolo] was masterful in keeping things very simple.”

The Rockbridge County cabin, at one time a tavern, was relocated and renovated by architect Bethany Puopolo in the mid-1990s. “I think she was masterful in keeping things very simple,” says current owner Dave Perry-Miller. Photo: Stephen Barling

He appreciates, too, the history of the 86-acre property, which for many years housed a summer camp called Briar Hill that drew boys from Richmond and Charlottesville. The site of the house, he’s learned, was the former location of the camp’s tennis courts—one of the only flat places on the acreage. Elsewhere, a chimney marks the ruins of the onetime dining hall.

“There is something about that hillside that has a certain amount of magic,” he says. “Everybody involved has put in a little piece of their heart and soul, and you can feel that.”

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