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Posted January 29, 2010 | comments Leave a comment

Building on history: Couple live in replication of President Tyler's house

By Preston Knight -- pknight@nvdaily.com

MIDDLETOWN -- One of the first things you will learn about Orville Deming upon meeting him is that he prefers talking while standing up.

Deming stands because he is a teacher. Even after being retired for 36 years -- although he now is a substitute in Frederick County -- he cannot shake off the feeling of being on his feet around an audience, whether it be a couple of people or a classroom full of students.

Deming stands, too, because he likes being active. He has repeatedly taken up new interests throughout the years -- playing the violin and learning to sail among them -- not just for the pleasure of them but to stay active.

These are reasons why Deming stood earlier this week in his kitchen to explain how a 20-year stretch of his life saw him almost single-handedly build a house resembling the birthplace of President John Tyler. His wife, Ann, eventually persuaded him to sit on a living room couch, and during the course of the remainder of the conversation in that room, you realize what an accomplishment that might have been for her.

After Deming gives his age -- 77 -- she said: "And still going. ... He keeps going."

Five years before Deming retired as an industrial arts teacher in Clinton, Md., in 1989, he saw a picture of Tyler's house on the Greenway plantation in Charles City County, near the James River.

"I can build that here," he recalls saying to his wife.

Deming gradually grew more interested in the idea and, worried about what he would do once he retired, set out to make good on his declaration that he could duplicate Greenway, given the skills he acquired through school and inherited from his father, a Navy draftsman. He and his wife visited the historic Greenway site and took pictures from a distance -- they have never been able to go inside the vacant structure because it is private property -- and he received blueprints from the Library of Congress. Plans were also published in the back of the book he saw the original photo in.

The Demings purchased 10 acres along Cedar Creek in 1967, the only building on site at the time being a small A-frame house. The couple -- Mrs. Deming, 72, was an emergency room nurse until the late 1990s -- brought their two children to camp out during summers, enjoying the recreational activities the creek provided. When they arrived in the summer of 1974, they realized the house had washed away since their previous visit.

That prompted Deming to build a rustic cabin higher up on the property, and after the couple's daughter decided to become a teacher in the area, he turned it into more of a permanent house, continuing to add to it. During the summers, the couple's six grandchildren, all but one of whom is at least college age, often bring their friends to stay there.

Eventually coming up along the way was the project of re-creating Tyler's house, which, according to the 1984 edition of "The Virginia House," was built in the mid-18th century and is a story and a half tall. Tyler was born there in 1790 and then lived there from 1821 to 1829. Deming said he kept the outside of the 1,500-square-foot house "perfectly symmetrical" with the original, while adding his own touches to the inside, including a few things just to make it more modern, such as a sprinkler system and geothermal heating pump.

Deming altered the floor plan for the main set of stairs, changed the angle of the roof and added pocket doors and a manual dumbwaiter. There are three bedrooms -- all upstairs -- and eight fireplaces.

"He did it all by himself," Mrs. Deming said.

That is a half truth, in fact. The couple's son-in-law, an electrician, was a big help, as were some of their grandchildren and a handful of people hired along the way. And Mrs. Deming more than carried her weight, whether it be by laying bricks for the chimneys -- despite her fear of heights -- or painting. The couple received approval to finally move in three years ago.

At times during the process, Mrs. Deming said she questioned if the house would be completed, noting that her husband was not getting any younger. She said she went along with her husband's idea to build the house because it was a project he wanted to do, but she did tell him at one point, maybe half jokingly, that she would never live in it.

"I never ever, ever, ever, ever thought we'd get done," Mrs. Deming said. "Everything just seemed to take so long. The dumbwaiter took a whole year."

The couple lived in the cabin as they worked on the house, although that stay many times just meant eating meals there and trekking back to the work site. It's a five-minute walk between the two buildings.

"We were perfectly happy to be in our cabin," Mrs. Deming said. "It's nice and cozy."

They could always choose to move back there, but that would be a waste of 20 years of work. Moving back to Clinton is not much of an option, either, as the Demings' son bought their house at the beginning of the year.

Those are not things under consideration anyway, not when there is unfinished business yet to do. With their current residence, the Demings still have things they want to accomplish -- there is a basement to finish, for one, and Mrs. Deming is holding out hope that her "grandiose" idea to enclose the back portion of the house in glass takes place.

She lives with the right person to get it done.

"This man," Mrs. Deming said of her husband, "he never stops."

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