Going the Distance: Builder Dismantles a House, Moves It 150 Miles and Restores Its 1797 Character From the Ground Up

By Terri Sapienza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 17, 2009

Tom Glass has spent his career building dream homes for other people.

As the founder and president of Glass Construction in the District, Glass and his team work with clients to renovate and build houses, specializing in historic restoration and preservation. But early in 2006, Glass took on a personal project.

After discovering an abandoned 18th-century house nestled in a cow pasture in Virginia's Appomattox County, he decided to make it his own. But first he had to disassemble it, move the usable pieces 150 miles north, then rebuild it.

"The first time I saw it," says Glass, "I thought, 'That's the house I've been looking for. Finally.' "

A year earlier, Glass, who also has a home in Dupont Circle, had bought property in the Rappahannock County countryside. The 30 acres are surrounded by horse and cattle farms with panoramic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The property in Flint Hill sat empty for a year while he decided what to do with it.

"I didn't want to build a new house," he says. "I've spent my whole career preserving and restoring existing houses. I wanted to find an existing Virginia house that fit inside this landscape so I could have a house that looked like it had always been here."

The dilapidated structure he found near Pamplin City was originally built in 1797 by a Revolutionary War veteran on land given to him for his service to the country. The 3,400-square-foot, Federal-style house was named Woodlawn. By the time Glass found the house, it had been unoccupied for more than 70 years and was being sold for salvage.

Despite the time the building had sat open to the elements, the bones of the house were intact. And unlike other existing houses that age, says Glass, this one hadn't been added on to or changed since the day it was built. "Everything was handmade. All the woodwork was original. Everything was intact. It was unbelievable."

Glass was instantly drawn to the simple architecture, the side-hall entry, the symmetrical, multi-paned windows and the 10-foot ceilings on the first floor. But the detail that really sold him was the 48-foot-high, free-standing double chimney on the side of the house; it had an arched doorway in the center leading to the English basement. "The beauty of the proportions was unusual," he says. "The base was substantial. Everything about it was beautifully done."

Glass says the distinctive design of the house could be re-created only by using the same materials and rebuilding the structure in the same way that it had originally been built. Before the house was dismantled and moved, he made detailed architectural drawings of every room. He took complete measurements of the interior and exterior. And he meticulously labeled every piece of lumber, every floorboard and every piece of wainscoting so they could be replaced in the same spot. Glass even replicated the late-18th-century construction methods by rebuilding the mortise-and-tenon framing, which holds the structure together using pegs instead of nails.

"This house has a lot of quirks," Glass says as he points to the chimneys and original attic window that are slightly off-center and the front hall stairs that were built in front of a window, blocking a portion of the top panes. "But I love stuff like that." He found the quirkiness and random imperfections so appealing, in fact, that he kept them all in place during the restoration.

Glass also kept all of the original woodwork, including the wainscoting, mantelpieces, doors, staircases and railings, doing nothing more than cleaning it mainly with water and trisodium phosphate to maintain the weathered paint and the warm patina it acquired from 200 years of age. "We buffed, oiled and waxed the floors, keeping the original marks and dents," he says.

From a distance, the wood walls and floors merely look worn and rustic, but close up, every nick and scratch is clearly visible and completely charming. Carved on the walls leading up the main hall stairs are initials, dates and random graffiti from the years the house stood abandoned.

Of course, not everything in the house is as it was in the during the 1800s. Glass carved out space in the house's original footprint for a kitchen and several bathrooms, which would have been outside the house when it was initially built. The centuries-old architecture now shares space with Sub-Zero, Bosch and Viking stainless-steel kitchen appliances, fully enclosed glass showers, lighting from Restoration Hardware and bathroom tile from Waterworks. Glass also added electric, heating and cooling systems and more modern amenities: Internet, cable and telephone service.

Other small ways in which the original interior was changed: Doorways on the first floor were made wider to create a more open and airy feel, and dormers were added to the fourth-floor attic to bring in more light and make it a livable space; it now includes a bathroom, guest room and an office.

Glass paid $40,000 for the original structure. "You couldn't even buy the lumber for this house for that much, let alone the antique trims and architecture," he says. After dismantling the house, moving it, restoring and renovating it, his total cost came to about $740,000.

Not bad for a dream weekend home that includes a piece of history.

"It's been existing for 212 years," says Glass of Woodlawn. "Barring a tornado or fire, and if it's protected and taken care of, it could easily last another 200 years or more."

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