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At Moss Neck, it's 1856 again

May 21, 2004 1:08 am


Moss Neck Manor in Caroline County was built in 1856 for the Corbin family. It was recently restored and is for sale. hhmossneck2.jpg

The original marble tiles in a checkerboard pattern are found
on both the front and back porches at Moss Neck Manor.

One of the few rooms that was remodeled for modern comfort and convenience was the upstairs master bathroom. hhmossneck3.jpg

A staircase leads from the home's second floor to the foyer. The property is for sale for $4.9 million.

Carefully restored mansion is for sale

PROPERTIES ARE sometimes described in terms that embellish their settings or significance: A piece of history, gloriously restored, quiet and secluded, on manicured grounds.

Applied to Moss Neck Manor, the restored 19th-century Greek Revival mansion in Caroline County, the terminology lacks accuracy only in that the description is inadequate.

Moss Neck's place in history was documented in 1998 prior to its inclusion on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places. The history was compiled by Calder Loth, senior architectural historian with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

The property, including the 225-foot-long antebellum mansion with 9,000 square feet of living space, plus outbuildings, swimming pool, and all 288 acres, has been listed for sale by Alex Long of Weichert, Realtors in Fredericksburg with an asking price of $4.9 million. There are five bedrooms, 2 bathrooms and 13 fireplaces, all of them relined and working.

Piece of history

Built for well-known Virginian James Parke Corbin, the house was completed in 1856. The estate was used as Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's winter headquarters from December 1862 through March 1863. Jackson was visited there at Christmastime by Gens. Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stewart, Loth reported. That gathering was depicted in a scene from the Civil War movie "Gods and Generals."

A review of the troops by the generals, with Moss Neck in the background, is the subject of one of Civil War artist Mort Kunstler's most popular paintings.

To help them survive the winter, the thousands of troops who occupied the grounds felled many of the homestead's trees to make log huts.

The following spring, Jackson and his men would make their way to Chancellorsville for what would be the general's last battle.

Jackson's soldiers would have marched along the same 2.5-mile lane, now state-maintained, that leads from U.S. 17 to the Moss Neck property.

The general declined the indulgence of actually staying inside the mansion for more than one night, choosing to share the conditions outdoors with his men. The house was "too luxurious for a soldier, who should sleep in a tent," Jackson was quoted as saying.

But he did share in the travails of the owners, the Corbin family, who suffered the loss of three children during that harsh winter.

Gloriously restored

The Corbins had patterned the house after their mansion in King and Queen County, known as Laneville. Moss Neck is described as a five-part Palladian design, with a two-story center portion flanked by symmetrical "hyphens" leading to terminal wings on each end.

The brickwork is done in Flemish bond, with noticeably narrow mortar joints between the bricks. The porches, front and rear, are original to the house and are floored with black and white checkerboard marble tiles.

Moss Neck was in serious need of rehabilitation when current owner Howard H. Stahl bought it in 1998.

His goal was to put it back as close as possible to its original condition--a challenge given the changes and remodeling that had taken place inside and out over the years.

Stahl brought in Tom Miller, a contractor who is well known for his work on historic restoration projects. The restoration of Belle Grove in King George County was another of Miller's projects.

"Howard told me he wanted to be able to take a black-and-white picture [of Moss Neck] and not be able to tell what time period it was," said Miller.

Over the years, Miller has assembled a platoon of contractor/artisans experienced in historic restoration work, from repairing ornate plasterwork to installing complex climate-control systems without disturbing a building's original integrity.

To accomplish that at Moss Neck, indoor pipes, for example, were routed along channels cut in interior brick walls. It's an expensive and time-consuming process but avoids any reconfiguration of the rooms.

Miller said Stahl had a clear idea of what he wanted to do. There was no architect.

Miller said the interior demolition work was already completed by the time he arrived at the site, so he had a clean slate to work with. That allowed his part of the job to move extremely quickly, from start to finish in seven months. The whole project took less than a year to complete.

"There's a saying in construction that the last 10 percent takes half the time," said Miller, "and I remember working seven days a week at the end of that one."

Stahl, a trial lawyer, admitted that he can be impatient, and that he likes to get jobs done correctly but quickly.

"We literally took out every pipe, every piece of wiring, everything, every drain. No exceptions," said Stahl of the restoration. "We put in all new electric service, heating and air conditioning, new plumbing with all new copper piping."

An earlier remodeling effort at Moss Neck was undertaken by retired Gen. Theodore Houser, who bought it in 1938. It remained in his family for the next 60 years.

Houser was chief executive officer with Sears, Roebuck & Co. of Chicago. Stahl said he believes Houser's purpose was not to restore the mansion, but to make it comfortable for his family.

Houser also added a pool and pool house that remain in excellent condition today.

"The good part was that Houser was careful not to remove anything original," said Stahl. "If he built a fake column or cornice, what was original was left underneath."

So the paneling, flooring and other changes, including a five-car garage that was attached to the house, could be removed while keeping intact the original features, such as the plaster walls and heart pine flooring that's found throughout.

The house was one of few in Virginia at the time it was built to have indoor running water. While the home generally has 12-foot ceilings, those in the bathrooms were 17 feet high to allow space for elevated cisterns that held water and created water pressure. Water was available at the turn of a spigot.

Stahl said he eventually agreed to leave an oak-paneled office the way Houser had it. Making use of his Chicago connections, Houser brought the paneling here from Chicago's Simmons mansion, home of the mattress-company founder.

The floor plan is now back to the original, and aside from the all-new stainless-steel kitchen, the walk-in wine cooler, the remodeled bathrooms and new utility systems, the house looks as it first did.

Moss Neck qualified for historic rehabilitation tax credits, which helped limit the expense. Stahl nevertheless invested millions of his own money in the project.

Now, Stahl plans to move onto another challenging restoration project in his hometown of Charleston, S.C.

Quiet and secluded

"It would be hard to find any thing more bucolic than Moss Neck," Stahl said. It is hard to disagree.

Bounded on one side by the Rappahannock River and on another by Fort A.P. Hill, the property is as secluded as it is beautiful. There are open grassy areas that range from flat to gently rolling. There are densely forested areas as well.

Soldiers from the military base patrol nearby. A full-time caretaker resides with his family in a four-bedroom home that comes with the property.

Moss Neck is also protected by a federal historic easement that requires its exterior appearance be preserved but does not regulate interior changes or paint colors. It allows only three divisions of the grounds.

More information is available on the Web site

To reach RICHARD AMRHINE: 540/374-5406

Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.