Since 1755 the Carter’s Grove plantation house and grounds has been variously a working plantation, a family home, a house museum and archaeological site owned by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (CWF), and then again, in 2007, a private residence. Sixteen archeological sites have been identified on the Carter’s Grove property. One dates back to around 55 B.C. and many others are from the early 17th century, when the area was Wolstenholme Town, one of the first British settlements.
The stately 1755 mansion is considered one of the finest examples of Georgian architecture in the United States.
More recently the stately historic mansion, which is considered one of the finest examples of Georgian architecture in the nation, has been the topic of numerous newspaper and magazine stories focusing on current owner Halsey Minor, his financial affairs, the neglect of the architecturally- and historically-important structure, the attempted foreclosure on the property by the CWF, and the Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing of the LLC Minor established as owner of the estate.
The most recent story published in the Washington Post Magazine sparked outrage among preservationists as the writer detailed a “historic treasure…falling apart,” and “a valuable and once-beautiful piece of American history…being lost.”
Prior to the Post story, the Virginia Gazette published reports on the condition of Carter’s Grove including an essay by Halsey who described “a 4-foot hole in the wall on the second floor” of the house.
The dozens of stories that have been written thus far have primarily focused on the legal brouhaha that has ensued between Minor and Carter’s Grove’s former owners, using the condition of the house as backdrop to a scandal. The controversy makes for a juicy read, but frankly I couldn’t care less about that. It was those dismal descriptions of an important Colonial era mansion in decline that got my attention, and set me down a path that included reading scads of salacious news stories and ended on site at Carter’s Grove so I could see all of this damage for myself.
Repairable buckling, splitting, and cracking of original interior paneling was the result of wood shrinking and expanding because of wide interior temperature and humidity fluctuations during the period of time when the environmental control system was inoperable. Damage was, in some cases, exacerbated by water infiltration from the roof or exterior walls.
There, I joined Matt Webster, director of historic architectural resources for CWF, and Megan Melinat, easement program architect for Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources (DHR) who have been assessing conditions and recommending a battery of repairs to resolve the causes of the problems and restore the damaged areas.
“We first assessed the property in October 2011, around the same time foreclosure process started,” says Melinat. “From October on we’ve been there every month to evaluate and document the existing condition.”
Also along for the tour was lawyer Stan Samorajczyk, the court-appointed Chapter 11 trustee of Carter’s Grove, who is overseeing the repair work being recommended and then managed by CWF and DHR.
Samorajczyk’s charge under the law, he says “is to protect the property and ultimately liquidate or sell it to the benefit of all creditors.” Along the way it’s his desire, and, he suggests, the judge’s as well, to preserve Carter’s Grove as an important piece of American Colonial history.
Organic growth, possibly mold, can be found around some of the window and door frames. This was the result of an inoperable interior environmental control system and relatively hotter or cooler outside air infiltrating the house where woodwork meets exterior walls.
What I found on my visit was not a house in ruin or falling apart as just about everything I read has described, but rather a beautiful Colonial era mansion perched on a hill with a view of the James River. Inside I saw signs of neglect, for sure:
- water damage to the original plaster walls caused by roof leaks and infiltration from clogged gutters;
- buckled and cracked paneling resulting from a combination of water damage and an inoperative heating and air conditioning systems;
- and what is likely sporadic mold, also a consequence of that inoperative HVAC system.
But such damage was limited, and most of the house was in beautiful condition.
More good news is that the underlying problems Melinat and Webster identified were discovered before irreparable damage was done. The HVAC is fixed, now regulating the building’s interior temperature and humidity and eliminating the problem that had allowed “mold” growth and contributed to the paneling damage.
Also completed were emergency flashing repairs to eliminate roof leaks and unclogging gutters and downspouts to prevent rainwater runoff from backing up into the house. Next, all of the aging galvanized flashing will be replaced with copper, and then such interior work as plaster and paneling repairs will begin.
The interior plaster of this 18th century structure attaches directly to the structural masonry exterior walls, and as roof leaks allowed water into the exterior walls Carter’s Grove suffered some repairable failure of the original plaster.
The goal of the work being financed by CWF is to return the house to the condition it was in before the sale to Minor. Trustee Stan Samorajczyk talks about his task not just as a disinterested third party, but as someone who has fallen in love with Carter’s Grove and will strive to make good not just for the creditors but for the house as well.
Though much ink has been spilled addressing Minor’s responsibility and the sad state of the Colonial mansion he acquired some five years ago, the stories also shed light on the dilemma facing important historic houses nationwide. As demographics change, the “red velvet rope” house museum model is not as popular as it once was and attendance is waning. This is one of the reasons CWF decided to sell Carter’s Grove with a preservation and conservation easement attached designed to protect the house in perpetuity.
A view of Carter’s Grove from the James River reveals the building’s classic 5-part Georgian design, which consists of the central structure, two wings, and two connecting segments, called hyphens.
As preservationists everywhere are redefining how important historic structures stay relevant to people today, the house museum is often being reconsidered and places that were homes often for centuries before being frozen in time as museums are becoming houses again. Private citizens nationwide are becoming stewards of the historic sites where they live.
Financial incentives for taking on the added cost of preserving and maintaining historic structures come in the form of state and federal easement and tax credit programs. Tax credit programs help minimize the cost of renovation and easements protect historic places into the future. (More on the federal tax credit program here.)
As more and more Americans take advantage of these programs, it’s a sign that they will be making an earnest effort to provide the same care and maintenance the buildings would have received as a museum open to the public. And if not, as with Carter’s Grove, safety nets are in place to catch problems before they become disasters.
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Dennis Hockman is editor in chief of Preservation magazine. He’s lived all over the United States but currently resides in Baltimore where he is restoring a 1918 center hall Colonial.