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Venerable LaVue looks healthy after 194 years

September 28, 2012 12:10 am

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Here's a view of LaVue from the back that shows where the original 1818 house meets the 'L' addition. hh0928lavuePC2.jpg

LaVue sits on what's considered the highest point in Spotsylvania. Caroline and King George counties can be seen from the front porch. hh0928lavuePC9.jpg

The formal living room and dining room are separated by massive pocket doors. The random-width heart pine floors are original. hh0928lavuePC5.jpg

The basement dining room of LaVue is a cozy and comfortable place to welcome family and friends. hh0928lavuePC7.jpg

The stenciling was added by the original owners in the 1830s.

BY RICHARD AMRHINE

It is called "LaVue" because of the view; the name was bestowed on the property by the first owner's wife, who was of French Huguenot descent.

That first owner was John Alsop, a familiar name in the annals of Fredericksburg-area history, and it was his father, George, who is credited with building the brick mansion in 1818.

The hilltop site on which it was built was chosen because of the view and the beautiful, gently rolling land that surrounds it. It must have been a clear choice, because back then there were 1,500 acres worth of possible sites to choose from.

LaVue is off U.S. 17, Mills Drive, in Spotsylvania County and is listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register. For the past 25 years it has been owned and cared for by Carole Boniface, whose background in interior design and adaptive reuse has come in very handy. She has made a few strategic interior upgrades and nursed the house through a 1996 tornado, a couple of hurricanes and last year's earthquake.

The house, the surrounding grounds and the 60 acres of the estate that remain are impeccably well-kept. Though she seems to manage the maintenance and upkeep quite well, Boniface has decided to let someone else take over. She listed it for sale with Janel O'Malley and Robin Marine of Coldwell Banker Carriage House Realty in Fredericksburg. The asking price is $1.75 million.

The location is remote, but conveniently close to stores and what will be the Spotsylvania VRE station.

FEW CHANGES MADE

One might think that drastic changes would have been made to a house over the course of 194 years, but in this case one would be wrong.

The original house was a typical antebellum four-over-four with a full basement, built on a large scale suggesting the owners enjoyed significant wealth. Large as it was, by 1834 the growing family needed more space, and an L-shaped addition was built.

At some point, plumbing, electricity and air conditioning were retrofitted. The house is heated by the same 1930s furnace, which was converted from coal to oil-burning. The house had a major structural renovation in the 1930s, with steel beams added to increase support. Today there is nary a sign of sagging or bowing that might be expected in a house this old.

The house has a total of 5,140 square feet of living space, with four bedrooms, three full bathrooms and a half-bath.

What has changed is the orientation of the house. Usually that's the case with a Colonial riverfront home with the advent of dependence on land transportation: The back becomes the front and vice versa. In this case the impetus came from the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad, which claimed right of way in 1837, taking the lane that had led to the front of the house. Today a rear entrance provides the primary access.

But it is the view from the front entrance that inspired LaVue's name. Beyond Spotsylvania in the foreground, Caroline and King George counties are visible in the distance. Much closer is the swimming pool that lies at the foot of the brick steps.

Do an about-face, and the front door opens to a grand foyer with a wide and welcoming staircase. Here also is where the home's history comes alive.

The plaster walls have intricate stenciling believed to have been painted in the 1830s, according to the 1971 book "Old Virginia Houses Along the Fall Line" by Emmie Ferguson Farrar and Emilee Hines.

Boniface had fox-hunt scenes, framed by stenciling, added to one portion to reflect the equestrian use of the property. Boniface still keeps three horses at LaVue.

The floors are original random-width heart pine.

To the left is what Boniface said was the men's sitting room, which she notes was generally the most well-appointed room. Its fireplace mantel is the home's most ornate.

This was also the room that, Boniface said, was used as a Civil War hospital. One of the surgeons, William Alsop, whose precise family relationship is unclear, apparently experimented with pig-gut transplants in his attempts to piece together badly wounded soldiers.

To the right of the foyer are the main living and dining rooms, separated by massive pocket doors.

Upstairs in the original portion are three bedrooms, including the master and two secondary bedrooms. A small bedroom was sacrificed to create a master bathroom. The other bedrooms share a bathroom.

The three-story L-shaped addition holds a very interesting room that could serve as a self-contained guest suite. Hidden in one wall is a Murphy bed, while tucked nearby behind closet doors is a unique half-bathroom--a true water closet.

A back staircase provides quick access to the addition's three levels. Down one flight is a space used by Boniface as a home office.

Down one more is the newer portion of the basement, where the kitchen with its original slate floor is located. Through a doorway into the English basement is the day-to-day dining room, which has its original brick floor, as does the adjoining family room. The brick foundation walls are painted and help make the basement comfy and cozy. It stays cool in summer despite being the only level without air conditioning.

In both the current kitchen and the dining area, which was apparently the original indoor kitchen, there are large cooking fireplaces topped with hand-hewn wooden planks.

Altogether there are 12 fireplaces that feed into three chimneys. Two of the fireplaces have been converted to use gas.

Among the remarkable aspects of the house is its storage space. The rooms all have their original closets, rare in a home of this vintage. Boniface said she learned that the early owners left the doors off the closets at first so they wouldn't be taxed as additional rooms, as was the custom in those days.

Boniface has had additional built-in closets and shelves crafted for the home, all designed in keeping with the look of the original trim and woodwork.

CLASSIC EXTERIOR

The home's brick exterior is a blend of Flemish bond on the front of the house and American five-course bond on the sides and rear. The more expensive Flemish bond was typically used where it was more visible. There are vertical brick arches over the windows. Boniface said the exterior walls are five bricks thick; the interior walls are four bricks thick, covered in horsehair plaster on lath. Some original plaster was lost to last year's earthquake.

The hip roof is painted standing-seam tin, replaced after the previous roof was damaged in the 1996 tornado.

The acreage surrounding the house is laden with features, both man-made and natural.

A modern but rustic-looking guest or tenant house is nearby and is currently occupied by Boniface's daughter and son-in-law. Other outbuildings include a six-stall horse barn, a turnout paddocks, an equipment shed and the original well house.

Along with the 20-plus acres of fields--which Boniface mows herself--there is a large stocked pond.

Closer to the house is a lovely formal garden with pebble paths surrounded by 8-foot boxwoods. It was the site chosen by Boniface's two daughters for their weddings.

Richard Amrhine: 540/374-5406
Email: ramrhine@freelancestar.com




On a nearby hill a short distance from the house is the Alsop family plot. It is filled with gravestones dating back to the late 18th century. There are Alsops galore there--including James, William, a couple of Johns, Elizabeth, Martha, Mary and Sue.

The property was home to five generations of the Alsop family; the last member of the family to live there was the wife of Herman Swanson, who died in 1972 and is interred in the mausoleum he had built adjacent to the graveyard.

Swanson and Olive Alsop were married at LaVue in 1919. She was a direct descendant of Thomas Royston, who, with John Buckner, received the 1671 land grant on which the city of Fredericksburg would be built.

A gate to the plot refers to Prospect View, the name given to the property for a period of time. Current owner Carole Boniface brought back the name LaVue.

She also brought back LaVue itself during her 25 years of ownership. It had fallen into neglect between Herman Swanson's death in 1972 and the Boniface purchase in 1987.

--Richard Amrhine




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