Restoring homestead and history

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 18, 2010

By the time Georgia Ravitz saw the old farmhouse, everyone else had given up on it. The nearly collapsed brick edifice, on a pretty shoulder of the Piedmont in Loudoun County, had been slated for demolition by a developer, condemned by the county, and nearly consumed by a mountain of vines and brambles.

"A teardown," the real estate agent had warned when Ravitz and her husband came to look at the 143-acre farm a few miles from Purcellville. "Don't even go in there."

Ravitz loved the place at once. When the couple started a careful rehabilitation, they discovered something even more neglected than the 141-year-old house: the compelling tale of the man who built it, a Civil War veteran, politician and prison reformer.

A year later, a construction project-turned-historical detective case is coming to a head. The house has new floors, handsome woodwork and modern appliances. And Bushrod Lynn, the 19th-century Virginia reformer who had been lost to history, is about to get his own marker out by the highway. In heritage terms, he's going from forgotten man to made guy.

"I knew instantly that I wanted to save this house, but the best thing is knowing that we've resurrected this man and he can take his rightful place in history," Ravitz, 47, said as she looked over fields flanked on one horizon by the Blue Ridge and on the other by the Bull Run Mountains. "When we got the letter telling us about the highway marker, I cried tears of joy. Even though they misspelled my name."

Ravitz, a speed-talking Washington lawyer who grew up in Northern New Jersey, might seem an unlikely champion of Old Dominion heritage. But she has a passion for old homes and for history - and, as a partner at the firm of Arent Fox, the means to indulge them.

Last year, when a Realtor told her and her husband, Peter Basser, a biophysicist at the National Institutes of Health, that a to-die-for farm was for sale near Round Hill, the couple rushed to see it. They loved the antebellum barns and fields that had survived the pell-mell development that has converted so many farms to subdivisions.

In fact, the bulldozers had come perilously close. Ten years earlier, the Gray family, which had owned the farm since 1955, sold to a developer. The county approved a plan to cut the property into 14 lots, with no room for the old brick farmhouse, which would fall.

But problems with the soil-percolation testing and then the housing slump stalled the project. The developer rented out the farmhouse, and it slipped into decay. Jean Gray, who had moved just down the road, was appalled by the deteriorating condition of the house, where she had raised three daughters.

"I just wouldn't even look at it," she said.

By the time Ravitz and Basser saw the house, the porches had rotted off, the floors were gone and the stench from tenants who had lived without working plumbing was "horrific." But something about the simple Tidewater style of the place, its curved stairway and fine brickwork, hinted at an intriguing pedigree.

"Who had built this house?" the couple asked themselves. Gray knew only a name from the 1869 deed, one Bushrod Lynn. A map of the region revealed that the farm had once been known as "East Lynn." There the trail ended. Bushrod Lynn meant nothing to local archivists and historians.

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