Friday, January 19, 2018

The Goddess on the Hill

My withdrawal symptoms had subsided with the discovery of the Tavern, thank goodness, with not only restoring this magnificent home (it was featured in the June 2014 edition of Early American Life magazine entitled "Yankee Occupation"), but four more in the meantime.  Including an Edwardian cottage, Eastlake Victorian, a Second Empire and a late vernacular Victorian that had been updated with Arts & Crafts embellishments. The photos below will give you a taste of what we were up to!       

The chapter on my Greek mistress will now begin! We were ready to embark on a new journey after several years of working on the Tavern and doing these side restorations. I just didn’t realize how long and how involved the next one was going to be. Again, my wandering little spouse had come upon needy relics that were begging for a revival of their former glories. Where were some of these gems that were in need of a good polish, Lynchburg. Settled in 1757 at the base of the Blue Ridge mountains, it was named for its founder John Lynch who established a ferry service at a ford on the James River. It is also known as the “City of Seven Hills” because of the quite steep inclines that rise from the river bank. This small city exhibits quite a range of architectural finds from early Federal structures to an Art Deco skyscraper. The story begins in January of 2010 when we called a realtor who specialized in historic properties to start the search. Since we owned a later Georgian/early Federal home, something different was in order. He emailed us several properties to review and select the ones that most appealed to us.  Only five properties jumped off the page and one in particular.  The realtor gave us a tour around the main historic districts encircling the transforming downtown district.  All were in various states of restoration, re-muddling, etc.  The one I wanted to see the most was saved for last and the realtor really didn't want to show it to us.  He said it needed "allot of work", which didn't deter me.  To most customers that would make them not want to even see the house, but that intrigued me more. 

The house is called Rivermont because it overlooks both the James River and the Blue Ridge mountains beyond.  It was built in 1852 by Judge William Daniel, Jr. for his bride Elizabeth Cabell, this Greek Revival "mansion" boasted very up-to-date conveniences that included two bathing rooms and gas lite chandeliers.  She wanted a modern house and compared to other houses of the era it is understandable why it would have been considered that.  The windows are huge and allow the whole interior to be bathed in light.  The house is symmetrical in design with a central hallway from front to back with two rooms on either side on all three levels and is said to have been based upon a Palladian villa.  The front porch has "Temple of Winds" capitals and fluted columns and the rear porch stretched across entire back, had the more simple "Doric" capitals and smooth columns.  A wide stairway leads to the second-floor hall which is a small room in itself.  Each room is punctuated with a fireplace along with the oversized windows.  The double parlor have a massive pair of pocket doors that are ten feet tall and allow the rooms to become one large open entertaining space.  Rivermont was actually part of the original “Point of Honor” plantation, which is a half octagon brick Federal home based upon the principles of Thomas Jefferson’s designs.  Dr. Cabell resided in this home and was Patrick Henry’s personal physician. 

As we walked in one thing was evident, the house was a wreck!  Plaster falling down, woodwork missing or badly damaged from years of neglect and layers of paint.  However, it was 1,000% better than what it was just 15 years prior. The pictures I show below make it look like a palace compared to the ones I was shown when a group of concerned citizens acquired it. A non-profit was formed to bring this house back to its former glory and help stabilize the neighborhood.  When they took possession of the house, it was nothing short of a disaster!  I need to back up first and explain what happened over the years.  The original owners lost the home after the Civil War, it was then purchased by different people through the decades including a Mr. Hutter in the latter portion of the 19th century who divided the land during a massive building frenzy in Lynchburg.  He was the main person behind the building of the bridge connecting downtown with what is now the Rivermont Avenue neighborhoods.  By the 1950s this area was in decline and the house was subdivided into six apartments.  When the non-profit took over all four chimneys had collapsed into the structure ripping the heart pine floors to shreds below, windows were missing, the exterior was covered in asphalt shingles, the brick and flagstone flooring that once graced the English basement was gone, etc., etc.  They restored the chimneys, put on a new standing seam roof, stripped the shingles off and re-milled and installed siding to match the original, rebuilt windows and did a massive stabilization of the structure itself.  I’m not sure I would have taken on this project if all that had not been done.  A great applause should be given to organizations like this who resurrect buildings that have lost favor.  Without people and groups like them, many more pieces of history will be lost.  

I just remember walking through for the first time and seeing what it could be.  My other half wasn’t as convinced as I was.  It took time to go through the numbers and talking with the board members before "everyone" was comfortable and I mean my spouse!  It took until June to work out all the details and "plan of attack" before we closed.  As I get into our story, or trials and tribulations as I should say, we just didn’t know all of what we were going to be getting into.  Things you think will be easy or self-explanatory, turn out not to be.  Projects such as this test your fortitude and relationship…lol, but in the end, are very much worth it!                  

Thursday, January 18, 2018

I know after reading the first three posts you must be wondering if Carter's Tavern was the "Big One" that I penned the title of this blog after.  Well, no it isn't!  That one I will get to after this post. The Tavern is a dream compared to the nightmare we decided to take on almost five years after buying this one.  Talking or in this case writing is a superb form of therapy when speaking of addiction.  Friends in New England used to refer to my many restorations as my mistresses.  I would say that was an accurate description.  There is nothing like taking a rough stone, polishing and shaping it to a beautiful, sparkling creation!  The satisfaction is overwhelming and the sense of accomplishment is unparalleled knowing that you did this with your own two hands along with others that helped to revive this long lost beauty.  Enough about the psychological side of house restoration.  I can drone on and on about that.  Back to the physical world of it!

By the fall of 2006 the house was painted; windows re-glazed and painted; the shutters were almost finished being reworked or rebuilt as with most of them and readied for their gleaming coat of black paint.  We had hired Barry Thompson to build the cabinets in the tap room for our kitchen.  That was modified of course before we started, but the end result was amazing.  Barry used very few power tools in the construction and most of it was done by hand.  Since we did not want to harm the original moldings and if the house was ever turned into a museum, all the cabinets had a lip that went above the chair rail.  They could easily be removed with no harm to the woodwork.  He constructed all the components out of 200+ year old heart pine boards that he salvaged from a demolition.  Even the countertops are made of this "golden" wood.  The patina and aged look of these can not be faked!  Only the real McCoy will do.

We then turned our attention to a hall bath that drove me out of my gourd!  I would have liked to have redone all the baths the same way, but money always dictates what direction we take.  We had visited numerous historic sites where the "necessary" was almost always a separate structure, but what would it have looked like if it were in the house?  I took that to heart and designed an indoor, outhouse inside the house!  I turned to Barry again to build an authentic "one-holer" for the bath.  Kohler at the time was selling a hat box style, but it was a very expensive hat box.  We then turned to a low profile water closet that could be concealed by a wooden seat and back.  That was perfect, except the first one came cracked, second one came cracked and we decided to abandon ship on the third, so we went with another style.  Matching all the same measurements, but a little more money, we had one piece of the puzzle figured out.  This one came in unscathed!  Next I designed a dry sink cabinet that we could make wet!  Barry took the drawing and ran with it so to speak.  I wanted it to look at least two hundred years old and have a dry painted finish.  He did such a great job that one of his other clients came in and said "that will be a nice piece once you get done restoring it", perfect! That is all I needed to hear.  We had a redware, basin bowl made in the Pottery Capital of the World; Seagrove, North Carolina.  Found a bronze faucet that would blend and add to the 18th century illusion.  Alice came and worked her faux painting magic on the newly installed wooden "necessary".  We played off of the mahogany graining of the room and pulled that onto the "new throne"!  We now had an authentic outhouse, indoors.....


The last frontier was starting to recreate the outbuildings that may have been on the property originally.  Within a couple of years we added a log barn that was just down the street from the Tavern on an old tobacco farm.  It was in danger of being torn down because a couple of rows of logs had rotted on one side.  Barry salvaged enough to where we still have generous ceiling height and a loft above.  He then found an smokehouse that was being torn down in North Carolina to make way for a new development.  Classic in design with a conical roof, but unfortunately over half of it started to crumble when he tried to dismantle it.  We at least had the dimension and some of the framing timbers and siding to duplicate a new one and a matching diary house.  All three buildings have brick floors, which came from a tragic fire at a neighboring historic house.  A dear friend who is like a second mother to us, generously gave us brick from her once great home to use.  Something good did come from something bad.  Not to be too cliché, but that's true....  The last building to be finished thus far is the well house, sort of! After purchasing the property we discovered a fairly deep hole in the backyard and quickly learned it was one of the original "hand dug" wells.  A safety hazard now, but a perfect place to put the air handler for the main floor.  A sturdy concrete pad was poured, floored in brick pavers, some magic from our carpenters and ta-da, a well house.  A friend had bought us a well wheel and bucket, so naturally we had to have a place to put it and it is in the location of the old well.  These photos were taken during a December snow, you will see our four-legged child racing around all the obstacles we have placed in her yard!

The next chapter, I promise will begin the real journey.  This house was just a warm up for what we were in for!!!!

Friday, July 31, 2015

Getting "down" and "dirty", literally!!!!

The shutter rebuilding was finally underway, which was the last piece of the exterior's puzzle.  Amazingly enough one of the original shutters was kept in the basement and gave the previous owner a pattern for replicating new ones.  Since the exterior restoration was nearing completion and with the kitchen and master bath being finished, I turned my eye to the woodwork.  Faux marbleizing and wood grain covered the wainscot, baseboard, casings (both window and doors), mantles and six-panel doors throughout the Federal addition. Years of dirt and grim plus layers of wax covered the once vibrant palette. 

The photo above is from the second floor front bedroom, which I now use as my Halifax drafting studio. You can barely make out the design in the middle ground of the panel.  The overall finish has a milky film that really protected the color throughout the years.  Nothing but a combination of wax and dirt plus oils from human hands lie between me and what the original finish was.  Once at the beginning of the project, I hired a paint conservator from Raleigh, NC to come in and give me his opinion of the remaining paint finishes.  He said this of the first floor dining room mantle which has a sunburst carving gracing the center and each leg along with reeding under the mantle shelf: "an array of colors are still present, but faded.  It must have been dazzling when it was newly finished."  Newly finished would have been in the early 1800s.  That left me both excited, curious and fearful of may or may not be under the layers of grim.  In comes our friends from Charlotte, NC; who were visiting us one weekend.  Larry and Carol Emerick specialize in 18th and 19th century painted southern furniture and have a shop in the Norwood area that is filled with visual delights.  They have been a God send on several occasions and this was one of them.  Larry was just as curious as I was to see what lie under the ghostly finish in the first floor parlor, especially after hearing what the conservator had to say.  He decided to experiment with fine steel wool and a cleaning concoction that he has used before.  I will not divulge the "concoction" because it started removing some of the paint during the cleaning and I want to protect the innocent originality of paint everywhere.  We did happen upon another product which will be revealed later.  What was discovered under the layers was the breath taking colors that used to grace all the woodwork.  Greens, reds, mahogany, salmon colored marbleizing, banded inlay using paint to mimic yew wood, the list went on and on.  

First floor parlor, originally the general dining room, rich mahogany grains and marbleized baseboards. 

This one weekend excursion for our friends turned into a years long quest to uncover all the painted surfaces that we could.  So what may you ask was the "magic elixir" that removed the grim, but left the finish???  Howard's Restor A Finish!!!!  We used very fine steel wool, one of Howard's wood cleaning solutions to remove the dirt; a cotton rag and Restor A Finish to revive the color; and then paste wax to protect the surface.  It was that simple!  Well maybe not that simple.  We had to use allot of elbow grease to remove all the dirt to reveal all the painted surfaces.  I would place a caveat on this by saying, these products worked for us, but may not work on all painted surfaces.  Consult an expert first before trying.       

Front bedroom (now studio)  in process.  You can now see the faux mahogany finish revealing itself.

Heart pine boards under the main stair in the first floor foyer.  Another in process photo showing the rich tobacco color showing through.

There were some areas that could not be restored.  Our faux artist Alice Primm blended the old and new seamlessly and will be part of the next blog post as we journey toward the next "Big One"!  I will leave you with a couple more shots of the finished product after our discovery.  

First floor foyer showing the richly grained faux mahogany door and wainscot accented with a deep green casing and chair rail.

Detail shot showing the faux marbleized baseboard, grained wainscot and salmon colored door casing.

Second floor gentleman's dining room has mahogany grained wainscot with ebony  inlay, salmon colored marbleized baseboard, reeded chair rail still has traces of the red wash that was applied.   

Monday, September 8, 2014

After purchasing Carter's Tavern the fun began.  The bathrooms were a colonial nightmare from the 1970s.  Linoleum crafted to look like wood planks, Formica counter-tops masquerading as stone and those wonderful one piece plastic shower/tub combos.  The kitchen was a one piece metal unit with a built in refrigerator, stove, oven and sink complete with overhead storage.  Perfect for a camper!!!  But not a historic structure as this.  I understand the original restorers intent on doing these things because they wanted to make the least impact on the structure and its integrity.  However, to live in it even on a part time basis, those items had to be changed and done so in a manner on the same level as the original builders of the tavern.

One day I was in Halifax wandering through an antique store and asked the lady at the front desk about a cabinetmaker.  She pointed to one right next door to the building we were standing in.  I walked up the hill to a weather beaten, clap board sided building that had the artisans name engraved on a shingle hanging over the front door.  He was open to my surprise and I walked in and immediately started the laundry list of items that I needed done.  When he realized what house I was talking about he said "you don't need me, but my son instead".  Come to find out his son, Barry Thompson, was trained in carpentry at Colonial Williamsburg.  The creative juices started to flow since I found the perfect person to create cabinetry that looks as if it could have been there at the beginning.

Before we could get to the fun stuff of cabinets, kitchens and baths, we had to clean the house and work on, the 30 plus year old HVAC system that was hardly ever used.  More on that later and yes it has been replaced with a new high SEER system.

Since the house was empty, our painter refreshed all the white washed plaster (now two layers of sheetrock) with gleaming creamy white paint.  We rented a commercial floor buffer to clean all the floors with TSP.  That would horrify most house museum curators that we were removing dirt, maneuver, and God knows what else that was drug into the house over the past two plus centuries.  Especially since George Washington himself partook of refreshments in this very public building on his way to see a friend in the northern end of the county.  Whether that is true or not, that is what local history states.  The floors were dirty and we were not going to live in a house with dirt encrusted floors.  So over the Thanksgiving holiday and a subsequent two or three extra weekends we completed the floor washing duty.

Since I was designing and building houses in North Carolina I had access to many trades people that could do odds and ends for us on the house.  The next chore was the back porches and to some extent the front ones as well.  The decking was rotted and all the posts were starting to penetrate through to the sill.  So I brought up a couple of my weekend warrior type carpenters and started tackling those areas.  I had a local sawmill in NC mill bevel decking boards for me to replace was what there.  In old house fashion, one the brick piers decided to fall over while the reconstruction was happening.  After the mason had righted that wrong, the carpenters could continue their job. At the same time I was having the outside stripped and readied for paint.  That's another can of worms!!!!

Neither my spouse or I agree on much when it comes to the house(s).  He has his ideas and I have mine, but I'm right.  Normally!!!  What we agreed upon, amazingly enough, is to paint the house one color except for the windows and doors.  That was a very prevalent practice back in the 18th and early 19th centuries.  The color was a dark gray, with black sashes and red doors.  The porch flooring was another story.  We thought the red would be interesting on that, but we were wrong.  That was quickly changed to black.

We are now into the spring of the following year and all the above work is taking place.  What was I doing other than coordinating everyone was re-glazing windows!!!  That was like being sent to hell.  I can imagine that's what it must be like, repetition.  I had done enough re-glazing in New England for a lifetime, but here I was doing it again in the hot, muggy South.  Mind you there is only fifteen windows in the whole house along with two swinging single sashes above the kitchen in the loft.  However, this is a Georgian-Federal home with multi-pane configuration, 9 over 9 to be exact.  So each window, times 2 sashes, takes a little time and patience to complete.  By the fall of that year the exterior envelope is complete and only the shutters remained to be restored.

I will leave you with a bucolic image from the front porch of the Tavern.  The view is like stepping back in time over two hundred years ago.  I doubt it has changed much from then to now.


Saturday, March 15, 2014

I have to admit it.  I am a historic house addict!!!!  It all started in New England in the late 70s when I purchased a Gothic Revival home built in 1859 in New Bedford, Massachusetts.  I was a fledgling architect that knew very little about preservation.  I was fascinated by the wavy glass of the windows and the third floor that was encased in natural bead board paneling.  The house spoke to me and from that point on I was hooked on old houses!  Even to a point that much later a friend referred to my homes as my mistresses.  It was true and by then I had restored several in New England.

The waning Northern economy made me start looking for a new direction in life.  A friend from New York was traveling south quite a bit for business and said I should check out North Carolina.  Their economy was booming and would be a good place to possibly set up shop.  Taking the plunge, I moved south of the Mason-Dixon line to a new world and adventure!

I couldn't wait to find the stately, white columned mansion so fondly depicted in many a movie and novel of the early twentieth century.  When I arrived permanently I was shocked to discover that this part of the state not only did it not possess many historic houses, but were also priced in the stratosphere.  I could not touch even a 1920s bungalow for under $300,000!!!!  So my dreams had been dashed of finding that structure that was the epitome of the "Old South".

My business partner and I established our design/build firm creating high end homes in subdivisions around the area, but on weekends I was out looking for a historic project to feed my illness!  Unfortunately again, the small towns in this part of N.C. did not boost a bounty of treasures waiting to be found.  So I had to keep casting my net out farther all the time.  This lead me to different places I had never heard of and none the less been to!!!!

My spouse was of southern descent and took me to small towns and large cities in other parts of the South where we explored these communities in hopes of finding a new place to settle and bring back to life!  Our search took us from North Carolina through its southern sister all the way to the top of Florida where it still feels like the "South" with live oaks and waving palmettos.  The search was futile until one day I suggested looking in Virginia.  To much surprise my spouse exclaimed that "Tarheels" did not cross that dividing line into its northern neighbor.  Well, I thought the looking had come to an end and we would then start going more into the interior sections of Georgia to possibly find that gem of the past!

Several weeks had passed and my spouse called me up to the computer to see what had appeared.  When I looked at the screen I was taken a back!  Not because a beauty of 18th century architecture that was 95% original loomed in front of me on the screen, but because my spouse had found it in Virginia!!!!!  Within a few days we had made the appointment to go see the home.

We were both astounded when we walked in the front door.  The foyer was entirely made of heart pine and the average boards were at least ten inches wide.  We passed from room to room in awe of this beauty and finished our tour on the third floor which was used as a ballroom during the Federal period.  The house possessed everything we were looking for in its originality and not being bastardized through the decades.  The home had received a ground up museum restoration in 1972, but the children of the original restorers did not want it.  Still we were not convinced that this was the house for us.

It was originally built in 1773 in what you could call vernacular colonial style.  A one and a half story structure with a boxed staircase with one room down and one up.  The historic register called it a plantation to begin with, but it was quickly converted to a tavern since it lie on the stagecoach route between New York and New Orleans.  By the early 1800s it was expanded with a large two and a half story addition.  What is so rare about this structure is that it's in the county, but the inside was done with very high finishes of its time.  Doors are faux grained to look like mahogany; baseboards marbleized; wainscoting painted to resemble very expensive woods and highly carved mantles that possessed dazzling painting schemes.  Our problem was that the two dining rooms of the tavern were very large and would be difficult to furnish.  The other rooms were more manageable, but still had challenges.  Undeterred we bought the house.

After more than a decade, I finally owned an historic house once again!  My jitters and withdrawal symptoms had faded.