When Jason Hampel bought Charles “Joe” Reeder’s 300-plus-year-old log house in Oakton, Va., the men struck a gentlemen’s agreement. Nothing barred Hampel from razing the home known as Squirrel Hill and building a McMansion, but he promised that he would preserve the house, Fairfax’s oldest documented historic dwelling.
Hampel’s problem: How could he, his wife, Sarah, and their two children occupy a house in which the logs are rotting, the kitchen beams are sagging and the stairs are so narrow that they threaten bodily harm each trip up and down?
In the fall, the Hampels began working on an unusual solution that is provoking curiosity throughout the well-to-do enclave. The Hampels are sandwiching the ancient log house between a new attached three-car garage on the left and a new four-bedroom home connected on the right. Squirrel Hill’s longtime neighbors, the Fairfax historic preservation planner who has investigated the home’s origins, and the Oakton real estate agent who sold the property, agree: They’ve never seen a residential buyer save a historic home by tacking on a new house and garage.
Although Squirrel Hill is the oldest dwelling listed in the Fairfax County Inventory of Historic Sites, Reeder said he never tried to get it on the National Register of Historic Places or the Virginia Landmarks Register.
“There was a certain amount of documentation and photographs that were needed for all of that, and there was no tax benefit,” said Reeder, whose preservation effort was a personal one, not a legal matter.
In Reeder’s year-long quest for a buyer, the Hampels emerged as the only ones willing to pay near the asking price and vow not to tear down the dilapidated structure, which will likely be used as a mud room, and as a destination for their children’s school field trips.
Since the Hampels opted not to build the new home separately from Squirrel Hill, they also don’t have to worry about whether they would violate the area’s zoning laws mandating one home per acre.
“It sounds cheesy, but my wife and I felt like we were fated to care for this house,” said Hampel, who owns a home remodeling company, Moss Building and Design in Chantilly. “My wife had the idea of integrating Squirrel Hill. If it has been continuously lived in since [the early 1700s], for us to park the new house separately would have sucked the spirit out of the property. The house had to be lived in, and we can restore it over time. Otherwise it would deteriorate.”
Unlike Squirrel Hill’s tenants from previous decades, the family of four isn’t willing to live exclusively in the log house, which was built in the early 1700s. And the Hampels’ new attached farmhouse-style residence, clad in Tyvek and months away from completion, will not exactly look like something from the pre-Founding Fathers days.
Reeder, 86, a former Marine Corps officer who worked as a photo intelligence research analyst, said he feels lucky that he found a buyer eager to save the house. Reeder bought Squirrel Hill and the adjacent 20-plus acres in 1957 for $14,000 from descendants of the prominent Henry Waple family, whose name graces Waples Mill Road and an Oakton elementary school.
Reeder sold most of the land decades ago for $200,000 to a developer but kept Squirrel Hill and its 11 / 2 acres. Over the next several decades, he rented it to childless couples or singles, including a hot-air balloonist whom neighbors remember for all the takeoffs and landings. He spent thousands of dollars in restoration, installing new plumbing and redoing the bonding material between the logs.
Two years ago, Reeder decided that the time had come to put the historic home on the market for $625,000. He probably could have asked for more without the no-tear-down promise, but he was determined after years of stewardship to find a buyer who viewed the house as something worth keeping.
“At my age, I couldn’t guarantee the house could be preserved for too long,” said Reeder, who sold Squirrel Hill to Hampel for $567,500. “I’d rather negotiate now with a buyer rather than have my heirs deal with it later, especially because they’d have less of an interest in what would happen to it.”
Two others who also really wanted Squirrel Hill — and didn’t intend to add structures — were Reeder’s most recent tenants, Myke Taister and his partner, Frank Shutts. Taister, 60, a retired FBI forensics artist, said they offered Reeder $400,000.
“His price was too high for us,” said Taister, who moved into Squirrel Hill to be closer to the bureau’s Quantico facility.
During their 11 years at Squirrel Hill, Taister and Shutts, a government contractor, allowed metal-detecting hobbyists to search the property for relics. They kept a diary of their Squirrel Hill occupancy, logging moments such as the time they ripped out the bathroom floor or encountered the home’s ghost, a 9-year-old girl named Pearl Kitchen. Pearl supposedly died at the house in the early 20th century when her family lived there.
Shutts’s brother took a picture of the house that appears to show the ghost peeking out of the attic window. Taister keeps the photo in his journal as proof that the place is haunted.
Now, Taister and Shutts live a couple of miles away. They hear through friends about the Hampels’ progress. They are especially happy that the family plans to continue the neighborhood holiday parties in Squirrel Hill’s speakeasy-style basement tavern.
“Very few people would live in the house the way it is,” Taister said. “We had space heaters during the winter and kept three fireplaces going at one time. It’s drafty. I think Jason’s come up with a great compromise. And he’s keeping the tavern.”
The neighbors on Lyrac Street are just happy that Squirrel Hill — the origin of the name is unclear to Reeder — isn’t being destroyed.
“I will tell you everyone loves Frank and Myke, and we would have all been thrilled if they had just stayed there because they were content in the log cabin,” said Patricia Butler, 67, a retired federal government worker who has lived on Lyrac for 35 years. “We see things being built in Vienna — these mausoleums. But what Jason and Sarah are building looks very nice. I think it’s great to have a family living there — a family that cares.”
One day in December, Hampel and a neighbor walked around the back and opened up the door to the Squirrel Hill tavern, whose walls are made of hand-stacked mortarless stones.
“We’re not keeping the washer and dryer here,” Hampel said, noting that he would find space for the appliances in the new house.
Chris Donohue, a stay-at-home dad who has been appointed bartender for those holiday parties, nodded. “Yeah. The tavern keeper doesn’t do laundry,” he said.
Donohue wondered whether Hampel was worried about Squirrel Hill’s ghost. Hampel assured his neighbor that there was nothing about this real estate deal that spooked him.
“We are accepting of all positive energy on the property,” Hampel said.