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House restoration yields historical surprises

April 12, 2007 12:35 am


The Mortimer house on Caroline Street in downtown Fredericksburg was built in 1764. ssmortimer4.jpg

The kitchen is in the new addition to the house. ssmortimer3.jpg

Medicine bottles found while restoring the house sit on a secretary. ssmortimer1.jpg

The dining room includes floor-to-ceiling paneling dated to about 1770. ssmortimer2.jpg

A porch overlooks the Rappahannock River. ssmortimer5.jpg

The entryway is painted a cheerful yellow in this family-friendly home. ssmortimer2a.jpg

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For Dr. Michael McDermott and Cindy Taylor, the 14-month restoration of their home at 213 Caroline St. yielded one buried treasure after another.

Out of curiosity, they ripped up the home's oak-plank flooring only to discover beautiful heart-pine floors beneath that date back to the house's construction in 1764.

Tucked into the walls next to numerous picture windows, they uncovered the home's original fold-out shutters, complete with butterfly hinges, hand-cut nails and a coat of Colonial-era paint.

Stripping away plaster, they revealed the home's original brick walls.

And between floors and behind walls, they unburied treasure of a more personal nature: pharmacy bottles, letters, pictures and newspaper clippings left behind by previous residents.

"I always say my favorite thing about being here is the sense of who walked these floors, who had Thanksgiving dinner in the dining room--which we do--who stayed up with a sick child. You think about it," said Taylor. "I love that about the house."

Before Kenmore, before Chatham, before Federal Hill there was the Mortimer House. It was named for its first resident and Fredericksburg's first mayor, Dr. Charles Mortimer, the physician to George Washington's mother, Mary.

Legend has it that Mortimer hosted a dinner in his dining room in 1784 that counted George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette and the Count de Rochambeau among the guests.

That dining room is one of the home's best-preserved attractions, featuring floor-to-ceiling wood-paneled walls, a style that had passed by the time Kenmore was built in the 1770s.

Though other design elements were altered over the years to keep up with changing styles--about 1817, a fireplace separating the living and family rooms was moved to a side wall to open up the downstairs--no one ever touched the dining room.

"Pretty much this room, from 1764 until now, is the way it was," said McDermott.

The couple bought the home in 2001 and lived in it with their three children for a year before moving into a downtown apartment to make way for the restoration.

"We knew what we needed to do to live here--to respect the house and live here," Taylor said. "We wanted to respect what came before us."

Gary Stanton, director of the Center for Historic Preservation at the University of Mary Washington, pointed out to the family some of the home's unique features. He also invited experts up from Colonial Williamsburg.

"It cost [Taylor and McDermott] extra money for them to listen to us, but the two of them were willing to listen and think about it," Stanton said. "That house is really remarkable. You could count on one hand the gentry houses in this area that are of that period."

Richmond architect Charles Aquino, who is also working on the restoration of 18th-century Federal Hill, directed the preservation efforts at the Mortimer House and designed the home's two-story addition.

A 1920s-era addition, which was in disrepair, was removed. The new one features a kitchen in cherry wood and a sitting room ringed by windows with views of the Rappahannock River.

The result is a seamless marriage between the historic portion of the house and the newer section.

Out back, landscape architect Anna Aquino re-created a Georgian garden, which features rosebushes and herbs in season.

McDermott and Taylor have decorated the house with paintings by local artists and period pieces such as the 1760s-era secretary in the entryway, which was built in Fredericksburg and now displays some of the treasures yielded by the house during the restoration.

The couple stuck to a Colonial palette when painting the home: blue on the dining room's ceiling to complement the original paint still on the window shutters, red on the living-room walls and yellow in the entryway to welcome visitors.

"I wanted people to know a family lived here. I didn't want it to feel too serious," said Taylor. "We were marrying respect of this house to the fact that a young family lives here. We feel we did that well."

Added McDermott: "It's a great little house."

Edie Gross: 540/374-5428

Year built: 1764

Number of rooms: 13

Area, including basement: 7,000 square feet

Claim to fame: Home of Fredericksburg's first mayor, Dr. Charles Mortimer, who hosted a party in 1784 attended by George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette and the Count de Rochambeau

Special features: Original heart-pine floors, window shutters and wood-paneled walls; Georgian rose and herb garden; original detached kitchen, now being restored as a guest cottage; spectacular view of the Rappahannock River

Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.