In Alexandria, where most people would give their first mortgages to own a historic house, May LaPorte Moore stands alone.
The city decided recently that her white frame house has historic worth and is protected by a city law designed to save 100-year-old houses outside Alexandria's Old Town district. That means Moore may not sell it to anyone who plans to tear it down.
But Moore, 73, who has lived in the house since 1941, is ready to sell. She has a contract with a developer who plans to subdivide her property and two adjacent lots for what a lawyer promises will be a dozen "stately mansions on small lots." Moore's already found an apartment and begun packing a lifetime's collection of things into cardboard boxes.
"I want to be able to sell my property," Moore protested yesterday afternoon as she sat in her small, sparsely furnished parlor. "I can't believe that in America you cannot do what you want to do with your own property!"
To Alexandria's planners and preservationists, such a sale would be a tragedy.
In a city where the local historic foundation has stopped issuing historic plaques partly because people kept stealing them, and where real estate agents say a historic designation can add anywhere from hundreds to a few thousand dollars to a house's worth, Moore's is a unique cause.
So Moore has retained a lawyer and filed a lawsuit in Circuit Court asking the City Council to reconsider its unanimous decision to place her house on what her lawyer refers to as the "100-year list."
The question is whether enough of the house's original structure remains to call it 100 years old. The city says it does. Moore, who spent two years renovating the place in 1939, disagrees.
And history is in the eye of the beholder.
"This house is not historical," Moore said. "George Washington didn't live here. When I bought the place with my husband in 1939, it was just a dilapidated shell. The previous owner couldn't even live here during the winter, and the contractor at the time told us he could push the whole thing over with his bare hands.I wish he was still alive. He could tell the council a thing or two about this house!
"We had to replace everything -- there was nothing here! No kitchen, no plumbing, no electricity. We put in new outside and inside walls, the floors, the woodwork, the windows and shutters. We put in doors between the rooms, new stairwells, closets for the first time, plumbing, electricity. The only things historical in this house are the chimney and me!"
After city planners and building inspectors appraised the Moore house recently, they acknowledged that it had been extensively refurbished and called for additional research. But Engin Artemel, Alexandria's director of planning, held that the Moores restored the house with an eye toward its historical character and that it sill lent valuable character to the neighborhood.
At publichearings on the Moore house, a few neighbors and a neighborhood civic association concurred, and also objected to the extra traffic a new development would bring to the 2600 block of King Street.
Moore says she did not set out to sell to a developer, but developers were all that came along during the two years the two-bedroom house has been on the market. Her asking price, in excess of $250,000, the house's small size and 40-year-old improvements, and the lack of any real antique woodwork, Moore says, kept old home buffs away.
"If this house was really historic, I would have one of the biggest backyards in Alexandria. I would have had offers for it of $450,000 or $500,000. But that hasn't happened.And I have to sell it. I can't cut the lawn any more and the stairs are bad for my heart.
"My father was a cabinetmaker and restorer," said Moore, who has lived in Alexandria all of her life. "I know the real old stuff when I see it." She pointed to a plain painted wooden bookcase near the fireplace. "And this isn't it."
She smoothed back her white hair, glanced out the window at the cars that whoosh by less than 20 yards from her front door, and sighed an exasperated sigh. "Why are people afraid of progress?"