Local Preservationists

[Interview] Merry Powell, Interior Designer: "Preservation is Contagious"

Posted on: October 22nd, 2012 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 2 Comments

 


Braehead's restored exterior.

How do you balance history and home? That's the question Merry Powell was asking when she signed on to help restore and redesign the Civil War-era Braehead mansion in Fredersickburg, Va. -- and the process she documented on her blog in a series called "Braehead Revisited."

In Powell's words:

Really, most of what we did to Braehead was undo bad stuff that had been done to the house over the years. We got down to the original fabric, and then figured out creative ways to put a modern family, with 4 children, into the house comfortably without sacrificing the house in the process. I think this is an important point as we all look for meaningful ways to actually use old structures. They can’t all be museum houses, but they can be saved and be useful, if enough care and thought is put into them.

We caught up with Powell to ask her more about Braehead and the team of people it took to turn this historic treasure back into a much-loved home.

Tell me about the history of Braehead. What makes this property significant?

Braehead mansion occupies a prominent place in the beautiful Fredericksburg, Va., Battlefield. The home was completed in 1859 by Scottish immigrant, John Howison, for his family of nine. During the Civil War, Braehead provided shelter to both Confederate and Union troops.

General Robert E. Lee reportedly established his headquarters and “took breakfast” at Braehead on the morning of Dec. 13, 1862, the date of the first battle of Fredericksburg. Lee tied his horse, Traveler, to a black walnut tree that still thrives on the property. (It has since been dubbed the “Traveler Tree.”)

In May 1864, Braehead was occupied by Union troops. A Howison family member wrote that the troops “killed the cows, ate the chickens, smashed the china, tore up dress goods, destroyed or stole the family Bible which had in it…three generations [and] threw the dining room chairs through the window glass.” The house was used as a hospital for Union soldiers who scribed graffiti into the woodwork and plaster.


The historic marker (left); the Traveler Tree (right).

What has led to its restoration?

For nearly 150 years, Braehead remained the property of the Howisons and their descendents. In 2006, Braehead went on the market for the first time in its history. Since there had never been any easements or protections of any kind placed on the property, the old house, then in a sad state of disrepair, was in danger of being lost forever.

The Central Virginia Battlefield Trust (CVBT) quickly stepped in and purchased the house and surrounding 18 acres. Based on the historical significance of the property, the CVBT promptly registered it and put into place easements to protect the property.

The CVBT then searched diligently for a proper buyer to rescue the house and restore it to its former glory. A perfect match was found in a Fredericksburg family who fell in love with Braehead and has now made it their home.

What was your mission during the interior restoration project?

Braehead was always intended to be a family home. My mission, and that of architect Sabina Weitzman, and preservationist/builder Jay Holloway, was to preserve Braehead’s 19th century past, while also protecting its future, by making it a comfortable home for a 21st century family. We all understood that working on this project was both a privilege and a responsibility.


Examples of Braehead's previous condition.

What was the house like when you first saw it?

It was pretty bad. Over 6,000 square feet of broken windows, rotting wood, mold and standing water were just a few of the challenges. In a previous attempt to turn Braehead into a bed & breakfast, two horrible kitchens had been added and a row of bathrooms was built in what had been a hallway. (You literally had to step over toilets to access the bedrooms.) A sewer pipe was exposed and ran down one of the walls. No heat, inadequate wiring and plumbing, and adhering to the strict building codes of the Department of Historical Resources were the biggest issues.

But amidst the decay and garbage was a treasure trove of period antiques, many original to Braehead. Furniture, art, books, even a Victorian wedding dress, were still inside the main dwelling and adjacent outbuildings. I was overjoyed to have so much to work with!

We inventoried as best we could to determine what we could use and what was too precious or too far gone. The owners generously offered many pieces to the Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center, but others were repaired and restored along with the house.


The foyer, or "Grand Hall," before renovation.

What surprised you during this project?

If there is anything I have learned about working on old houses, is that there is no end to the surprises! However, one thing I noticed on this job was how contagious preservation can become. The deeper we dug into the project and the more history that was unearthed, the more committed everyone was to getting it right.

As bad as Braehead had appeared when we started, we found that most of our job was not to “do”, but to “undo.” As the layers of past renovations were peeled away, the old house revealed itself. Everyone who worked on Braehead sensed that we were rescuing the house.

Do you have a background in preservation?

I do not have formal training in preservation. My passion for old houses grew from my background in antiques. My grandparents were antiques dealers in South Carolina. I spent my childhood learning about these treasures and how to care for them.

Eventually, I also went into the antiques business, which led to me purchasing a very large, very old house. From that point on, I was hooked. I’m still living in an old house now in Richmond, Va. It has been a constant educational experience for the last 25 years.


Braehead was full of antiques, including this pianoforte which is now in the restored music parlor.

What did you learn about preservation while working at Braehead?

The owners, architect, and builder for the Braehead project have experience, knowledge and education in the field of historic preservation. The goal was always to do what was best for the house. From them, I learned that preserving the history of an important structure, like Braehead, while accommodating modern day living, can be accomplished. It just takes lots of patience, dedication and resources.

How did you balance modern amenities and tastes against the history of the house?

In my earliest discussions with the owners, we decided that certain rooms -- the “formal rooms” as we called them -- would be designed in a style correct for the period of the house.

The grand hall, dining room, and music parlor would certainly be on tours for historical events and we used them to display some of the treasures found in Braehead. Almost all of the furnishings in these rooms were found in the house. The few pieces that I purchased were 19th century antiques.

The color schemes for these rooms were based on wallpaper fragments found in the house as well as hues that were popular for the time. The beautiful decorative painting on the millwork in these rooms was original to the house and was still in remarkably good shape. Careful cleaning was all that was needed.

I reupholstered the furniture in velvets and tapestry. The window treatments are made of silk. I designed period-style light fixtures, which were handmade by craftsmen in Richmond.


The home office now occupies the original kitchen with its large cooking fireplace.

The family uses these rooms less frequently, though they are not off-limits. The children take piano lessons on the restored pianoforte that was found in the house.

The private rooms of the home -- including the kitchen, family room, and office -- were designed with comfort and functionality in mind. There is sensitivity to the age and style of the house in these rooms, but this is where the family lives so they had to be tough.

The kitchen cabinets, as an example, had to be carefully designed to not encroach on the original mantel or windows. They were custom made by Mill Cabinet Shop, Bridgewater, Va. with a finish that, while certainly not 18th century-like, does relate to the house and the desire of the owner to have cabinets that were kid-proof. We also designed the soapstone backsplash to be boxed around the lower window trim so as to protect, but not damage the old wood.

What did you think when the restoration was complete?

Complete? Who said it was complete?! I don’t know if projects like Braehead are ever complete. But when I visit the house now and see children playing in the yard and toys in the hallway, I feel that John Howison would be pleased to see his beautiful house so full of happiness and love.

The family who now owns Braehead respects and cherishes the old house and considers its preservation a part of their legacy. I am honored and proud to have played a small part in not only saving such a wonderful house, but also making it into a home for a special family.


The renovated kitchen. The cabinets' handcarved detail is by Lee Stover, Mill Cabinet Shop.

What’s next for the property?

The exterior restoration of the structure is nearly complete. The owners have installed beautiful landscaping, with the Traveler Tree being the main feature. Braehead has suffered greatly throughout history, but this chapter of the story is a happy one. We hope that future generations will appreciate the care and hard work which brought Braehead back to life, and will continue to be good stewards for this very special old house.

If you would like to see Braehead firsthand, the house will be featured on the Historic Fredericksburg Foundation’s Candlelight Tour, Dec. 8 - 9, 2012. I will be decorating the formal rooms with greens native to Virginia, as well as thistle and decorative items, which pay homage to the Howison family’s Scottish roots. The kitchen and informal rooms will be decorated with items made by the current owners’ children. The dates of the tour fall on 150 years, almost to the day, since General Robert E. Lee visited Braehead, so it promises to be a very special event.

Merry Powell Interiors is a design firm based in Richmond, Va.  Powell does residential, commercial, and historical interiors. She may be reached through her website, www.merrypowell.com.

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.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

A Special Brew for Chimney Rock

Posted on: October 22nd, 2012 by Emily Potter

 

Chimney Rock is a sacred Native American landscape. It is thousands of years old, and still a cherished landmark today. Very recently it became a National Monument.

And now it is a beer.

Chimney Rock National Monument Ancestral Ale, to be exact. Pagosa Brewing, located in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, released this limited edition brew in honor of the site’s National Monument designation, which was announced in September. The light beer is a unique blend of wheat and barley, as well as local squash, beans, sweet corn, and a whisper of cactus fruit.

Don't sound like the usual ingredients for beer? Maybe not, but squash, beans, corn, and cactus fruit were essential foods for the Chacoan people that once lived around Chimney Rock, and are still grown on local farms today.


Tony Simmons next to the sign at the entrance of Pagosa Brewing in Pagosa Springs, Colorado.

While many brewers put their heads together to create the perfect ale to honor the sacred landscape, the man behind it all is Tony Simmons, president and head brewer at Pagosa Brewing.

Simmons is an accomplished brewer -- he has worked in breweries in Colorado, New Mexico, and California, received scholarships to professional brewing schools in the U.S. and Germany, and won many awards for his hand-crafted microbrews.

He ended up in Pagosa after visiting Mesa Verde 16 years ago and discovering the great history of the Chacoan culture; then, in 2006, he started Pagosa Brewing. He’s visited Chimney Rock several times and recognized at once that this amazing cultural resource was not acknowledged nearly well enough.

“When I heard that Chimney Rock might become a National Monument, I thought that deserved a little recognition from a brewer’s perspective,” Simmons said.

Brewing the perfect Ancestral Ale took some time and was definitely a collaborative effort. He recalled, “We came up with the term Ancestral Ale after talking with an archaeologist at the U.S. Forest Service. We discussed our idea at length. And it took awhile to get the flavor profile right.”

But right they got it. After the official announcement was made in Washington, D.C., Pagosa Brewing sent the White House some of the newly created, special edition Chimney Rock National Monument Ancestral Ale. (Simmons also got a call from the Forest Service asking for samples.)

He said he was “pretty blown away by Secretary Salazar’s enthusiasm over the beer” and thought it was “great to see a little bit of Pagosa going out to a big city.”


Simmons (left) and Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo. (right) celebrating Chimney Rock National Monument Ancestral Ale at the Great American Beer Festival.

The Ancestral Ale was also featured at the Pagosa Brewing tasting booth at the annual Great American Beer Festival, which ran from Oct. 11-13 in Denver. At roughly 50,000 attendees, with more than 2,700 beers being sipped and judged, the festival was a great place to introduce the ale and talk about the significance of National Monument designation for Chimney Rock and the community.

Before heading out for the festival, Simmons told me, “I believe that crafting this beer is a great way of acknowledging the countless hours of the U.S. Forest Service and volunteers. Chimney Rock is really special to our community and significant across cultural lines. We are only as successful as our community, and this is a wonderful thing for our community.

Side note: I’ve been to Pagosa Brewing and it’s a great place to relax, especially in the “Beer Garden” outside, and drink in the history (literally, you could say!).


The Beer Garden at Pagosa Brewing.

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.

Emily Potter

Emily Potter is a copywriter at the National Trust. She enjoys writing about places of all kinds, the stories that make them special, and the people who love them enough to save them.

Saving Spooky Sites: The Ridges Building #26 in Athens, Ohio

Posted on: October 19th, 2012 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 4 Comments

 

Written by Laura Wainman, Editorial Intern

When Ron Luce was invited in August to look at the Ridges Building #26 in Athens, Ohio, two things surprised him. The first was that he was invited by an employee of Ohio University -- the institution which already had plans in place to demolish the building -- and the second was that the demolition date was only two months away. As executive director of the Athens County Historical Society and Museum and a strong proponent of historic preservation, Luce was concerned.

“Letting Ridges #26 be torn down would set a dangerous precedent for the rest of the Ridges complex, and the buildings are too vital a part of our history to lose,” Luce says. 

The 1924 building, listed along with the rest of the hospital complex on the National Register of Historic Places, is part of the former Athens Asylum (later Athens Mental Health Center) and one of the last remaining structures designed from the Kirkbride model for mental health facilities in Ohio.  Also known as the TB Ward/Beacon School, Ridges #26 is owned by Ohio University and has sat vacant for decades.

Though the main administration building at Ridges now houses the Kennedy Art Museum, many of the other Ridges structures are empty. Luce fears that letting one Ridges structure be demolished would cause a domino effect of destruction.

Luce made a visit to the building where he found a “magnificent” but deteriorating structure with large windows, a plain uninterrupted roofline, and very few exterior adornments.

“The building has a lot of cosmetic needs that I’m told would cost around $10 million to repair, but the basic structure itself is in good shape considering its age. It was built like a fortress,” says Luce.

Sitting atop Reservoir Hill on one of the most secluded parts of the grounds, the building has become a beacon for vandalism and trespassing by students and ghost-seekers alike. In fact, the university originally intended to demolish the building before Halloween as the number of trespassers looking for haunted hijinks tends to go up around the holiday.

“A young woman died in the building and you can still see a large stain where her body lay on the first floor. So those seeking a spooky experience often break in to the building and it has become a safety hazard for the university,” says Luce.

After his visit, Luce got to work engaging the community in efforts to save the building. He made a report to the Athens County Historical Society Board of Trustees, which responded by contacting the Ohio Historical Society and state senators and representatives. Their goal was to make sure the university understood that there are people concerned by its plan who do not want to lose Ridges #26.

After agreeing to postpone the teardown, Ohio University officials met with members of the Athens County Historical Society, including Luce, on October 16 to discuss the future of the building. Luce proposed that a comprehensive plan be developed for the entire Ridges complex and mentioned possible alternative uses for the building by the university, the community, and the business sector.

“The university was very receptive to the idea of creating a long-term preservation plan for the whole Ridges complex, and they seemed open to rethinking their plan to tear down Ridges #26,” says Luce. “Now we have to wait and see what they say, but I am feeling very positive about the meeting.”

In the meantime, Luce says the community can continue to help in the effort of saving Ridges #26 by writing letters to the editors of local papers, making phone calls to local and state government representatives, and expressing their desire to keep the building.

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.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

 

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.

Balancing Preservation and Development in the Rapidly Growing Capital

Posted on: October 17th, 2012 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

 

Written by Ari Gefen, Public Affairs Intern


Streetscape in Mt. Pleasant neighborhood, Washington DC.

On Friday, October 12, I had the pleasure of attending two of the afternoon sessions at the DC Preservation League's 2012 Conference at the Charles Sumner School. The talks gave great insight into unique concerns that preservationists face in a city that is changing at an intense pace.

The first talk I attended was on streetscapes, which may not be what you think they are. Streetscapes are the trees, planters, and other breaks in the concrete and asphalt that line every street in Washington, DC.

These small patches of flora make the District one of the best stewards of green space within a dense urban center in the country, and are actually quite historic in nature. In fact, these streetscapes date all the way back to the Parking Act of 1870. Facing road deterioration due to weather and Civil War troop movements, as well as severe budgetary restraints, Congress came up with the inventive solution of “parking” its roads.

This parking created a distinctive “greenprint” for DC streets that now covers over 9,000 acres of space on District sidewalks. Besides providing practical benefits such as reducing crime, flooding, and pollution, these parking spaces also create a pleasant and consistent aesthetic that makes DC one of the most walkable cities in the nation.

Trees and planters on the sidewalks are probably not the first thoughts that pop into people’s mind when they think of DC, but this talk definitely made the point that the small things in a city are also an important part of what makes it great.

The second seminar concerned the subject of new developments in historic districts, and covered a wide array of approaches to the issue. The first speaker, James Appleby, spoke about the Bryan School, a disused but historic property in his neighborhood that was falling into disrepair.

Through the formation of a neighborhood association with the school as its landmark property, Appleby was able to work with developers to reuse the school as condominiums, revitalizing a community around a property that most people had written off.


Mural in U St. corridor, Washington DC.

Sheryl Walter, who is the current head of the U Street Neighborhood Association, discussed the challenge of maintaining the historic nature of a community that has become a serious entertainment hub with very desirable and underdeveloped space.

Though Walter seemed mostly welcoming of the massive development coming to her neighborhood, she was attempting to restrain overambitious and tall development that would obscure the nature of the neighborhood. Considering the breakneck pace of development in the U Street corridor, however, it was unclear how much power her community will be able to wield in holding back the onslaught of apartment complexes and retail space.

The third speaker spoke about perhaps the most unique preservation concern -- preservation of a community, rather than a building. Jim Myers lived through and wrote extensively on the horrible murders and mismanagement surrounding the Kentucky Courts public housing project in the 1990s. The Kentucky Courts were built in the modernist style and at first created a successful community in Capitol Hill East. Its interconnected stairwells and open courtyard fomented a sense of togetherness and encouraged neighborly interaction.

However, the same elements that made Kentucky Courts a pleasant place to live eventually came to serve a different purpose, as the building began to fall apart and its passageways became a perfect setting for a gang fortress in the 1990s. Through strong community activism, and with eventual cooperation from the DC government, Myers and his neighbors were finally able to bring down the infamous project and replace it with mixed income housing funded by a private-public partnership.

Myers’ story brought up an interesting point about the diversity of preservation that I believe was well presented in these conference sessions. Preservation often focuses on a particular building or neighborhood, but the preservation of community and character is equally important.

The talks I attended demonstrated that preservation moving forward will have to address both issues while also accommodating necessary change. Successfully navigating these challenges will ensure that DC remains the captivating place it is today, even as it continues to grow at a rapid rate.

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.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.