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Braehead had Civil War role

December 7, 2012 12:10 am


Previous owner Graham Stevens framed this Braehead key collection. 12052012hhbraehead0226.jpg

The boys' bedrooms are along this upper-level halfway in 'the hyphen.' 12052012hhbraehead0216.jpg

Door-jam graffiti is said to date to the home's Civil War occupation. 12052012hhbraehead0131.jpg

Braehead, built in 1859, has been completely restored, inside and out, over the past few years. Visitors have an opportunity to see it on this weekend's Candlelight Tour. 12052012hhbraehead0084.jpg

This restored bedroom, with its original furniture, is named for Jane Beale, the builder's sister. 12052012hhbraehead0287.jpg

Stockings are hung by the chimney with care, but tour-takers will visit before Santa gets there. 12052012hhbraehead0065.jpg

Tables are decorated and set in Braehead's formal main-level dining room. hhrangehood1.jpg

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It couldn't be more appropriate that Braehead, the 1859 brick mansion where Gen. Robert E. Lee had his breakfast on the day the Civil War came to Fredericksburg, is a stop on the city's Candlelight Tour this year.

Not only does the property have that memorable role in local history, but its thorough restoration, inside and out, was just completed a few weeks ago. Today it probably looks as good as it ever has since the general hitched his horse, Traveller, to the walnut tree that still stands nearby.

Participants in the tour, sponsored each year by Historic Fredericksburg Foundation Inc., will be welcomed to a place that in every key respect is the same as it was when it was built 153 years ago. This is readily documented primarily because it has been owned by but two families, the second taking over stewardship just a few years ago.

New owners Robb and Diana Almy bought the home while it was held on a contingency contract by the Central Virginia Battlefield Trust. The organization had entered the agreement with Graham Stephens, the earlier owner and a descendant of the home's builder, John Howison. It's said Howison built the house for $15,000--a very large sum at the time.

Tucked off Lee Drive in the National Battlefield Park, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it is also protected under a conservation easement. The restoration for residential use qualified the project for Virginia state tax credits and oversight by the state Department of Historic Resources.

The new owners contracted with Jay Holloway of Habalis Construction in Fredericksburg to renovate and restore the property, and the results are nothing short of remarkable.

Time and a lack of maintenance had taken their toll. But the house is now a comfortable home for a young family while it retains all that makes it a historic structure--which Robb Almy considers the perfect blend of old and new.

"It's not a museum but an old house that is actually lived in," he said. And that's because it has been a home, except for a period as a bed-and-breakfast, since the day it was built. Any interior changes that had been made were undone during the restoration.

"The good thing is that the previous owners didn't do much to it," Almy said. "But the bad thing is that the previous owners didn't do much to it."


That's where Holloway's challenge came in. He was faced with a house that was largely original and had never had an addition. Work that had been done over generations, however, had generally not been done to any sort of code.

The house is described as having two three-story towers--the formal tower and the service tower--connected by a two-story "hyphen."

"This was my most complex project so far," said Holloway. "It's the project I'm most proud of."

While far from the only challenge he faced, the basement was the most labor-intensive aspect. It was chronically wet and otherwise uninviting. Long ago, a concrete floor had been poured directly on top of the original brick floor in hopes of keeping the moisture at bay. Not only did it not work, but the concrete trapped the moisture underneath, and when Holloway's crews jack-hammered the old concrete, the original brick floor "had turned to mush."

The concrete layer also elevated several inches. To compensate, doors and door frames were cut from the bottom. The last step of the stairs landed just a couple of inches above the floor.

Using modern technology to block the moisture, Holloway excavated around the entire perimeter of the house, added a moisture-blocking membrane and waterproofed the foundation to keep the lower level living space dry.

Beneath the floor is also where new ductwork, plumbing, wiring and tubing for the Waterfurnace geothermal heating and cooling system would be run. Burying those utilities precluded the need for bulkheading them in the living space. And with the exterior walls and many interior walls solid brick, they were not as user-friendly as framed walls would be.

Once that was all in place, a new concrete floor at the proper level was poured. On top of that was laid a floor of reclaimed heart pine.

The lower level of the formal tower is the family's primary living space, with the kitchen and family room. The current family room, Almy is told, is where Gen. Lee took his breakfast on the morning of Dec. 13, 1862.

The handsome kitchen has a marble-topped island, soapstone countertops and a hammered copper sink. The cabinets are painted and distressed alderwood.

Off the lower level "hyphen" hallway are a new bathroom, playroom and mudroom. The mudroom once housed part of the dairy operation that was run there. These lower-level rooms retain the original sandstone door sills that were discovered and reclaimed from beneath the concrete floor.

The service tower's lower level holds a laundry room, just as it has historically. One flight up on the main level is a home office with built-in shelving.


The main level of the formal tower holds the formal living and dining rooms, which are separated by massive pocket doors and are among the rooms open for the tour.

The living room contains a huge antique Knabe piano that former owner Graham Stephens had entirely restored and left with the home. Almy said Stephens left nearly all of the period furniture--bureaus, bed, armoires and more--with the home.

On this level the hyphen contains separate rooms for each of the Almys' three sons.

On the upper level of the formal tower are the master bedroom, which Almy noted was called the Jane Beale room. Beale, whose home on Prince Edward Street behind the Kenmore Inn is under restoration, was the sister of Braehead's builder Howison. She fled to Braehead with her children during the hostilities in downtown Fredericksburg.

There's also a secondary bedroom for the Almys' daughter and a bathroom that has been completely redone.

"Everything we could possibly save or reuse, we did," said Holloway. Original window and door frames and heart pine floors were merely cleaned up, not sanded and repainted or refinished.


As was frequently the case with such mansions that faced old carriage roads or had waterway access, the back of Braehead became the front when Lee Drive was built.

The classic brickwork is a combination of Flemish bond on the front and side of the formal tower, and six-course American bond elsewhere. The black shutters are original except for a few that couldn't be saved and were replaced with matching salvaged ones. For energy efficiency, historically correct storm windows have been installed.

The slate roof was replaced with faux slate, after it was determined the original roof structure couldn't continue to support the weight of real slate.

Copper gutters and downspouts were installed, as were copper "snowbirds" on the roof.

Added but not qualified for tax credits were the exterior patio of Pennsylvania bluestone and other hardscaping like the brick walkways.

Richard Amrhine: 540/374-5406

A history of the house written by Mary "Aunt Mamie" Howison, who was born in 1859, recalls that her Uncle John Howison, Braehead's builder and first owner, loved to host his extended family at the house each Sunday, when the dining table would extend through both the living and dining rooms and lively discussions would ensue.

It was a time when a house was where life experiences took place--births, deaths, weddings.

The Howisons enjoyed a relatively high standard of living, thanks to the lucrative dairy plant that John Howison ran from the house. He took in milk from local farmers and distributed it to customers in Fredericksburg.

In just two short years, however, life for the Howisons would change dramatically as the family and community turned its attention to the Civil War. Selling a fine tract of Braehead timber to the Confederate government for the war effort was only the beginning. In 1861, Howison's wife died and three of his sons went to war.

Dec. 13, 1862, was the day Gen. Lee came to take breakfast at Braehead, steeling himself for the day of battle ahead. Lee had positioned his headquarters at a nearby spot now known as Lee's Hill. Viewing the brutality from that vantage point, he observed: "It is well that war is so terrible. We should grow too fond of it."

During the second Battle of Fredericksburg in 1864, the house was used as a hospital by the Union Army. The Yankee soldiers left the place standing, but they tossed furniture through the windows, carved their names in walls and trim, broke the china, and ate or otherwise killed the livestock.

Union cavalrymen's spur marks remain on the risers of the home's stairs. The floors were left so blood-soaked that it was easier for the Howisons to cover them with a dark stain than to clean them.

By war's end, Howison had lost his wife, two of his sons, all of his dairy equipment and was $60,000 in debt. There was also a cannonball hole at one end of the house.

--Richard Amrhine

Merry Powell Interiors (Richmond)

Architect Sabina Weitzman (Fredericksburg)

Garden Works & Design (Fredericksburg)

Mill Cabinetry (Bridgewater)

Dovetail Cultural Resource Group (Fredericksburg)

Robert B. Payne, HVAC (Fredericksburg)

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