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The Chimneys: HFFI success story

March 11, 2006 12:50 am

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During the porch restoration of 1977, sandstone foundation blocks and remnants of the original stone front steps were revealed. The brick nogging is visible just behind the shutter at the left of the photo. tcChimneys3.jpg.jpg

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ABOVE: Flood damage to The Chimneys had to be repaired in 1972. tcChimneys1.jpg.jpg

The Chimneys at 623 Caroline St. is shown in 1975, when it was the Historic Fredericksburg Foundation-operated city museum. The house was built about 1772. tcGravatt.jpg

Workers move the 150-year-old George Gravatt House from Princess Anne Street to Charlotte Street behind The Chimneys in September 1977.

This is part of an occasional series about Historic Fredericksburg Foundation Inc., which turned 50 last year.

"To Members of Historic Fredericksburg, Inc. At the meeting of your directors on February 2, 1966, a motion was passed that our corporation endeavor to acquire the handsome old house at 623 Caroline Street known as 'The Chimneys.' The purpose of this letter is to advise you of the opportunity to acquire and preserve this house." --written Feb. 12, 1966, by George D. Williams, president of Historic Fredericksburg Foundation Inc. to the members of HFFI.

DR. R.R. BUFFINGTON, who had his offices in The Chimneys, was the owner at the time this letter was written, and wanted to sell the house to Historic Fredericksburg Foundation Inc. If the organization could acquire commercial tenants who could cover the amortization costs of approximately $410 per month plus operating costs, it would be possible for them to make the purchase.

More importantly, if they could purchase this house, they could start a movement of improving Caroline Street from Charlotte Street to Lafayette Boulevard, where many old houses were still standing.

So not only was HFFI under way in saving an old structure, but also now was interested in an entire stretch of a historic street. Restoration of the area would ultimately be accomplished through the HFFI revolving fund a decade later.

The Chimneys was built about 1772, and has traditionally been attributed to merchant John Glassell. He had come from Galloway, Scotland, prior to 1770 to open an export business involved in the sale of tobacco. Glassell acquired lot 12 on Caroline Street, and most of lot 11 behind it, in 1771 from Charles Yates. It is possible that it was Yates who built the house prior to the sale to Glassell, a view shared by University of Mary Washington researcher Belle Pendleton and Fredericksburg historian Paula Felder.

During the turbulent years prior to the American Revolution, John Glassell's loyalties were with England. He therefore never returned after leaving for Scotland in 1775. Since he had left the Colonies before the Confiscation Act, his lands in Virginia were not seized by the new Virginia government. He gave power of attorney to William Glassell, whose relationship to John has not been verified. In 1792, William Glassell was listed as the owner in an insurance policy with the Virginia Mutual Assurance Society.

Through the 19th century, the house was sold numerous times and had numerous tenants, serving at one period as the childhood home of Ellen Lewis Herndon "Nell" Arthur (1837-1880), wife of U.S. President Chester A. Arthur. Existing additions to the house were completed by 1912. In 1908, Ella St. John sold the house to Mary E. Norris (Buff- ington), whose executors, Ralph R. Buffington and Sally Norris Scott, would offer it to HFFI.

In 1966, the president of HFFI, George D. Williams, and its board agreed to purchase The Chimneys from Dr. Buffington for the sum of $55,000. A mortgage loan for $41,200 was arranged with the National Bank of Fredericksburg. The remainder would also be available from that bank if personal endorsers could be found. Lillian Reed, in a letter written on June 2, 1966, referred to these endorsers as "Angels" of Historic Fredericksburg Inc.:

"I feel we have just made it possible to shore up a bit more history, beauty, architecture, and culture for 'America's Most Historic City' and all of you 'Angels' can take great pride in the doing," she wrote.

In the following years the foundation initially rented out the building for income, but moved its own offices and the HFFI-run Fredericksburg Museum into The Chimneys in 1975. The Chimneys was entered into the Virginia Landmarks Register on Dec. 17, 1974, and into the National Register of Historic Places on July 11, 1975.

Following extensive repairs to flood damage in 1972, the foundation was responsible for restoration of the front porch, entrance and balcony. The foundation also took advantage of the land behind the house when it saved and moved the historic George Gravatt house to its present location at 108 Charlotte St. in 1977.

The Chimneys acquired its name from the massive flanking stone chimneys on both sides of the house. This Georgian home is an unusual survivor in the predominantly 19th-century neighborhood of downtown Caroline Street. Particularly important are the paneling, millwork and moldings of the mantels and overmantels in the rooms that take us through architectural styles from the mid-18th to late 19th century.

The house is built of heavy timber, nogged (rough masonry set in between the walls, filling the space between the studs) with brick in all exterior and interior walls. Homes such as this were found in the Netherlands and England, eventually making their way to the Tidewater and across to West Virginia. It is constructed with a mortise-and-tenon system, pinned with hardwood, with each member identified with Roman numerals cut with chisels. It was clearly the home of a citizen of substance in an economically growing area, a person who utilized the best craftsmen of the day to construct a residence representative of his position.

If we remember that Fredericksburg was considered one of the top 10 port cities in the Colonial period, we will not be surprised to learn that many boat-building techniques were used in its construction, notably in the roof framing. It is similar to the type of framing used by shipwrights in the construction of hulls.

In 1982, Historic Fredericksburg Foundation sold The Chimneys and the George Gravatt House at the rear of the property for $225,000 to William J. Vakos. The new owner secured permission from the city's Architectural Review Board and Board of Zoning Appeals to convert the building into a Colonial-style restaurant to be called "The Chimneys Publick House."

The architectural firm of Browne, Eichman & Dalgliesh PC was hired to refit the historic building. Changes to the structure included scraping the cracked paint off the weatherboarding in order to repaint the building in its original colors. Porches were added at the rear near the kitchen, next to HFFI's former offices.

On the Charlotte Street side, a two-story porch was added, with a stairway that doubled as a fire escape. On the south side, a one-story veranda was added looking out over the English garden. A sign advertising the "Publick House" was approved and erected in 1982.

Vakos and the architectural firm he hired worked closely with Susan Ford Johnson, then the executive director of HFFI, to make additional improvements to the interior by replacing plumbing, heating and electrical systems and stripping inside walls down to the nogging beneath the weatherboards. Changes such as these had to be approved by the Standards Committee of Historic Fredericksburg Foundation in accord with the preservation easement that HFFI imposed, in perpetuity, when it sold the building to Vakos. The architectural firm also sent the Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission drawings of proposed changes.

Two archaeological surveys had been performed when HFFI owned The Chimneys. These were done by the Virginia Research Center for Archeology, a division of the Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission. In the meantime, Vakos allowed HFFI's director, Susan Ford Johnson, to set up temporary offices in the basement of his Dominion Bank Building while she waited to conclude dealings with the City Council on taking over the old City Hall for its museum and offices. The organization stayed at Vakos' building for more than a year.

In the following years, a succession of tenants and restaurants leased the property, and ownership passed to Robert Mitchell III in 1985. In 2000, Fredericksburg entrepreneur Tommy Mitchell purchased the building from Robert Mitchell (no relation) and owns it to this day. Future plans for the building are to continue to lease it as a restaurant, providing continued public access for the historic structure. Eileen's restaurant is currently there.

Historic Fredericksburg Foundation takes particular interest and pride in The Chimneys due to its long association with the building as owner, tenant, restorer and museum operator.

ELLEN MAKARECHIAN of Spotsylvania County is a freelance writer and an interpreter at Kenmore Plantation.





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