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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.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

 

As part of back-to-school season, we’re featuring several impressive young preservationists who are saving places all around the country. This is the second profile in the series.

Forget history class: At just 11 years old, Nate Michalak is learning the stories behind his Historic Old West End neighborhood in Toledo, Ohio firsthand as he helps his family restore the three historic houses it owns. The sixth-grader and budding preservationist is so knowledgeable and passionate, he caught the attention of Heritage Ohio and has been writing a column in the group’s quarterly magazine.

We caught up with Nate and asked him his favorite thing about restoration work, what he wants to be when he grows up, and what it’s like to be a magazine columnist before he’s even a teenager.

Your family is working to restore three historic houses, can you tell me about that?

The house we live in is from 1903, it’s the Julius G. Lamson House and when we got it, the earlier owners had totally gutted it and made it sort of modern, they modernized the kitchen and modernized everything. We’re working on the second floor, we’re almost done with the first floor.

And then we own a house next door (dating to 1904) where I’m planning to live when I grow up, and that was turned into an eight-unit apartment including the garage from 1913. The past owner painted the house rainbow colors, I mean literally pink, yellow, and green.

What we’re doing right now is there was a two-story addition that looked like a big rectangle that was on the back and they also put on a side porch. And just recently we took that off so we’re working on that and there were some really cool rafters that hung out, so we’ve got scaffolding up there, literally like 50 feet in the air, and it’s really fun to go up there. So we took all that off and the past owners, when they added the addition on, they took off about six rows of the green tile on the roof and we found somebody that tore down a school that had the exact same tiles so we going to get some of that and redo it.

The other house across the street (c. 1911), we’re trying to get my grandpa to move in. The house is really nice, it has a nine-car garage, we like hot rods so we’ve got a 1940 Willys and a 1953 MG TD. The house is stucco, it was painted brown originally, we’re painting the inside window [sash] green. There was a house next door but it had a fire and they tore it down, so it’s got a big side yard, which is really nice.

The original oak staircase was painted white when we got it and the people who lived here before were really big smokers so everything they had that was white is just yellow. In all of our houses all the radiators are painted white so we sandblasted those and painted them gold as they had originally been.

When you’re working on this, who all is working with you?

I work with my dad and my grandpa mostly. Every once in a while my mom helps out.

What kind of stuff do you get to do personally?

I get to do the whole shebang. I do the woodwork with my grandpa because the house next door has these pieces that hang off the roof and are really detailed. They have this swirl on them. My grandpa redid all of them in about a week and they were totally identical.

What’s your favorite thing about restoring old houses?

Tearing it apart, if you tear out the plaster on walls, let’s say, then you can see what the original wallpaper underneath that was like. So I think my favorite part of doing this, two out of three of our houses we have the blueprints to, and you just look at it and you think oh my gosh this is amazing and you think how could anyone take this house that’s amazing and turn it into an eight-unit apartment?

I told my mom it’s like finding buried treasure, there’s diamonds, there’s gold, there’s everything.

What do you like about history?

I like the architecture. Today everything is so plain, if you look at a fireplace today, it’s just a big hole in the wall.  But I’m sitting here right now and I see an oak wall, beautiful brick [fireplace] with a beautiful oak mantel coming over off the top, with beautiful scrolling that comes down. I think that’s not right that a lot of these kinds of houses are being torn down to make new houses or shopping malls and I wonder, why? Why would you tear down a beautiful old house and make something brand new?

What has it been like writing the column for Heritage Ohio?

It’s pretty cool. [The Heritage Ohio group] came here and we went through one house and then another and another and I was guiding them and then finally [Heritage Ohio Executive Director Joyce Barrett] said “Do you want to write articles for us?” and I said “Well, I’ll think about it.” But now that I think about it it’s pretty cool to be able to express my feelings about these old houses and just maybe some people will start to believe you don’t need to tear down these houses to put up a new modern one. Buy it and restore it to its original form.

The house next door is the house you’re planning on living in when you grow up. How did you choose that? Why do you like that one best?

I just like that one best because it’s a beautiful house and that way I can remember when I grew up that I fixed this and I did that. With the house we live in right now, I didn’t do much of this stuff, my parents did. And when I have kids I want to be able to say, “Look at this, I did this.”

Is this something you want to do when you grow up?

To be honest with you I have no idea. I look at how my grandpa does all this stuff and I might want to be a carpenter; I might want to design things. I’d love to do this for a living, it’s just I think it’s really cool to be able to live in a house that goes back 110 years ago.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

César E. Chávez Site Declared a National Monument

Posted on: October 9th, 2012 by Gwendolyn Purdom 1 Comment

 

In front of a jubilant crowd of thousands yesterday morning, President Obama declared the home of labor leader César Chávez and the national headquarters of the United Farm Workers Union a National Monument.

The Keene, Calif. site, known as Nuestra Senora Reina de La Paz (or simply La Paz), is closely associated with unprecedented gains Chávez and the union secured between 1970 and 1984. Upon his death in 1993, Chávez was buried at La Paz.

“The National Trust for Historic Preservation believes the designation of a César Chávez National Monument is an important first step toward a more comprehensive celebration of the life and legacy of César Chávez and his contributions to the farm labor movement,” National Trust President Stephanie Meeks said in a statement. “We applaud the President’s selection of the La Paz property as a National Monument. La Paz is one of several historic sites identified by the National Park Service related to César Chávez that depicts an important but underrepresented aspect of our nation’s history.”

The César E. Chávez National Monument is the fourth national monument the President has designated. The Antiquities Act of 1906 gives the president authority to designate monuments as a way to protect “objects of historic or scientific interest.” During his administration, President Obama has also designated national monuments at Fort Ord in California, as well as Virginia’s Fort Monroe and Colorado’s Chimney Rock, both National Trust National Treasures.

A total of 16 presidents and Congress have used the Act to establish more than 100 national monuments, with Bill Clinton creating the most (19). George W. Bush designated six during his administration, including Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, the largest national monument at nearly 90 million acres. These sites are managed by various agencies including the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and the Forest Service.

The designation of La Paz is especially timely, Meeks pointed out, as it is occurring during National Hispanic Heritage Month. In her statement, she also emphasized that the National Trust is committed to continuing collaborative work with the National Park Service and its American Latino Heritage Initiative.

“Today, La Paz joins a long line of national monuments -- stretching from the Statue of Liberty to the Grand Canyon -- monuments that tell the story of who we are as Americans,” President Obama said at yesterday’s ceremony. “It's a story of natural wonders and modern marvels; of fierce battles and quiet progress. But it's also a story of people -- of determined, fearless, hopeful people who have always been willing to devote their lives to making this country a little more just and a little more free.”


César Chávez's memorial garden and burial site.

National Trust Advisor Luis G. Hoyos attended yesterday’s ceremony in Keene and said: “I noticed a lot of us were Latinos, of course; we come in all shapes and sizes. But on a closer look I saw old Latinos, men, veterans, what appeared to be former farm workers, dressed modestly and hanging on to canes, wheelchairs, a wife, a banner of the Virgen de Guadalupe. Those faces will be with me for some time.”

Also in attendance was National Trust Advisor Donna Graves, who commented: “Hats, t-shirts and buttons among the crowd testified to long-standing commitment to labor organizing and the United Farm Workers. President Obama’s appearance swelled the heartfelt joy of many gathered in knowing that finally their herencia, their heritage, was being honored at the highest level.

And for the National Trust’s vice president of historic sites, Estevan Rael-Gálvez, attending the dedication ceremony was moving professionally and personally:

“As I breathed in the air of La Paz at the end of the day, I remembered that back home, elders always remind us that ‘wherever we go, we leave our breath behind us.’ The spirit of this place -- surrounded by rolling hills, nearly 200 acres, 26 buildings and structures that were/are home and headquarters for the United Farm Workers and their families -- can equally be felt in the breath of those who remain dedicated to the work of social justice and those whose breath has been left behind as well. Chávez was certainly there today; he was in the slope of the hills, the dust from the road, and he was in the hands and faces of every individual who has ever longed for civil rights and social justice.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Searching for San Francisco’s History, Part Two

Posted on: August 17th, 2012 by Gwendolyn Purdom 7 Comments

 

After a second day visiting with friends and working out our quads on San Francisco’s notoriously hilly streets and our credit cards in its charming neighborhood boutiques, day three of my recent visit to the City by the Bay was filled with more heritage tourist must-sees. We hopped a cable car (okay, hopped may be a generous description, we waited in an hour-long line to squeeze onto a cable car), an enduring symbol of the city and one of the only moving National Historic Landmarks in the country, and made our way to the popular Fisherman’s Wharf. There, we filled our cameras’ memory cards with shots of the adorable pack of lounging sea lions that has made Pier 39 its home before boarding a boat to tour the bay.

Captain Jim led us under the breathtaking 4,200 foot span of the Golden Gate Bridge, constructed over four years between 1933 and 1937. The icon, glowing in International Orange paint even on our foggy day, was the longest span in the world for many years. With the bridge at our backs, the boat brought us close enough to Alcatraz Island to read the faded sign warning of severe penalties for aiding prisoners at the once-infamous prison. “The Rock” has inspired imaginations and movie scripts for its years as a federal penitentiary, but as historian Erwin N. Thompson reported in his Historic Resource Study of Alcatraz Island in the early 1970s after the land was transferred to Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Alcatraz also served as a Civil War fortress, the first lighthouse on the West Coast, and the site of pivotal Native American occupation and protest in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

A hearty helping of soup from a signature sourdough bread bowl at the wharf’s storied Boudin Bakery is a satisfying way to wrap up an afternoon of history as the French shop has been serving up fresh-baked loaves of sourdough since it fed gold seekers when it opened in another section of the territory in 1849. On our way back to the hotel, we can’t resist a stroll through the crowded Ghirardelli Square, considered one of the earliest successful adaptive use projects in the country. When the original chocolate factory established by Domenico “Domingo” Ghirardelli shuttered in the 1960s, shops and restaurants popped up within the old factory walls, officially opening in 1964. Sea salted milk chocolate Ghirardelli square in hand, I took in the beautiful city around me. Gabby Douglas and Michael Phelps can hold onto their medals, after a trip like this, I was the one feeling victorious.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Searching for San Francisco's History, Part One

Posted on: August 16th, 2012 by Gwendolyn Purdom 3 Comments

 

Amidst the heart-pounding coverage of Team USA’s race to the top of the Olympic podium in London a few weeks ago, I vaulted across the country myself for a close friend’s California nuptials, spending three fabulous days in the culturally and historically-rich City by the Bay. Even on my short visit it was easy to see: When it comes to championing their diverse heritage and collection of historic places, San Franciscans prove why theirs is rightfully the Golden State.

The day we arrived in the city, a friend who lives in the area drove us around town, taking us first through the colorful streets of the Castro District. Once a collection of dairy farms and dirt roads that drew Irish, German, and Scandinavian immigrants looking for cheap land on the city’s outskirts, the neighborhood then known as Eureka Valley filled with spacious Victorian houses after the Market Street Cable Railway linked the area to the rest of the city in 1887. Fast forward to the 1960s and 70s and gay men began buying the charming historic homes at relatively low prices and restoring them. With the addition of iconic spots like the Twin Peaks bar and an activist atmosphere surrounding the 1978 assassination of city Supervisor Harvey Milk and the AIDS epidemic, the Castro became and remains a vibrant hub of the gay community.

Our drive took us past more of the city’s beautiful Victorian architecture by way of the postcard-perfect Painted Ladies of Alamo Square park. This row of six candy-colored houses built between 1892 and 1896 is especially noteworthy as the properties were able to survive San Francisco’s devastating 1906 earthquake and fire intact. Personally, I was eager to check out the real estate as a diehard Full House fan, curious to get a look at the buildings that served as the backdrop to the idyllic Tanner family picnic in the opening sequence of my favorite cheesy 90s sitcom. And what drive through the hilly streets of San Fran would be complete without a (very slow) trip down the eight sharp curves of Lombard Street? Touted as the crookedest street in the world for years, the stunningly steep one-way stretch between Hyde and Leavenworth streets was paved with bricks in 1922 and started drawing tourists after a photograph and postcard of the hydrangeas of the block’s landscaping were published in the 1950s and 60s. The city’s Board of Supervisors has received petitions to close the unique street to all but its residents in 1970, 1977, and 1987, but lucky for tourists like us, the closure never passed.

Check back tomorrow for more on my search for San Francisco history on a recent visit.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.