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Plantation Revival

A 6,800-sq.ft. 19th-century Greek Revival house in Virginia is restored.

Project: Monticola, Howardsville, VA

Architect: Frazier Associates, Staunton, VA; Chris Jenkins, AIA, senior architect

Contractor: Dunterry, LLC, Staunton, VA

By Annabel Hsin

In 1852, Daniel J. Hartsook, a banker and merchant, purchased approximately 385 acres of land in Howardsville, VA. The following year he built Monticola, a 6,800-sq.ft. Greek Revival plantation home. An austere two-story red-brick structure over an English basement with a heavy cornice, white trim and large six-over-six windows, it was built on the highest point of the property, one mile away from the James River and north of Mount Alto. Hartsook and his family resided there during the Civil War – until March 6, 1865, when Union General Philip Sheridan and his cavalry raided Howardsville, destroying many of Hartsook's properties and businesses. The cavalry commandeered Monticola and likely used the house as a headquarters. After the war, Hartsook and his family moved to Richmond, where he rebuilt his fortune while maintaining Monticola as a summer retreat and working farm.

Following Hartsook's death in 1887, Monticola was purchased by Emil O. Nolting, a tobacco tycoon who made notable changes to the house. On the south façade, one level of the two-story porch was removed. The single-story columns were replaced with four slender two-story columns and the Chippendale railing on the lower level was replaced with simple wood balusters. A two-story, semi-circular porch was added to the rear elevation, the tin roof was stripped and slate tiles were installed along with a larger cupola. The detached kitchen, located on the lower level of a nearby two-story structure on the east side of the house, was connected to the house by a breezeway.

In 1940, the house was used as a set for the movie Virginia. To create a Hollywood image of a post-Civil War home, the wooden front porch was replaced with curved brick stairs (these were removed in the early 1970s). As a result, the columns on the front façade stood alone with a set of wooden steps leading up to the recessed entrance.

Despite attempts to restore and update it in the 1960s, Monticola fell into disrepair after Nolting's daughter sold it in 1955. However, Dunterry LLC, based in Staunton, VA, purchased the house in 2005 and approached Frazier Associates, also of Staunton, VA, with the goal of fully restoring the house using tax credits provided by the state. Chris Jenkins, AIA, senior architect at Frazier Associates, was required to follow the guidelines set by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (VDHR). "From a planning standpoint, they are sticklers," he says. "If there was a mantel in a room and you need to create bathrooms in that space you'd need to keep that there. So you do have to work around those elements."

"If you had a window that could be salvaged, you had to salvage it; whereas if you're not doing a tax-credit project it's certainly easier to replace it with a modern unit," Jenkins continues. "The masonry in this project was much more delicate and required that we find a mason that used a lime-based mortar."

Jenkins added modern amenities and restored the house to reflect two different time periods – the early 1850s and late 1890s. Because the VDHR does not permit "false" historicism, it was imperative that the design be authentic. Fortunately, some useful resources were available: Monticola was listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) as a "distinguished example of a Greek Revival antebellum plantation house along the James River," and K. Edward Lay's The Architecture of Jefferson Country featured a photo of the front porch, taken prior to Nolting's alterations in the late 1890s. "The picture of the front porch was a very important thing to find," says Jenkins. "The front porch desperately needed help, with the picture we made the case that we could restore it according to the historic period accurately."

As the front and the rear porches were built in different time periods, restoring them was a challenge. However, with the photo of the front porch at hand, Jenkins had a clearer idea of what to aim for. "The roof structure that was there was the roof of the original porch in the picture," says Jenkins, who was able to accurately rebuild the second level and place the one-story columns in the same location shown in the photo. "There were also some pieces that were taken from the old porch and reused in other spots," he says. The 198-sq.ft. porch now has a new painted pine floor with stucco brick piers and four Doric square columns with simple capital trim on each floor, and a Chippendale baluster and railing replaced the existing wooden ones.

Nolting had transported the rear two-story porch from a hotel in Richmond, VA, that was also undergoing renovations. Not only was it of a later time period but it was also in the Colonial Revival Style. "The porch on the rear, being semi-circular, was really an unusual and difficult thing to restore," says Jenkins. "The pieces, being from a later date, were probably made in a mill; the columns were stocked mill pieces that were readily available during early Colonial Revival times. The one on the front would've been cut, planed and worked on site. They are really completely different porches."

Although the rear porch wasn't completely dilapidated, it was certainly the more challenging of the two for Jenkins to restore. "There were three or four columns that were beyond repair," he says, "so I spent a lot of time talking to manufacturers and getting dimensions. We needed something that was close without having to go a completely custom route." Jenkins found matching columns at Spartan Architectural Columns of Medford, OR. "They are only different with an inch here or there, but the design of the capitals and the shafts are pretty close," he says. "I'd be hard pressed to tell."

The English basement presented another major challenge. Its electrical, plumbing and HVAC all needed to be replaced, but Jenkins didn't want to sacrifice the ceiling height to conceal the units. "The biggest bulk of the design work was inserting new systems on the interior and getting a workable floor plan," he says. "When you only have a 7½-ft. English basement and you have to get ducts through it, you have to design ways to hide chases and soffits and still make the space usable." To do so, Jenkins designed two closets for the HVAC units, taking space away from some of the larger rooms in the basement. The ducts, chases and pipes were hidden behind new walls. "We spent a lot of time making sure the registers in the above rooms fell in places that wasn't going to interfere with furniture," he says.

Only parts of the basement had heart-pine floors with cement bases for moisture protection. "With these houses, they would lay wooded joists on the ground and then put a wooden floor on the top of that, but with that method it decays over time," says Jenkins. "We had one room that was still in that condition. We carefully removed the material, poured a slab in the area and then reused the flooring and supplemented with new or antique heart pine."

Jenkins decided to relocate the kitchen, which had been in the basement of the ell on the east side, to one of the main parlors on the first floor. Since the kitchen has become a primary gathering space for modern families, it occupies a room with the best view in the house. Jenkins rule with tying modern spaces to old homes is to "keep it simple and keep it really spare." Each room is on axis with the fireplace – located on the center of one wall – to the window at the center of the adjacent wall. Cabinets painted to match the trim throughout the first floor and new heart-pine counters visually tie-in with the existing antique floors.

The bathrooms were all unusable, but easily removed. During the 1970s, two had been added; instead of concealing the plumbing underneath the existing floor, the occupants built 7-in. platforms to hide the plumbing lines. This proved to be an advantage for Jenkins, as it was relatively easy to relocate the bathrooms to the second floor, where a 324-sq.ft. bedroom was split into a spacious master bath and a hallway bath.

Completed in the winter of 2007, Jenkins is satisfied with the outcome of Monticola's restoration process. "The principal rooms spoke for themselves," he says. "We just cleaned them up and repaired what was there. This was really a very smooth project." With its historical elegance restored, Monticola is now equipped to be much more than just a weekend retreat.  

 

 

 
 

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