A Custom Builder Rescues A Piece Of Virginia's Patinaed Past.
Some people specialize in preserving the rare and valuable, such as endangered animals, antique books, or important paintings. Washington, D.C., custom builder Tom Glass focuses on saving an equally diminishing and beloved commodity: old houses. Growing up in southeastern Ohio, he fell in love with the area’s declining 19th-century housing stock, and that passion never left him. He’s devoted his 30-year-old business, Glass Construction, to renovating and restoring Washington’s rich trove of historic residences.
Several years ago Glass purchased a property in Virginia’s pastoral Rappahannock County, with the thought of one day finding an old house he could move there to use as his weekend residence. “The seed of the idea came from taking horseback rides in the mountains and high meadows out there,” he says. “You’ll see a lot of old barns and farmhouses that have been abandoned. There are getting to be fewer and fewer of them, because they’re falling down.”
Finally, he came across a dilapidated, 1797 side-hall Federal in Appomattox County, Va., a two-hour drive from his Flint Hill, Va., site. Moving it would prove a complicated process. The home hadn’t been lived in since the 1930s, and it was too large and too far away to be transported whole. “If we hadn’t taken it then, in another year or two it would have collapsed,” Glass says. The house’s previous owner connected him with Richard Williams, an Aldie, Va.–based restoration craftsman.
Despite the house’s fragile state, an impressive portion of its original structure remained intact. Mortise-and-tenon construction, a typical 18th-century technique, held together its hand-carved timber-frame, as well as its doors, window frames, casings, and stair railings. The wood, of course, all came from old-growth forests. “The resin in the wood was a preservative, so termites didn’t eat it,” Glass says. “This wood sat out in the rain for 200 years and didn’t rot.” He, Williams, and a couple of others dismantled the house, using small sledgehammers to drive out the wooden pegs keeping it together. They numbered every item and formulated detailed drawings for the building’s reassembly. The process took two weeks, at the end of which all the pieces were trucked to Williams’ workshop.
Williams and Glass went over each item carefully, evaluating whether it needed to be repaired or discarded. They remilled replacements for pieces beyond salvaging, leaving them out in the summer sun to weather. In the meantime, Glass dug a foundation on his land. When he was ready, he and his three-man crew rebuilt the frame, essentially reversing the routine they’d used to disassemble it.
Rebuilding the roof and siding came next. Glass guessed the original roof consisted of cedar shingles, so he had new ones made. Using reproduction nails from a favorite supplier, Tremont Nail Co., he and his crew attached the shingles to poplar skip sheathing. Glass also had beaded cedar boards milled to match the old, unsalvageable siding. Just as when the home was first built, they’re nailed right onto the frame—this time with house wrap in between for greater energy efficiency.
Two of the original building’s most distinctive features—its imposing chimneys—used such strong mortar that to try to take them apart would have broken the bricks. So Glass opted to let them stand in Appomattox County and re-create them in Flint Hill. Wood forms gave the new bricks the old-fashioned texture he wanted.
Glass started out wanting to do a comprehensive restoration, but a visit to Drayton Hall, a historic house in Charleston, S.C., changed his mind. “At Drayton Hall, you could see the beauty of 200 years of weathering,” he says. “I realized it would be such a shame to lose this patina.” He developed a hybrid approach inside the house, reproducing missing or damaged wood pieces and choosing to simply paint the new items, instead of faux-finishing them to make them look old. In contrast, he cleaned the remaining original woodwork, stabilized it with a clear, waterborne urethane, then applied a coat of clear polyurethane. All of its nicks and imperfections are still visible, and it works with the freshly painted areas to form a visual record of all the years the house has stood.
Architect Dwight Matthews did design drawings and helped with the permitting process. Glass ordered the materials and finishes, and designed the home’s cabinetry and other new detailing himself. A new house, he believes, would have cost about the same amount of money. But it wouldn’t have had the same character. “There’s something about it that feels organic because of the slight imperfections,” he says. “They make it more human.”