Vicki Gallant wanted to know whether anyone could recommend someone to sandblast an old radiator at her bed-and- breakfast in the Loudoun County village of Hamilton.
Turns out there are at least three companies nearby that can handle that kind of work, according to the group of three dozen self-taught experts who gathered one recent evening in a renovated farmhouse to discuss old houses.
How about someone who does a good job at demolition, another member asked. He got a round of recommendations before folks headed to the covered-dish buffet and then back to their chats about local history, proper construction techniques and the effects of the drought on their gardens.
For more than two decades, that mix of solid information and friendly socializing has kept these enthusiasts coming to the monthly gatherings of the Old House Group, an informal organization of people who live in the kind of homes where historical charm is easier to find than a completely plumb wall.
"If somebody's good, you can say they're good, and if someone's lousy, you can say they're lousy," said Bill Hines, a retired journalist who lives with his wife, Judy, and at least half a dozen cats in a Lovettsville house that grew up around a circa-1790 log cabin.
The Old House Group has no formal membership list, requirements, dues or officers; people join mostly because they are friends of friends. They range in age from about 30 to retiree. Many are current or former government workers. Most live in the tiny towns or traditional farms of western Loudoun County, but some come from as far as West Virginia.
Even the basics are a bit loose. "Nobody has a definition of what an old house is," Art Hurme said. The place he and his wife, Sally, have in West Virginia qualifies by any definition--the oldest part was built somewhere from 1765 to 1772.
The Old House Group started because Bill Miner was "desperate for information."
It was 1977, two years before the venerable TV show "This Old House" debuted on public television. People around the country were buying up aged relics and renovating them into showplaces. In the Washington area, some of those rehabbers were the "urban pioneers" who gentrified Dupont Circle and Capitol Hill.
Others, like Miner, bought cheap places out in the country. "People were up to their ears in trying to save these old houses," said Miner, who's now retired from his job designing displays at the Smithsonian.
His roof was off and there was water in the basement, so he and wife, Donna, put an ad in the local paper searching for others in similar situations. Eight couples showed up at the first meeting, food in hand. "We had seven desserts and one pot of spaghetti," Bill Miner recalled.
Over the next few years, the group grew to maybe 20 couples. But there were strains in dealing with old houses. "More than half divorced because of the pressure of doing this," he said.
In 1981, the Miners moved across the country, and the group soon fell apart. They moved back in 1983 and formed the group again.
Over the years, Bill Miner said, the concerns of rehabbers have shifted. It takes a lot more money to buy and to rehab now. That's if you can find a place. "There aren't that many old houses" that need serious work.
That means that rehabbers need to be more affluent than they were in the 1970s. Where people once sought hands-on advice because they were doing the construction work themselves to save money, now they mostly hire contractors.
"But to do an old house," Miner said, "it still isn't a matter of money. It's a matter of love and commitment and knowledge."
Said Bill Hines, "Many of us . . . came from somewhere else. It's the first chance we've ever had to own anything old." To be able to own a place with a Civil War bullet embedded in it--the thought makes him smile.
Everyone in the Old House Group has a different story about how and why he chose to live in his home. For some, it's accidental; for others, it's a long-held dream.
The Hurmes, for example, were looking for a barn to store a lot of things they had inherited from his parents. They saw a barn as they were driving through West Virginia; the house came with it.
"It was a disaster, a true basket case," Art Hurme said. Between the house and the barn, there were 103 broken panes of glass, Sally Hurme recalled.
But they fell in love with the place. Like many other members of the group, they've researched and typed up the house's history. Union soldiers headquartered there during the Civil War. There still may be a ghost from that era tramping around.
The couple, who both work in Washington, have owned the house for about five years. They've done a lot of demolition to reveal older features, exposing fireplaces and beams. Their goal is to restore it as much as feasible to its origins. That could takes years more.
Carolee and Reid Copeland weren't looking for an old house, either. Instead, in 1987 they bought a tract of land that adjoined their Loudoun County farm. There was a house on it, but the agent advised them that their best bet was to donate it to the local fire department so it could be set ablaze as a practice house, Carolee Reid said.
"We had no idea what we had," she said. "We had not had any intention to restore it until we went down to the courthouse and found out it was 200 years old."
Originally, the place was what was known as a "patent house," a 16- by 20-foot structure built by homesteaders on a 120-acre grant of land from holdings of Lord William Fairfax's. Fairfax once owned huge swaths of what is now Northern Virginia and West Virginia.
The Copelands have modernized some parts of the house, upgrading heating, plumbing and electricity. In other parts, they've gotten as close to the history as possible, even using hand-hewn local logs to replace damaged beams.
After 12 years of work, the Copelands still own the place, which is a working farm, but they have moved to another house near Charlottesville. That one is just 100 years old. Said Carolee Copeland, "It's a beautiful Victorian. It didn't need any work. We feel like we're on vacation."
Not all old houses require so much effort. Brian Rooney bought a log and stone house in Morrisonville in 1992; it dates to the early 1800s. The hard renovation work was already finished. "I haven't really had to do anything," he said.
Much of his interest in old homes is professional--he's a real estate agent who specializes in such buildings. "Fixer-uppers are getting hard to find," he said, but there were perhaps 70 to 80 old houses up for sale in the Loudoun area over the last year.
"They linger on the market longer then regular houses," he said. "Everybody thinks they are high maintenance."
"Not really, but it definitely takes a certain kind of person. You've got to love it."
Vicki and Bill Gallant say loving it is the reason they live where they do.
They used to live in Ashburn, on what was "barely a two-lane road," in a house that sat where the Food Lion is now. But as development pushed outward, Vicki Gallant said, they looked for someplace more peaceful. "I loved the idea of a stone house," she said.
They saw and bought this one in 1988. It's not old by the standards of the Old House Group, she admits, since it was built in 1938. "She's sort of a dowager," Vicki Gallant said. "She's very dignified, lovely and graceful, but middle-aged."
They also loved the idea of running a bed-and-breakfast, so they converted the place and dubbed it Stonegate. They're now retired from earlier careers and work there full-time.
"When we started ours, there were only three B&Bs in Loudoun County," Bill Gallant said. There are now about 18, he said. "It's our dream house."
The group has been a source of both ideas and support, Vicki Gallant said. "You get to be good friends, and it's saved a lot of marriages. It's a therapy group."
Founder Bill Miner echoes that--the group is not just about construction, it's also about community. Through the years, people have supported one another not only through spats with contractors, but also through family deaths and other tragedies.
He said, "I think its value is not necessarily in stabilizing the structures, it's in stabilizing the people who care about the structures."
The B&B Option
There's a way to experience old-house charm without restoring one yourself. Many of the small towns an hour or two outside Washington have their share of old houses that have been converted to bed-and-breakfast inns.
Here's a small selection of romantic B&Bs in the region, all in old buildings. There's a longer list in the book these suggestions came from, "Escape Plans," compiled by Washington Post travel writer Roger Piantadosi (Washington Post Books, 1998):
* Antrim 1844, Taneytown, Md. 1-800-858-1844
* Bishop's House Bed & Breakfast, Easton, Md. 1-800-223-7290
* Clifton, Charlottesville, Va. 1-888-971-1800
* Inn at Vaucluse Spring, Stephens City, Va. 1-800-869-0525
* River House Inn, Snow Hill, Md. 410-632-2722