Tom Glass deconstructed, moved, and faithfully rebuilt a stunning 18th-century house in Virginia
By Arnold Berke | From Preservation | March/April 2010
Driving the back roads of northern Virginia's Rappahannock County in 2004, Tom Glass came upon 30 acres of empty farmland for sale near the hamlet of Flint Hill. Glass, a Washington, D.C., builder who restores houses, bought the tract, hoping to turn it into a weekend retreat. But how?
The answer came to him while horseback riding. "I'd see these old abandoned farmhouses sitting in a field, or the middle of the woods," says Glass. "I thought it'd be great to move one to my new property and restore it." But his local search proved fruitless—the houses were inaccessible, not for sale, or too far gone—so he ranged farther afield, ultimately landing 100 miles south in rural Appomattox County, where he found a deserted 18th-century house called Woodlawn.
"It was in incredible shape for a house abandoned since the early 1930s," he says—structurally sound and little altered. Still, nature was taking over, and the owner was about to mine the house for architectural salvage. So Glass bought Woodlawn in 2006, dismantled it piece by piece, and carted it off to Flint Hill for reassembly and restoration. It stands there now, crisp and bright against the densely forested Blue Ridge Mountains.
Revolutionary War veteran and tobacco planter Robert Kelso built this handsome Federal residence in 1797, anchoring it with a massive double chimney. His construction method was typical of the time: hand-hewn timbers linked by mortise-and-tenon joints secured with wood pegs. The structural skeleton used no nails. "In many respects, it was very simple in design," says Glass, "but very effective, virtually indestructible." Kelso laid his house out in a side-hall plan popular in postcolonial Virginia, built it on a foundation of Flemish-bond brick, encased the walls in beaded clapboard, and shingled the roof in cedar.
Tools of the Trade
During reconstruction of Woodlawn, Tom Glass used several products he recommends without reservation:
Golden's Antique Supply Pure Tung Oil: Glass applied this oil, which penetrated the old floorboards, to bring out the natural red-brown and honey colors latent in the yellow pine.
Cabot Interior Waterborne Polyurethane: The coating sealed and preserved the original painted wood surfaces, consolidating unstable paint and drying clear.
Marshalltown Grapevine Jointer: The tool created a mortar joint with an incised line that exactly matched the joints of the original brickwork.
Dirtex by Savogran: "We used this in powdered form to remove dust, dirt, and bird droppings from painted woodwork," says Glass. "It cleaned without rinsing, which avoided swelling the wood."
If the farmhouse today looks like it was airlifted in one piece from its old location, that is just what Tom Glass intended. He reused most of the original materials, slotting each beam and joist, wall and window, floorboard and mantel back into its original position. "All of the proportions of the house are exactly the way they were when it was built," says Glass. Replicas stand in for missing or decayed materials, and though he left the brickwork behind, he matched it down to its grapevine joints (fine lines inscribed in the mortar).
All of this required meticulous planning and well-orchestrated execution. Before taking Woodlawn apart, Glass prepared a complete set of drawings that recorded its exact dimensions. He numbered each of the nearly 2,300 pieces ("wainscoting 1C1, 1C2, 1C3," and so on) as they were removed, then loaded them onto a trailer in the same order that they were detached from the house, which smoothed reassembly at Flint Hill. Not everything was deconstructed: "As big as it is," says Glass, "the stairs came out in one piece."
A project like this speaks as much of construction and carpentry as of restoration. With an ease born of know-how, Glass explains how summer beams, angle braces, floor joists, and the like figured in the building—and rebuilding—of Woodlawn. "Each of the four corner posts was made out of a single oak timber," he says, "which they hand-hewed into an L-shaped piece called a hog trough. Off every one came the angle braces, from which these huge tenons would go down into the big sill beams." The corners rose 20 feet, uninterrupted, to the roof.
"The trees they cut to build this house could easily have been 300 years old," Glass says. "We just don't have them that big anymore." Indeed, Woodlawn's 30-inch wainscoting runs 21 feet, as do the long-leaf yellow-pine floorboards, which received special care. "Since they had been exposed to so much water over time, they looked like driftwood," Glass says. So he took off the gray with a buffing machine and applied tung oil and wax. "We couldn't sand them—they were too worn from years of having been walked on. Sanding would have destroyed them." He left the patina from years of use (even scratches and dents) on woodwork like the wainscoting, its faded maroon stripes evidence of early faux-painted "paneling."
Tom Glass tampered little with the floor plan but updated its uses—turning the rear parlor into the kitchen, for example, and a bedroom into a bathroom. And the attic is now an office and studio, lit by four new dormers. By retaining and respecting so much of the old house, he made the 21st century a welcome guest rather than a party crasher. He calls the new kitchen, warmed by its original fireplace, "very simple, Shaker style." The upstairs bath sports classic cream-colored tiles, made in Amsterdam, that work well with the faded turquoise woodwork. "We spent a lot of time looking for new materials that were handmade, because everything else in this house is handmade."
Glass' quest for authenticity even led him to imitate the old site. The house is oriented the same way and sits on a similar slope, allowing you to once again enter the basement through a full-height door at the base of the chimney. The plantings also make Woodlawn feel at home. It formerly stood among large trees—white oaks, a walnut, a poplar—and boxwood, most of which Glass mimicked by planting the same species in like positions. "I wanted to put a house there that was of the time—that would fit in," he says.
The best measure of his success may come from Nancy Jamerson Weiland, whose grandfather owned Woodlawn from 1902 to 1957. Playing in Woodlawn as a child, she had never seen it "other than basically in ruin. But I always wanted to own it. I envisioned it as viable again." Visiting Glass' immaculately restored house in 2007, Weiland says, "My first reaction was, she's just absolutely beautiful. It was overwhelming, really."
For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.