In Search of the Best Historic Home

Posted on: November 15th, 2012 by Gwendolyn Purdom

The James Madison house, Brookeville, MD. (Photo: Bill O'Leary, Washington Post - courtesy of Sandy Heiler)

When the Washington Post approached the National Trust for Historic Preservation in July about potentially offering our expertise for a local Historic Home Contest, we were excited to partner with the newspaper for the project.

Katherine Malone-France, the Trust’s director of Outreach, Education, & Support in our Historic Sites department, served as one of three judges for the popular contest designed to choose the area’s most impressive historic house based on “overall appearance and beauty; historical accuracy, how true to the original architecture the home has been restored; and contemporary creativity – how well modern changes have been incorporated in a way that preserves the character-defining features of the home.”

Sandy and Duane Heiler of Brookeville, Md., owners of the 18th century James Madison house, won the grand prize, a two-night stay at the Churchill Hotel, one of the Historic Hotels of America properties in the District (two runners-up received a year’s membership to the National Trust), in October.

We caught up with Malone-France after the contest wrapped up to get her reflections on judging, the right restoration balance, and the difference really specific fabric choices can make:

You and your two fellow judges, architect Simon Jacobsen and Post staff writer Jura Koncius, must have had the full spectrum of perspectives.

We did, it was a really good team. I think we were all on the same page about what we wanted to see and what we didn’t want to see, and what, to us, would have represented a quality restoration. We were all detail-oriented but then we could all also step back and say, “What’s the general feel?”

The James Madison house, Brookeville, MD. (Photo: Bill O'Leary, Washington Post - courtesy of Sandy Heiler)

What were you looking for?

We wanted to see preservation of historic features throughout. I think we were all looking to see that they had really guarded their historic fabric closely.

We all pretty much agreed on how we wanted to see modern intrusions. And I think the other thing we all agreed on was we didn’t want to see something that had been overrestored. In each of these places, it wasn’t like every molding was pristine. We wanted to see places that were clearly lived in; they weren’t just museum properties.

Can you tell me about the two runners up?

The whole pool had a great diversity of rural, suburban, urban, and a great diversity of Maryland, the District, and Virginia. And the final three really bore that out too. The Lord Fairfax House, which is in Alexandria, VA is a very high style, early 19th century home that was the home of Lord Fairfax, a tremendously significant, landmark property that its owners just lovingly and graciously had not only restored but really added great spaces for living and entertaining seamlessly.

And then Brad and Jim, they had a rowhouse in [the Shaw neighborhood of DC]. One of those great preservation stories where it had been abandoned, just totally beaten up and allowed to deteriorate and they came and brought it absolutely back from the dead.

The Lord Fairfax House to me was so much about great, consistent stewardship of a really significant place, and Jim and Brad’s place was about preservation’s ability to bring something back from a point where you don’t think it can even come back. Where they needed to replicate finishes, they taught themselves how, so very hands on. The owner of the Lord Fairfax House also described to us scraping away paint with a dental pick, so I loved that they had both been really involved with the process.

The James Madison house, Brookeville, MD. (Photo: Bill O'Leary, Washington Post - courtesy of Sandy Heiler)

Can you tell me about the winning house?

The Heilers, the owners, had been fortunate enough to come into a situation in which the house had had owners all along who knew well enough not to do anything to it or hadn’t really had the funds or the time, so it had been left alone pretty much. Mrs. Heiler, Sandy, had finished her career and gone back to school and gotten a degree in historic preservation and they’d lived in a historic house in Massachusetts and then come down, so they certainly are not amateurs by any stretch of the imagination.

But I was so struck by how respectful they were. Any time they had added something it was done so minimally, so tastefully, it wasn’t underdone but it wasn’t overdone. I remember Jura, the [Post’s] design reporter, at one point saying “These are the best bathrooms in a historic house I have ever seen.”

One thing they did was a ton of research on the house and its owners. The man who owned it had been a silversmith and they have framed hanging next to the door one of his [engraved] cards. When they got ready to add their little kitchen addition, they could see that there had been a little pantry addition there so they, again, just followed the clues the house had left for them.

I mean you went out on the little sun porch in the back and the couch, the upholstery on it was a toile, but it was a toile that featured figures from the War of 1812, so every single little detail was so harmonious with the house’s history.

Do you think this is something we will be involved in again in the future?

I don’t know, we certainly had a good time and everything went well. All three of the finalists were National Trust members and I think at one house Preservation magazine arrived while we were doing the judging. So it was really great to have the Trust involved. Because this is the kind of thing our members are doing and they deserve recognition for it. I would love it if every major city’s paper had a contest like this! Looking at this whole pool, historic preservation is alive and well in this area both as sort of a personal value and a movement. They were examples of people who love their historic houses so much.

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Gwendolyn Purdom

Gwendolyn Purdom

Gwendolyn Purdom is a former Preservation magazine editor and currently a writer, producer, and host at TouchVision TV in Chicago.