Last year my wife, Leslie, and I, after 20 years of marriage and five houses -- Cape Cod bungalow, brick Colonial, one-level ranch, a spec contemporary and a 6,000-square-foot McMansion -- downsized into a 2,200-square-foot farmhouse within walking distance of Washington, D.C.'s East Falls Church Metro station.
The house was built in 1892.
The year Grover Cleveland was elected president for the second time, Sherlock Holmes began solving mysteries, Thomas Edison patented the telegraph, and the rules of basketball were established, walrus-mustachioed George Crossman was finishing up construction on a cross-gabled two-story house for his new bride, Nellie, on 65 acres in what was then the farming region of Arlington, Va., not far from the Potomac River and the nation's capital.
The Crossmans owned a dairy, and their cows roamed vast pastures that are now neighborhoods of brick ramblers, mature trees and a Catholic high school. It's endlessly amusing to think of the livestock that lived in our cul du sac, as well as the accompanying sounds and smells that must have come with the chickens and cows. They couldn't do that now, not comfortably or legally, as what's left is a one-third acre, the remaining property of the original farm.
The dairy — among Arlington's last -- shut down in 1949 and became home to a very short succession of families. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003 as the Crossman-Grey House, a designation that limits what we can do to modify the exterior -- not that we would want to change a thing, because it is gorgeous -- but provides wide latitude when it comes to updating the interior, which had been updated years ago in someone else's taste.
Great. A Victorian farmhouse in foreclosure that needed historically accurate repairs and drastic updating. Exactly what were we thinking?
Leslie has a vision
My wife first discovered the house online. After 13 years of a bumper-to-bumper commute into the District, Leslie was thinking it was time to downsize and move closer to her job at a D.C.-based nonprofit. Without breathing a word to me, she and our two teenagers went off to investigate, arriving at the property to find the basement door unlocked, permitting them to roam the rooms and explore the nooks and crannies, of which there were many.
And they fell in love. Well, Leslie did. The kids, raised in newly minted suburbia, were pretty sure the old farmhouse was haunted.
From the beginning it was Leslie who had a vision for what the house could be.
The day I explored the house -- this time legally, with a real-estate agent -- Leslie proclaimed with much fanfare, "And this will be your getaway." We were standing, stoop-shouldered, in the dark, dank, dirt floor cellar. Like I said, she had the vision; my imagination struggled.
Maybe I could grow mushrooms, I thought. On my skin.
But her certainty of the rightness of the house was contagious, and I began to believe. The deal was struck, and the money from the sale of our lovely, spacious McMansion flowed like water from our bank account to an enormous contingent of contractors. Not only did we need to renovate the interior of the Crossman house, but my wife had signed us up for a popular charity home and garden walk, which meant we would also be spending thousands landscaping the outside.
The ringing of the cash register was drowned out only by the ticking of the clock.
After an exhaustive bidding process we selected Commonwealth Restorations, a locally owned business with more than 35 years of experience in rebuilding old homes and with a couple of preservation design awards won in recent years. We knew we could count on owner Bob Strunk and his crew to keep us out of trouble with the watchful eyes of the Historic Affairs and Landmark Review Board.
But could Bob stay out of trouble with Leslie? Happily, we did not have to live in the building as it was being remodeled; we were a mile away in my father-in-law's house, we being our one dog, two kids, three cats and Leslie and I. We could not wait to move again, for the second time in three months.
Leslie made a point to stop by on the way home from work every day to see the changes and to make sure the workers — champions at what they do — understood her vision. This is vital when it comes to a remodel, no matter how much it might irritate the crew. A few inches this way, a few shades too dark, or outlets too low for use at a dressing table mean changes, some of them time-consuming and costly.
So, yes, Bob got irritated. But he got over it.
Making changes, keeping the charm
It took a month and a half to pull the house apart and another month and a half to put it back together. Drop ceilings were ripped out; all the wiring was changed; plumbing was relocated, including a first-floor powder room; the fireplace was restored; the brick chimney was repaired using tinted mortar to look period-appropriate; recessed lighting and speakers were installed; 36 custom storm windows were replaced; a window in the kitchen became the house's first backdoor to the yard; pocket doors were installed; new openings were created to modernize the first-floor floor plan; an enclosed sunroom was dismantled to enlarge the kitchen; an office cubby materialized in a sunny corner; a natural gas line replaced oil for heat, but we kept the wonderful iron radiators and added high-efficiency air conditioning throughout; four huge pine trees that killed the grass, darkened the house and obscured it from the street were taken down. The neighborhood cheered.
In fact, the neighbors were uncomplaining, and for that they have my eternal gratitude. I'm not sure how many of those 40-yard trash bins rolled in and out of the driveway, but they stayed filled with tons of debris, some of which Leslie salvaged for repurposing, such as wide, center-cut planks from the original ceilings. (Those ended up as a handmade kitchen island, held up by Montgomery Ward sewing table legs, and assembled by a talented carpenter from Hagerstown.)
It's the little things that create that elusive "charm" old houses are supposed to have. For instance, pulling out kitchen drywall revealed the original clapboard exterior; Leslie insisted Bob's men not seal it up with new drywall but leave it and clean it, and do the same for the second-floor bedroom where more clapboard manifested. It's cool; it's real. According to Leslie, it adds texture to the house.
Leslie found an old dairy sign and sent it to a company in California that rendered it in tile; it's now the central accent of the kitchen, behind the Viking range (acquired for a song from Craigslist), and pays daily homage to the farmhouse heritage.
A staircase off the kitchen that led to a bizarrely small room upstairs was removed and replaced by double ovens (a steal, from a reclamation facility in Bladensburg); the tiny room is now a bedroom, made spacious with an exposed-beam ceiling, finally connected to the rest of the house by a new opening that joins a second-floor sitting area, formerly another tiny bedroom. The two rooms are now our son's "suite."
The third floor was the previous owner's doing: The former attic is bisected by a staircase, with a bedroom on one side and a bathroom with a claw-foot tub on the other. Both have original stained-glass windows installed by the Crossmans. Our college-age daughter loves it up there, coming out of her lair only occasionally for a meal.
And as for my space in the cellar? A crew jackhammered down to the limits of the foundation, waterproofed the room and laid tinted concrete. You can now stand up, stay dry, and watch sports from a love seat on a flat screen television mounted into the cool stone walls. It also serves, very appropriately, as the wine cellar.
The goal all along was to maintain the historic feel of the house while updating it to the needs of a modern family. We wanted guests to admire the rustic charms without being able to guess exactly what we had done.
We hope the Crossmans would approve.