In my other life, I was a Class “A” Contractor and restored historic properties. Not a job for the weak at heart. One of my projects was a two-story, four room, Federal style house built in 1841. Sections of its red brick exterior walls were crumbling due to abuse and fire. It was built as a church meeting house and parsonage and is one of the oldest houses in Lynchburg.
In the 1920’s the owners added a rear annex, moving the kitchen and bathroom inside the house for the first time. Imagine that.
The house is in the Daniel’s Hill Historic District on Cabell Street. During its life, before I arrived, it was a church meeting house, parsonage, private home, bordello, private home, speakeasy and bordello, boardinghouse, and finally once again a private home.
As the upper and middle classes moved from downtown, the neighborhood began to deteriorate along with the house. Crumbling chimneys, broken shutters, rotting floors, cracked shingles, missing spindles on the widow’s walk.
In 2000, a fire broke out, believed due to a faulty, illegal moonshine still, destroying the annex, scorching the floors and walls. Only the fireproof old brick survived. When I bought the house, it was a condemned four room building. Floor to ceiling piles of junk and old clothes filled the surviving rooms.
But in Lynchburg, condemned is not a death sentence. These historic properties are being bought—some for as little as one dollar—and lovingly restored.
This house, because it was hand built, hand-planed, and hand lathed, didn’t have a square corner in it. Don’t believe just because it is old it was perfectly built. Much is hidden beneath lath and plaster. Rooms that looked square weren’t. Between fire and water damage, one floor and the front hall had to be replaced. It was a restorer’s nightmare of epic proportions.
To repair the staircase, each piece had to be marked so it would go back exactly where it had been. The heart of pine staircase spindles, handrails and newel posts were laden with a half dozen layers of paint that had to be softened in a special paint thinner, scraped off with chisels and sanded off with a Dremel tool and fine steel wool.
The walls were solid brick. Rather than wrestle with stripping hideous wallpaper, I framed them, creating square walls, and ran the wiring as if this was new construction, then vented for central heat and air, insulated and dry-walled. Nineteenth Century houses seldom have closets; these were created. The upstairs floors were sanded to remove the fire damage. A new, two-story annex was built on the footprint of the original, with a master suite and bath, a great room, large, modern kitchen plus two additional bathrooms and a utility room.
The Historic Committee demands the visible parts of the house look as original as possible. This meant wooden window frames, shutters, and pillers, slate roof tiles, a tin roof on the widow’s walk, brick and mortar, made from oyster shells, matching the historic color scheme.
One fire-ravaged fireplace mantel was replaced with a plank of three hundred-year-old oak left over from the restoration of Jamestown. Chimneys were structurally restored, although the fireplaces are for show. The front lawn was graded, sodded and landscaped with hardy plants that wouldn’t hide the windows or grow broad roots to threaten the foundation.
If you drive through Daniel’s Hill, the house on Cabell Street looks like a cozy but stately Federal-style home amid a sea of Queen Annes and other late Victorians. Inside it is a modern, three-bedroom house with all the amenities, but its current owners can sit on the back porch or second floor front or rear porches, and enjoy a spring evening—and maybe a bottle of exotic beer from Fireball’s collection.
For fun, click on here and see some the before and after photos.