Historic Home Contest’s runners-up shared historical devotion, attention to detail

October 19, 2012

Leslie Ariail, who owns the circa 1800 Lord Fairfax House in Old Town Alexandria, has a few things in common with Jim Loucks and Brad Smith, who inhabit an 1888 rowhouse in Northwest Washington.

They have restored their homes with exacting detail, doing some of the crucial work themselves, and are runners-up in the Historic Home Contest. “To see the pride and craftsmanship that was put into these houses by the current owners is what true preservation is all about,” said judge Simon Jacobsen, a partner in D.C.-based Jacobsen Architecture.

Ariail, 68, was recognized for preserving one of the finest examples of Federal-style architecture in the D.C. area. Her three-story brick house was completed by builder William Yeaton, who designed the Washington family tomb at Mount Vernon. The residence was purchased in 1830 by British aristocrat Thomas Fairfax, the ninth Lord Fairfax, and came to be known as the Lord Fairfax House.

Ariail and her late husband John, co-founder of the Sport and Health fitness club chain, purchased the home in 1993. They slowly fixed it up, preserving the original interiors while modernizing bathrooms and expanding the kitchen and master suite at the rear. An 1850s addition off the original stair hall was repaired with new floors and chimney flue to serve as a library and family room.

The crowning glory of the elegant entrance hall, dining room and drawing room is the neoclassical ornament attributed to 19th-century craftsman George Andrews, who worked at Monticello. Made of composition, a molded mixture of linseed oil, resin and whiting, the delicate cornices and ceiling medallions had become obscured under layers of paint.

In uncovering and repairing the intricate decoration, Ariail undertook some of the work herself. “I used dental instruments and X-acto knives to scrape off the paint and had professionals finish it up,” she says. She hand-carved the missing petals of the flower garlands in the drawing room’s ceiling medallion.

“The owner clearly understands what a significant home it is and accepted the responsibility of preserving it with incredible warmth and grace — just what a grand house like this deserves,” said judge Katherine Malone-France, director of outreach and education in the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s historic sites department.

Contest finalists Loucks, 59, and Smith, 58, were even more hands-on in reviving the Victorian look of their 1888 rowhouse, designed by Washington architect Nicholas T. Haller. “When we bought it in 1987, the house was completely uninhabitable,” recalls Loucks. “There was a large hole in the roof, deteriorated floors and no power or plumbing.” They paid $72,000 for the shell within a block of boarded-up homes near Blagden Alley in D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood.

“To most people, it would have seemed like a lost cause, but through dedication and painstaking work, Jim and Brad brought its beautiful features back to their original glory,” said Malone-France.

Loucks, a manager of an architecture firm, and Smith, a legal secretary, spent evenings and weekends making basic repairs to the house while living with friends. They restored windows, repaired the metal roof and built a basic kitchen and a bathroom before moving into the house in late 1988.

Over the next decade, the homeowners tackled the finish work as time and money allowed. They installed new wainscoting and pine flooring in creating a “club room” for entertaining next to the modern kitchen in the English basement. On the main level, they rebuilt the ornately carved stair balustrade and newel post and created a chase behind a fireplace for ductwork, wiring and plumbing.

Seeking Victorian authenticity, the couple hung Aesthetic Movement-inspired wallpaper in the foyer, front parlor and dining room, and Longwy gas chandeliers from the 1880s in several spaces.

Smith took courses at the Smithsonian to learn the faux painting and gilding techniques that he applied to the parlor walls, woodwork and fireplaces. Loucks made checkerboard-patterned stained glass for the master bedroom windows. The homeowners even traveled to the Minton factory in England to obtain encaustic tiles for the entranceway floor from the original source.

Along the way, the two encountered some surprises — when peeling off a sheet of tin from a transom window, they discovered a sunburst carved in wood. They stripped layers of paint to reveal the beauty of slate fireplace mantels, plaster ceiling medallions and delicately ornamented door hinges.

“There was enough of the original fabric left in the house that we felt we could recreate the period look,” Loucks says.

Deborah K. Dietsch is a freelance writer.

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