Virginia, they say, is for lovers. It is also for old-house lovers, who dote on antique dwellings from the Eastern Shore to the Shenandoah Valley, and sometimes take great pains to do the right thing by history when updating these homes for 21st-century living.¶
One of those people is Washingtonian Stephen M. Foster, who spent more than two years renewing Wilton, a 1763 plantation manor in Middlesex County east of Richmond near Chesapeake Bay that, though remarkably intact, had decayed and faced demolition.
After preservationists saved the day by buying the long-vacant property, Foster purchased it under a historical easement, then followed strict requirements and his own exacting vision to bring Wilton back to life, bone structure to brick facade.
Seventeenth-century Britain was smitten with the Tidewater. Explorer John Smith effused that “heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man’s habitation.” Waterways, forests and fertile soil enriched a gentry focused on raising tobacco, including William Churchill, a 1670s settler who prospered as planter, merchant and officeholder. After the family seat, Bushy Park, burned in 1760, grandson William II built Wilton, between Urbanna and Deltaville.
The T-shaped, gambrel-roofed house has classic Georgian symmetry, proportions and detail; it is stately, yet beckons amiably from a gentle slope overlooking the Piankatank River. Within is preserved some of Virginia’s finest woodwork, notably the heart-pine paneling encasing the southwest parlor, a neoclassical box that is especially fetching in slanted sunlight.
Wilton’s 3,750-square-foot plan is simple: four principal chambers on each of its two floors, linked by a hall with a noble carved-walnut staircase. Most rooms boast a fireplace, deeply recessed windows with operable shutters, handsome woodwork and wide-plank flooring. “A plantation house, but not overwhelming,” Foster says. “Big, even in today’s world, but not grandiose.”
The Churchills sold in 1829; ensuing owners forsook tobacco for other crops. Antiques dealer Gerald Ballantyne bought Wilton in 1941, leaving it largely untouched but vacating in 1992. By 2002, the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (Preservation Virginia) coaxed Ballantyne’s son — who had parked a bulldozer menacingly nearby — to sell it the mansion, then offered Wilton for sale under the protective easement.
An Andover, Mass., native and 41-year Washingtonian, Foster, 66, was a lawyer in international law and banking, a publisher of newsletters on emerging markets, and an art dealer in American and European paintings. He works on real estate projects from his 1988 neoclassical home in the Berkley neighborhood of Northwest Washington. Foster had restored one Virginia house in Fluvanna County and wasn’t particularly looking for another. But 10 years ago, he spotted Wilton on Preservation Virginia’s Web site. “I was struck by the image, asking myself, what the hell is this house?” he says. “Why is it here, sitting like this, for sale? Not spoken for already?”
By 2011, the price had fallen from $990,000 to $690,000 (Preservation Virginia had bought the property for $850,000). Foster visited and — taken by Wilton’s timeless style, handy size and appealing floor plan — placed an offer for the 26-acre property. Wilton had been empty so long “I was very skeptical about what it would cost, problems I might run into, what I was going to do with it,” says Foster, who negotiated the price to $495,000. “I went in without an exit plan.” So he hired preservation contractor and master carpenter Chuck Rackley.
The easement, which bars razing, removing or spoiling historic character, is “the mechanism that will outlast us all and keep Wilton safe,” says Preservation Virginia’s executive director, Elizabeth Kostelny. Closing on the purchase in October 2011, Foster inked an agreement with the group and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources to fully rehab Wilton under the department’s supervision.
Foster was fine with that. “Why would I do anything other than what the easement calls for?” he says. “Lots of people want to take an old house, spiff it up, make the inside look like a house built two years ago. That to me would be pointless.” He did not want to restore Wilton but “make the best of preserving it as it was.”
Plenty of “was” survived: woodwork, staircase, floors, fireplaces, frame, brick walls. Interior paint was original or early. No wings were ever added. Foster pulls up a hall rug: “Nothing’s happened to that floor in 250 years. Nothing! Not painted, not sanded, not varnished.”
But the roof leaked, mold thrived, plaster fell and floors sagged. Wilton needed wiring, plumbing, an HVAC system and a functioning kitchen. There was one tiny bathroom. Miss Havisham would have felt at home.
Foster’s plan took careful timing, a surgeon’s touch and a mix of talent to tackle history and function. Rackley repaired historic structural and architectural elements, conservators coddled old wood and paint, archaeologists vetted excavations and a remediation crew dispatched the mold, checked with a new cedar-shingle roof. Modernization fell to Four Brothers, a Washington design/build firm, which designed a kitchen and 31 / 2 baths — “to turn Wilton into an actual house,” says principal Leroy Johnson.
Almost every decision required weighing Wilton’s history.
When paint analyst Susan Buck examined the paint on wood and plaster — probing tiny samples with high-resolution microscopes to reveal color, composition and chronology — she found it was early and rarely changed. The first-floor wood had five coats at most; the paneled parlor and stair hall, two. “Extraordinary,” Buck wrote in a report, “considering that houses of comparable age and size in the Chesapeake might typically have up to 24 generations of paint.”
The gray-blue parlor was originally cream. Most of the upstairs sported but one coat of red-brown, “almost as if no one lived there for 200 years,” Foster says.
Buck’s findings informed conservator Christopher Mills, who meticulously stabilized and cleaned the paint with a battery of potions, applied sympathetic (lighter) colors on “post-historical” features such as 1970s window sashes, “faux-painted” new wood to match adjacent historic material, and lime-washed old and new plaster. In the parlor, he and Rackley steadied badly sagging panels.
“If you look at the before and after in [the parlor], you’d probably not be overwhelmed by the difference,” Foster says. “That’s a good thing.”
The dining room presented a unusual mix of colors; the west window surround had been only partially repainted gray-green in the early 19th century. But Foster decided “we’re not painting over the old paint — rule number one.” So they left the inconsistencies, Mills says, “as part of the historic narrative.” Rackley rebuilt the floor with antique heart-pine boards that Foster bought and cleaned himself.
Turning the two rear rooms upstairs into a bedroom/bath suite was a challenge. “Four Brothers and I must have made 20 different floor plans,” Foster says, ultimately returning to the rooms’ historic configuration. One of the upstairs rear rooms became a huge bath with marble/glass shower, toilet in window-seat space, historic flooring and gray trim — colonial goes baronial.
In the kitchen, Johnson says, “we thought we could go quite modern — or match it closely. We ended up somewhere in between.” Foster wanted it less-finished, so the plaster was not lime-washed, the fireplace brick was left exposed and the upper walls were kept free of cabinets. He did indulge in a sleek Italian range hood. “I said, ‘I’m not getting the ye olde — let’s get the ye new.’ ”
The easement covers all 26 acres, so archaeologist Thane Harpole ensured that new utilities, driveway, walks and plantings respected history. “Every time I had to dig,” Foster says, “he had to be there.” A walkway, for example, was tweaked to protect old porch footings. A geothermal HVAC system was installed “because we didn’t want heat pumps outside the house.”
Foster also hired dendrochronologist Michael Worthington to determine, by analyzing tree rings in the house’s timbers, whether Wilton was built in stages. Though Wilton’s form may suggest that the rear wing was added to a much earlier front, Worthington says “the dendro says no.”
The project cost about $1.75 million. Of that figure, preservation, including renovation of an 1840s slave cabin, took $1.15 million. Foster hopes to recoup 40 percent of the total via federal and state rehab tax credits, which reward first-rate restoration. “It kind of compensates for the super premium you pay for the type of work you have to do on a house like this.” The federal credits require commercial use for the first five years, so he rents Wilton to visitors for periods ranging “from two nights to two months.”
“Many 18th-century houses are so beloved in Virginia and Maryland they get heavily refinished and lose their appeal as old or pre-industrial,” says Edward Chappell, architecture/archaeology research director at Colonial Williamsburg. Not Wilton. You half expect costumed docents to guide you through, illuminating life chez Churchill.
But this is no museum. It is a home, with 18th- and 19th-century English and American antiques, old Central Asian rugs and late-19th- and early 20th-century American and European paintings. The rooms dominate the furnishings — no drapes mask the windows, for example — exuding a calm that belies the recent bustle and dust.
Foster likes lingering in the southeast parlor — his Red Room for its woodwork hue and a mirror twin to the showier paneled parlor. Here is the fireplace with brick hearth where he lighted his first fire. Here is comfy seating, a corner cabinet, comely seascapes, rugs spread on floorboards. And here are the dozens of architecture, history and decorative-arts books he amassed, symptomatic of the bug that infects old-house lovers.
“Wilton’s everything you expect it to be,” he says. “I guess I’m getting a little bit used to it, but it’s remarkable when you stop and think about this. It’s a great feeling — a wonderful feeling.”
Arnold Berke is a Washington writer and editor.
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