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In 1889, new mansion was on the edge of town

September 21, 2012 12:10 am


The rear of the house has a two-story porch attached to the original portion and addition. hh092112mansionscr1.jpg

The Groves Mansion on Caroline Street is for sale at 750,000. It overlooks the Rappahannock river. The estate hopes that someone will buy it and make it into a Bed and Breakfast. (Suzanne Carr Rossi/The Free Lance-Star) ------ four col color photos hh092112mansionscr3.jpg

Lurking in the cellar of the old mansion are two vintage wringer washers that probably date to the 1940s. hh092112mansionscr7.jpg

The Groves Mansion on Caroline Street is for sale at 750,000. The home sits on 2/3 acre and overlooks the Rappahannock river.(Suzanne Carr Rossi/The Free Lance-Star) ------ three col color photos hh092112mansionscr2.jpg

Among the features popular in a bygone era is the pie safe that's built into an exterior wall in the kitchen. hh092112mansionscr4.jpg

The Groves Mansion on Caroline Street is for sale at 750,000. It overlooks the Rappahannock river. The garage (left) has a built in oil changing pit. No one knows what the attached buildings were used for. (Suzanne Carr Rossi/The Free Lance-Star) ------ three col color photos hh092112mansionscr5.jpg

The Groves Mansion, 1601 Caroline St., (clockwise from top left) is a familiar local landmark. No one knows for sure how the structure attached to the garage was used. An upstairs bedroom has paint peeling from the ceiling. There's a view of the river between the trees.


To look at 1601 Caroline St. is to know that it is, or at least was, someplace special, and that in the proper hands it could become a magnificent addition to Fredericksburg's historic home collection.

What it is today, however, is a remarkable piece of city history that is riddled with potential, but in dire need of restoration. The wood-frame mansion could be a private residence or a bed-and-breakfast. It sits on a lot measuring two-thirds of an acre that extends back from Caroline Street with a significant slope down to the Rappahannock River. It's one of the few properties that extend from Caroline to the river after Sophia Street ends.

It is also just outside the city's Historic District, thereby not subject to the Architectural Review Board. But that also makes its eligibility for rehabilitation tax credits a bit more circuitous. Putting it on a path toward listings on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register would be one way. (See the separate information on tax breaks available to a new owner.)

It has been placed on the market by the Herman Groves estate, under the auspices of the executor and local attorney Blanton Massey. The asking as-is price is $795,000.


How this house came to look like it does, and how various additions were built and used, is what this story is all about.

"It's evolution since the turn of the century has left it with these mysteries and charm," said Massey during a tour of the house earlier this week. "There are all these questions about the construction decisions that were made."

The house was built in 1889 by J.W. Colbert, a local businessman and grocer. He had bought the lot from Anne Fitzhugh and the Stafford County Board of Supervisors, which had acquired it apparently as a landing site for a "free bridge" across the river, but those plans were subsequently abandoned.

Colbert's design was a standard four-over-four with a center hall. The four rooms on each level are typically large with tall ceilings and have fireplaces.

The Assembly School, a subsidiary of the national Presbyterian Church bought it in 1906. A long, two-story rear extension was added soon after, consisting of a dining room, kitchen and bathroom on the main level and a row of four bedrooms upstairs, reflecting its use as a school and boarding house. A two-story covered porch was attached on the outside running the length of the addition. Finally, another two-story addition was tacked on the end, which included a larger lower-level kitchen, a larger upstairs gathering room for residents, and a back staircase.

The added kitchen's large fireplace has an encased flue separated from the house that extends through both levels of the porch.

The resulting structure has 5,440 square feet of living space and 23 rooms. There are eight bedrooms and two bathrooms.

"This would make the perfect bed-and-breakfast, and the city really needs them," Massey said.

In 1916, the house was bought by Robert Mullen as a residence for him and his wife, Carrie. It was Mullen who in 1919 added the massive, multi-columned two-story porch to the front of the house. The ostentatious facade was probably just the thing to welcome in the Roaring '20s.

The place is still known by some as "Mullen's Mansion."

The classic main entry with its ornate transom and sidelights was retained when the porch was added.

The interior of the original portion of the house is typical of late-19th-century design in Fredericksburg. A standard door is built into a wall that separates the living and dining rooms to the right of the foyer. It may have originally been a large pocket-door arrangement. Could those doors still be lurking between the walls?

The trim is also typical of the era, with tall baseboards and ornate fireplace mantels, though it's likely not all of the surrounds are original.

There is a curious old outbuilding that includes a garage, storage or work rooms, and what might have been chicken coops, given the use of screening. A dirt path leads to the garage, providing off-street parking.


The asking price reflects the current condition of the house, given that the lot itself might account for two-thirds of the figure. Paint is peeling badly inside and out. There is some rotting of the wood siding and perhaps some earthquake damage to the ceiling of the front porch. The quake may also be responsible for an issue with the metal roof that allowed some unnoticed water infiltration for a while. Significant plaster work is needed.

The rooms reflect their one-time use as apartments, with random kitchen appliances and fixtures here and there. Other rooms were similarly left with console televisions that look to date from the 1960s. There is one bathroom on each level.

The hardwood flooring has survived well for the most part, and some on the main level remains protected today by carpeting.

The cellar has a concrete floor and appears generally dry. It also holds relics such as a pair of wringer washers that may date to the 1940s.

The options for a new owner would be numerous, particularly because it is outside the Historic District. The entire structure could be restored, or the rear extension could be removed, leaving the original house, onto which a new rear addition overlooking the river could be built.

Over the years the lot and the hillside have become severely overgrown, minimizing sight lines to the river. There is a giant old walnut tree back there. Once those areas are cleaned up there would be plenty of space for patios or courtyards with river views.

An option that Massey shudders to consider would be a new owner's decision to raze the entire structure and start over. "It's hard to imagine what the public uproar would be," he said of such a plan.

Richard Amrhine: 540/374-5406

The restoration of 1601 Caroline St. could be eligible for federal and state historic rehabilitation tax credits--a dollar-for-dollar reduction in the owner's tax liability for up to 45 percent of the project expenses. But because it is not within the city's Historic District, certain things would have to happen first.

To qualify for the federal program, a 20 percent break, it must be a certified historic structure. That means it must be listed in the National Register of Historic Places or be a contributing structure in a Historic District that is listed, according to Sean Maroney, executive director of Historic Fredericksburg Foundation.

The state credit, which by itself would cover 25 percent of expenses, hinges on the building being income-producing, such as a B&B. It would also need to be listed in the Virginia Landmarks Register, certified as eligible for it, or be a contributing structure in a Historic District that is listed.

Also, the city has included the property in the Historic District overlay in order to make it eligible for its real estate tax abatement, meaning that the increase to the assessed value of the restored structure is exempt from city real estate taxes for the year in which the improvements are made.

To operate as a B&B or an events venue, which sources suggest city officials would embrace, special exceptions would need to be granted.

Maroney said HFFI believes the building is worthy of restoration and preservation and would offer any assistance it could in advocating its tax credit eligibility.

For the tax credits, periodic inspections by state Department of Historic Resources officials are required as is detailed record-keeping of expenses incurred.

The tax breaks are considered pivotal in the affordability of expensive historic rehabilitation projects. However, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, deficit reduction measures being debated in Congress could reduce or even eliminate the federal historic tax credit.

--Richard Amrhine

Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.