Here at R•Home, we often receive glossy pamphlets and notices about “historic” or “landmark” properties available for sale. Recently, one house was advertised as starting from a modest 1800s (or 1860s) hunting lodge that sprawled into an 11,000-square-foot Tudor-esque estate set upon, as one real estate blog put it, “notorious Gillette gardens.” This refers to the renowned Charles Gillette, a landscape designer who became Richmond’s go-to guy for creating fabulous new-but-looks-old gardens for those who could afford him.
Another listing touted a mid-18th-century house that had been uprooted from Powhatan and hauled to Goochland and was renovated with the aide of a “team from Colonial Williamsburg.” The property has Civil War associations and the house is definitely old, but it has been rehabilitated and modernized.
Then there is the nature of unverifiable “family lore” and “oral history.”
So what are we talking about when we talk about a “historic” house?
Louis Malon, director of preservation services at Preservation Virginia, says that “oral stories” have their place, but that they are not the determinant for designating a place “historic.”
“One of the important factors is, what role did the place play in the community?” he says. “And, it isn’t even necessarily who lived in the house, but what was done there. This lends significance. What is its meaning to the community in the larger sense, and what the contribution is, figures into determining the historical nature of a property.”
Historian Selden Richardson observes that, “the soup which runs from thick, plodding historicism to spicy oral histories must be a local recipe, no? I mean, it takes a blend of these factors to package up and say, ‘here’s what we know.’ ” He adds, “I think it is all in there on a sliding scale, all of it. A dash of this family story or a quart of that citation — just depends on who is in the historic house kitchen and who is tucking the napkin in their lap.”
Architectural historian Marc Wagner says “authenticity” is key when determining whether a house is historic. (Photo by Ash Daniel)
Marc Wagner, an architectural historian and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources director of Eastern region preservation, says the biggest word in the official lexicon is “authenticity.” When you step into a house, how far into the past can you see? What is your experience? If you visit St. John’s Episcopal Church, you are relatively within the same space as was Patrick Henry and the famed members of the Second Virginia Convention of 1775. “But, if you go to Maggie Walker’s House, you are definitely not only walking on the same floors she used, but looking at the furniture she knew,” Wagner says.
There are four basic criteria for historic qualifications, and if you can hang your hat on one, you’ve got something.
• Historic Context. The property has association to events or long-time association to an historic period, whether military history, civil rights or a long family history of relationship to its vicinity.
• Single person. An individual of community importance lived there.
• Architecture, engineering, design or craftsmanship. “This doesn’t mean that the architect needs to be famous,” Wagner emphasizes. This is about the preservation of rare species. A row house in the Carver District isn’t unique by itself, but it contributes to a whole. A similar house in Varina (and there is one), “Sitting there by its lonesome — that’s different.”
• ‘The ability to yield information.’ This is primarily used for archaeological factors. Once, Wagner tried to save an old log cabin buried within a modern house from destruction by the Virginia Department of Transportation. VDOT didn’t accept Wagner’s appeal. “This was in Campbell County and Campbell County has more than a few log cabins,” he says.