Everything that Ignatius Creegan and Rod Givens knew about the historic Petersburg house they moved into on Market Street, they learned from the plaque next to the front door. The imposing, 7,000 square-foot Thomas Wallace house, built in the Italianate style with a Greek Revival façade, was a study in history — but badly in need of repair.
After living in one space in Richmond and working in another, Creegan and Givens were in search of a home where they could combine the two. The 13-foot ceilings, the 16 fireplaces — half of which are marble — and the expansive rooms were irresistible. The overall dilapidation didn't deter the two, nor did the lack of central heat and air or a roof that streamed rain the first time they saw it. The elegance of the house, built in 1855, and its affordability were too attractive. Zoning laws that combined residential and business uses sealed the deal in 2003.
"I used to live in Oregon Hill, so I'm used to living in a mess that has potential," says Creegan. "It's really a rich person's house, though. It really should be owned by somebody who can maintain it." But Creegan and Givens are modest. Working together since 1995, they make and sell Ignatius Hats. Their handmade hats have been featured in various fine-arts and craft shows around the country, including the Smithsonian Craft Show; Ignatius Hats has also provided custom-made hats for numerous movies and television shows, including Iron Jawed Angels and Parenthood. Their craftsmanship and attention to detail translates into the work they've done on their home.
"Every time we want to make a repair, we have to go through architectural review with the Historic Petersburg Foundation and the Historic Richmond Foundation," says Givens, who is thankful that most of what they've wanted to do has been well within the guidelines. "Whenever you own a historic house, you're just a caretaker, really," he says. "We're trying to be good caretakers by keeping the integrity of the historic nature of the house."
But in order to maintain the integrity of the house, Creegan and Givens had to attend to the big picture first. "As soon as we moved in, we started working on it," says Givens. "Whatever needed the most attention." After hauling to the dump multiple loads of refuse that had been crammed into every corner of the house, Creegan and Givens added central heat to make the house inhabitable for the upcoming winter. They then carved out two separate studios spacious enough to house hundreds of antique hat blocks and at least a dozen 19th-century sewing machines designed for milliners. They're not only collections, but the tools Creegan uses every day to create his hats.
"Twenty percent of our time is working on the house, and the rest is making hats," says Creegan, who has spent much of the day — and much of the last three years — on the roof with carpenter and craftsman Alain Joyaux. "We've been good for this house," he concedes, learning carpentry as he goes from Joyaux. After Creegan replaced the built-in gutters, Joyaux led the way with the repair of the soffits, as well as the renovation of the columns and the repair of the original front porch. All of the decorative wrought iron pieces over the windows have been sandblasted and painted. The original lead paint on the interior walls has been stripped, and the dining room walls have been taken down to the studs. The chimneys are the next major repair on the docket.
Creegan and Givens have done an exceptional job furnishing the inhabitable parts of their home with an eclectic mix of folk art and old and new furniture, gathered largely from the shows where they sell their hats. However, "working on a house and living in it at the same time is not fun," says Givens, who is constantly thinking about what needs to be done next. And no, they haven't seen any ghosts, but they'd like to. "This house just has a really good feeling about it. I don't know why, exactly, it just does. It's a really grand space to live." ′
Historic Thomas Wallace House
Made famous on April 3, 1865, when President Lincoln visited General Ulysses S. Grant to map their strategy after the fall of Richmond, and 10 days before Lincoln's assassination, the Thomas Wallace House has been mentioned in everything from history books to novelist Gore Vidal's Lincoln. Built in 1855 by Thomas Wallace, an attorney and member of the Whig Party, it was next the residence of the Seward family, owners of the national luggage company. It is said that in 1909 President Taft dropped by to see the landmark and drank a cup of water from a tin cup that was later preserved in the cupboard by Mrs. Seward.
In the last century, the Thomas Wallace House has both changed hands many times and been the focal point of plans either to tear it down or preserve it. In the 1970s, a neighborhood church unsuccessfully petitioned the city of Petersburg to demolish the house to build a parking lot. In 1996, 35 students and teachers from Cornell's graduate program in historic planning donated three days of their time to repair the house. Now 155 years old, by all appearances the Thomas Wallace House will withstand this generation as well.