The roof leaked, the chimneys leaned and the porches sagged. Deserted for several years, the old home place certainly didn't have obvious curb appeal.
It was just as bad inside. Animals had set up housekeeping, the walls hadn't been painted in 150 years and the house's 20 amps supplied only enough electricity for its two bare light bulbs. There was no indoor plumbing -- just a cold-water line from a spring. The outhouse was under a nearby hackberry tree.
But it was love at first sight for Jeri Allen. "I sat on that porch and watched the sun set over the Blue Ridge and I said, 'We'll take it.' " Twelve years ago, she and her husband Robert were house hunting in Virginia's Piedmont region just north of Charlottesville, lured by the Blue Ridge mountain views, the pastoral scenes, and -- after years working in Manhattan -- the rural peace and seclusion. And they were also attracted by the chance to buy one of the area's antebellum houses. For them, the result would be worth the time and effort involved in the restoration.
The term "antebellum home" usually brings to mind the Deep South and its huge plantation houses surrounded by live oaks draped with Spanish moss. But less than two hours south of the Capital Beltway, there's a surprising supply of antebellum homes, houses built before the Civil War. Many of them are classic "manor homes" such as the Allens' 1840 Highbrighton. The main tides of the Civil War swept to the east and to the west of Virginia's Piedmont counties of Madison, Orange, Greene and Albemarle, so most of this region's smaller plantation homes escaped unscathed.
For $1 to $2 million, one can find a nice, upscale house in the Washington area with some "flash" -- a mini-mansion with custom features on one acre to five acres in one of the prestigious suburbs. But today, for that same amount, one can find a mansion with 50 to 100 acres -- no other mini-mansions in view -- already restored with modern amenities. And there's an added bonus: a timeless country lifestyle and an aura of roots and permanence, with each house featuring its unique pedigree of character and historic legends.
The typical Piedmont antebellum manor house is a Greek Revival: a classic brick "two-over-two" or "four-over-four," two stories high over an English basement, with a hipped roof and wide, columned front portico.
Windows are tall -- often almost floor to ceiling in a "six-over-six" pattern of panes. They let in light and breezes while framing views of trees, hedgerows and pastoral fields. Sometimes the panes are the wavy original glass that adds an impressionist painter's touch to the views. And the interior antebellum features are still intact in most of these old houses -- heart pine flooring, carved molding and mantels, original hardware on doors and shutters, and fireplaces in just about every room.
No modern landscaper could duplicate the settings. Huge hollies and magnolias flank the corners of these houses and their lawns are shaded by ash and oak trees with the massive girths and spreading branches of more than a century's growth. Ancient boxwoods -- tall and wide enough to hide a gangly teenager -- line the walks that approach the broad steps leading up to the front porticos.
As with Jeri Allen and that porch view of the sun setting over the mountains, it was the charm of Edgewood Farm's landscape that first attracted Parry and Carolyn Merkley. When they look out from their 1852 Greek Revival in Orange County, he said, "It looks like England -- the view from every window is a Gainsborough."
For many of those who have recently purchased an antebellum house, the restoration work has already been done. But in Allen's case, loving the house meant looking past its initial appearance and seeing the "good bones." The old brick walls didn't need repointing and the chestnut columns on the portico needed only a new coat of white paint. Restoration craftsmen burnished Highbrighton's gracious historic features and installed modern amenities such as an updated kitchen and baths and a heating and air conditioning system complete with custom heart pine grilles to match the flooring.
Why do home buyers such as the Allens choose these 150-year-old houses instead of the super-sized, all-the-bells-and-whistles "estate homes" sprouting up on former cornfields in counties such as Loudoun? These old houses are smaller than many of the new places, and they come with unique restoration or maintenance challenges. When asked, these homeowners echo some common themes.
The strongest pull may be something intangible. Jeri Allen said her house "has a soul . . . a warmth . . . a protectiveness."
As for Ann Reel, who lives with her husband Jim on South River Farm in Greene County, "I knew instantly this is where we were supposed to be," she said. "These places choose their people -- you feel a deep emotional connection. The first time I walked in the door I felt like I'd come home."
South River Farm is another classic manor house, this one in a bucolic valley at the foot of the Blue Ridge. It sits on a rise, catching the breezes from Swift Run Gap. Finished in 1854, it was built from bricks made from clay dug on the property and fired right there. Like Highbrighton, South River's walls are three "courses" -- three bricks -- thick.
Owners of historic homes say they are often repelled by the new structures for sale at similar prices. "I've always loved old things -- antique furniture, antique jewelry," said Jeri Allen. Paul Burghardt, who with his wife Hope bought Mirador, an 1842 Greek Revival in Albemarle County, has "a passion for historic preservation."
Pointing to the molding in the parlor, he said, "You can't duplicate that -- it was carved by Thomas Jefferson's head carpenter."
Speaking of new houses, Carolyn Merkley said, "They feel really shallow -- no heart, no soul." She likes her Edgewood Farm "because it's old -- and imperfect," she added with emphasis.
Michael Phelan, who lives at Old Hall in Albemarle County, feels the same way.
"I've always been drawn to old houses," he said. He has owned an old brownstone in New York, a townhouse in London's Chelsea and then two old houses in Houston. "I just like old things -- old houses, old furniture. Houston had magnificent new homes, but they had no appeal for me."
Most of the huge new houses "are too large for their land," Trish Crowe said. A few years ago she and her husband, David, bought Firnew, set on a rise above the Conway River in Madison County, with the mountains of Shenandoah National Park just to the west. "Here the house is an integral part of the land," she said.
He agreed, and added that they "bought the place for the land -- the house was a bonus."
Unlike many of the neighboring manor homes, Firnew dates back to a much earlier period. Built in 1812, it's a frame house with a stone foundation, four brick chimneys and a gabled roof with five dormers.
Despite the grand "manor" label, the most common initial reaction among owners and guests alike is a feeling of warmth. "I felt instantly comfortable," Ann Reel said. She added that her visitors "all say the same thing."
Historical connections are another appealing factor.
When Michael Phelan and his wife Penny were moving from Houston, they were looking for an antebellum house coupled with life in a small town. They settled on Old Hall, circa 1835, in Scottsville, a historic river town on a horseshoe bend of the James, about 20 miles south of Charlottesville. Soon after they settled in, they began finding Civil War-era nails and horseshoes in their back yard. Originally built as the home of Scottsville's first bank president, their house had been a Civil War-era hospital and then headquarters for Lee's retreating army.
Like Old Hall and its Civil War horseshoes, other antebellum homes have their own links with history.
Carolyn and Parry Merkley's Edgewood Farm is set amid the fields above the Rapidan River near James Madison's Montpelier and just south of one of Robert E. Lee's winter encampments. Their house's connection to this past is important to both of them. "New houses have no stories," she said, and that reminded him of something that happened shortly after they moved there.
As he stood by one of his front windows gazing out to the road, Merkley suddenly had "a strong feeling related to a woman who had lived there during the Civil War" and he could "sense her standing right there, at that same window, watching the troops marching along that very road." That had happened, he later learned from reading a soldier's diary.
Merkley, an advertising executive who commuted from Connecticut to Manhattan for 20 years, said this "influence of history is a wonderful anchor" not only for them, but also for their five children, especially the younger two still at home.
Sometimes these historical links come to life, as past residents make their presence felt. Some owners talk of all the lives that went on in their homes before them -- all the births, weddings, and deaths -- and mention sensations such as a "benign presence."
But at South River Farm, both owners and guests claim to have sensed more.
Ann Reel said her bedroom door has mysteriously opened and closed three times in succession in the middle of the night, and in that same bedroom a picture "was thrown" off the wall three times. The McMullan clan owned that house for generations, and during Reconstruction little Mary Elizabeth, age 11, died there. Recently a guest, also named Mary Elizabeth, was sitting in the parlor when suddenly, said Reel, "she froze and stared straight ahead and didn't say a word -- and afterward she said she felt a presence beside her and then her arm was gently stroked, just as a child might."
For many of these owners, this connection to history brings a sense of obligation.
The Burghardts restored nearby Sam Black's Tavern to preserve the log structure where such historical figures as Thomas Jefferson and George Rogers Clark stopped for refreshment along the old Rockfish Gap road heading west from Charlottesville. School groups can now arrange to visit the 1769 tavern.
"We believe in sharing," Paul Burghardt said. In the same vein, his family has welcomed as guests those related to Mirador and its previous owners.
Many historic homes have old family cemeteries on their land. Often, the new owners take over their care and welcome those who come to visit family graves. Descendants of former owners come to the cemetery at the Allens' place during the day, but Jeri Allen has a story about the one mysterious visitor they've never seen. "Every Memorial Day someone has come in the middle of the night and placed a Confederate flag on one of the graves," she said.
Paul Burghardt said of Mirador, "We're just the stewards of this place." Carolyn Merkley speaks the same way about Edgewood Farm. "We don't really 'own' this place," she said. "We have a stewardship responsibility to continue what's already been done . . . to do no harm . . . and to preserve the land."
Several owners have put their homes and land in conservation easements to prevent future subdividing. Trish and David Crowe have done so and are also active in organizations working to preserve the landscape, hoping to prevent what she terms the "grotesque development" occurring in the countryside farther north.
According to local real estate agents, interest in these old homes remains strong, both among retirees, such as Ann and Jim Reel, who were looking for a new lifestyle in the country, as well as among those who are able to combine telecommuting with occasional trips to corporate offices, such as Parry Merkley. For him, Dulles is a 90-minute drive. And the Charlottesville airport, with multiple flights a day to Washington and New York, is less than a half-hour drive for many, such as Robert Allen, who often uses this airport.
All of these antebellum home owners appear to be happily and permanently ensconced, but similar properties continue to become available. For example, near the Reels' place, another antebellum home with significant acreage is currently for sale -- or rather, it's "offered," to use the gentle Southern parlance of the agents involved in this sort of real estate. This restored circa 1832 four-bedroom, three-bath brick manor house is on 130 acres with 360-degree views of pastures and mountains, and is currently on the market for $1,625,000.
Opportunities with big-name historical connections during the past year included Woodley, the "meticulously restored" 1783 home of President Madison's brother, on 40 acres, with 10 working fireplaces, five bedrooms, three-and-a-half baths and the original summer kitchen restored as a guest cottage, offered for $1.2 million. Other houses on generous acreage, both about 30 minutes from Charlottesville, include the 1820 Currin's Tavern, where the Marquis de Lafayette dined, with 6,000 square feet, full-length windows, 11-foot ceilings, an old guest house and a $1.18 million price tag. Offered for $1,295,000, Boswell's Tavern, circa 1735, Lafayette's headquarters and also a meeting place for Patrick Henry, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, is still on the market.
In the Charlottesville area, anything associated with the Jefferson name costs a bit more, from the silver Jefferson cups for mint juleps to land and manor homes. Built in 1841 by Thomas Jefferson's great-granddaughter on the original family plantation, Shadwell was offered at $2.45 million. Restored to "museum quality," this home on 63 acres less than three miles from town is surrounded by "charming" dependencies, including, like so many of these manor houses, a guest cottage.
Houses with such a direct connection to our third president are rare, but many of this area's antebellum homes are within the area dubbed "Jefferson country" -- and all are in counties within the storied slice of land from Gettysburg to Monticello that the National Trust for Historic Preservation recently cited as holding "more American history than any other swath of land in the country." Orange, Madison, Greene and Albemarle counties all lie along the broad path that preservationists are now calling "hallowed ground."
These new designations could intensify the interest of those looking for a house that's more than just a stunning arrangement of bricks and mortar -- a house whose bricks were made with the clay from its land, whose walls tell stories, whose past will bestow upon its new owners their own strong link to history.