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Posted March 6, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Time-honored style: Local 19th-century home renovated to pay tribute to its history
By Jessica Wiant -- Daily Staff Writer
STAR TANNERY -- When daffodils start to bloom on the hillside and leaves on the property's enormous silver maples begin to sprout, the gloom of winter begins to fade. And that's when Robert Warnock and Daniel Maier most appreciate their purchase and ongoing renovation of Gravel Springs Farm off Pifer Road.
"It's all worth it come spring," Maier says.
The two men bought the 1836 farm house in 2004 and are "just getting to the part where more is done than not," Warnock says.
Despite the difficulty, and the price, of the work -- Warnock and Maier have completely remodeled the kitchen, added a side entrance and laundry room, built a two-story addition to the back of the house, had a new roof put on and undertaken some major landscaping work, to name a few projects -- that the house needed so much done was part of its appeal.
Warnock, a career architectural historian, describes it as being "unmessed with."
"Nobody mucked it up," Maier explains.
In other words, many of the original pre-Civil War features of the private brick home are still intact, offering a glimpse of Northern Shenandoah Valley trends from the time.
And rather than the drab colors and simple structures one with little knowledge of the time period might expect, the decor that remains is intense, colorful and, some might say, even gaudy at times. Perhaps that's why such features are rare: As such dramatic features went out of style, they were often painted over, or stripped away, Warnock explains.
"It was more colorful than people could stand today," Warnock says.
For instance, six of the seven fireplaces in the house feature Winchester knife shelf mantels with a zigzag, modern appearance one wouldn't expect from the 1830s. The mantels are actually a style unique to the region, Warnock says.
When first built, the house would have been very colorful, with painted wood, wallpaper and even wool wall-to-wall carpeting.
"The Shenandoah Valley had a lot of really exotic interiors," Warnock says.
In the drawing room of the house, Warnock is slowly chipping away at the white paint on the wooden fireplace mantel to reveal the original paint -- done to make it look like dark marble with hints of green.
The door to the home's library still features the original paint -- many of the doors were painted to look like they were inset with more exotic woods like mahogany.
In the center hall, by looking carefully, one can see the remnants of the remaining intense blue paint that covered the ceiling. An upstairs room has been painted to match an original ochre, or mustard yellow, color.
Aside from the often surprising original design features, even more traditional elements of the house bespeak its history. Original hardware remains on doors throughout the home and in some rooms the original pine floors are still there.
Warnock and Maier are keeping the original thick, wavy glass in the windows and using replica glass in parts that need to be replaced.
The fireplace in the kitchen, now housing gas logs, still features an original cooking crane that would have held food over the open flame.
The addition Warnock and Maier built transforms one of the exterior brick walls into an interior wall.
It is there, and in between the bricks on the front of the house, that one of its most endearing elements is found -- etchings in pencil on the white paint in between the bricks of the home turn its facade into a guestbook of sorts.
The words of former residents and guests whisper from the past:
"Lydia Richards, 1839."
"I wonder where we will be five years from now. Mary and Kate Pifer, July 1889."
"All is vanity."
"Aug. 8, 1914 -- Picnic here at Gravel Springs Farm."
Hundreds of signatures are found all over the house, Warnock says, and it seems to be a local phenomenon, seen also at Belle Grove Plantation.
Searching written records and talking with neighbors and family members of former owners, Warnock has pieced together a history of the property even more telling than the signatures and scrawlings seen between the bricks of the house and on the beams of the outbuildings.
Local entrepreneur Henry Richards built the Frederick County house in the late Federal style, Warnock says. He owned mills and had a variety of investments in the area -- including a tavern that in what is now the Newtown History Center on Main Street in Stephens City -- and at one time his farm stretched over hundreds of acres and kept as many as 19 slaves.
Portraits of the original owners hang in the center hall. Warnock and Maier obtained copies from a descendant.
Next the house was owned by the Mileys and Pifers, and it was kept in that family until 1963. A series of owners followed, but little changes were made to the farmhouse.
In 1994, the late Leo Bernstein, local entrepreneur and philanthropist, bought the then-200 acre farm and split it into 8- to 10-acre lots, most for building, leaving the original house and eight outbuildings on about 9 acres, which is what Maier and Warnock now own, Warnock says.
At the time of their purchase, the house had been vacant for about a year and weeds and shrubs had cropped up all around, according to Warnock.
Across the dirt road from the house is Gravel Springs, and a spring house and summer kitchen that were once part of the farm.
A few more steps down the road and the former Gravel Springs Post Office still stands -- little more than just a shed -- with a list of former postmasters painted on its front.
The owner of the house had the distinction of also being the postmaster, Warnock says.
The house also boarded teachers from a nearby schoolhouse at times, he says.
With such a long history of owners and residents, it isn't too surprising that several ghost stories also came with the house, including that of a violin player who roams the second floor and the sounds of a party drifting from the kitchen.
There is even a story of a bride tripping and falling down the stairs to her death, though Warnock can't confirm it.
So what is the appeal of a house with so much history?
For Warnock, the history of buildings has always been an interest.
"I like the layers of history this house has. It's hard to find houses where the history in them hasn't been erased, and this one has so much everywhere you look," he says.
For Maier, the challenge of restoring, even helping, a house was appealing.
"That's the excitement part of coming into it," he says.
And coming into it, Warnock and Maier had lived in historical places and done minor projects but never anything of this scale.
Their method has been to mix faithful restoration with their own tastes -- something Warnock calls a sensitive renovation.
One example of a place where it was impossible to be authentic is the kitchen -- "You can't live with an 1830s kitchen," Warnock says. Besides, Maier added, the kitchen that was there wasn't the original kitchen anyway.
Spreading the work out over several years has allowed them to make better decisions and have more peace of mind.
"You can only deal with so much disruption at once," Warnock says.
While the road has been a difficult one, their progress is starting to show. This year marks a turning point from vital and costly projects to less stressful and more rewarding ones, they say.
On tap is repainting the center hall, replacing floors, remodeling the dining room and more outside work, including renovating the outbuildings on the property.
More photos and information about Gravel Springs Farm is available at www.gravelspringsfarm.com. Warnock and Maier are interested in hearing from anyone with information, photos or documents pertaining to Gravel Springs Farm. They may be contacted at email@example.com.
Contact Jessica Wiant at firstname.lastname@example.org
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