Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Labor of Love: A look into the restoration of a Civil War era home

Have you ever looked at an old house or building and thought if only it could talk, just imagine what it would say? Well, I have. In fact once many years ago I told my husband old buildings talk if you just open your eyes and listen.  Of course they don't actually speak, rather it is usually the details caught by the eye that fuel the imagination as to the lives lived within the walls. Today though I have a treat to share with you. A rather detailed look into a fabulous civil war era home; the High Victorian Italianate architecture, The Confederate Army Colonel who built the home, mysteries and possible scandals surrounding the original family and the excitement and struggles faced by the current owners who are trying to preserve this small part of American history.

My first glimpse into the interior of this fabulous Civil War era home came last year on a crisp December afternoon when Civil War reenactor Helena and I set out in the Freemason Historic District in down town Norfolk Virginia to shoot a Civil War era Victorian portrait session. While photographing Helena in her beautiful Victorian clothing at various locations in the neighborhood we were approached by a very vibrant woman and asked if we would like to shoot in the sitting room of her home as it was "very Victorian". As it turned out her home was none other than the historic John Cary-Weston House on Freemason St., and that sitting room is absolutely heaven to a lover of the Victorian era. I have had the opportunity to return on a few occasions for portrait sessions with different models, and once again more recently to sit and visit with Lisa and learn more about the home and it's history.

At first sight I was enthralled by this house that nearly screams Victorian yet has a very definite French vibe. I was mesmerized by the exterior with it's fancy ironwork, carved friezes and fancy work all around, including the beautiful bay windows, carved brick, wrap around porch and mansard roof.

carved brick and ornate iron window trim

On that first visit, Lisa explained to us that the home had been built in 1870 by a former Confederate Army Colonel named John Cary-Weston and that she and her husband were in the process of restoring the home to it's original glory.

Showing us into 'The Parlor' I was struck not only by the beauty of the architecture with the 12 foot high ceilings, 9 foot high arched windows, and rich walnut woodwork, but by the fact that the home was in fact decorated in the High Victorian style with American Eastlake or American Gothic furnishings, statues and all sorts of artifacts from the civil war era. As I was to later learn in my interview with Lisa "in the Victorian era they loved the juxtaposition and would incorporate different elements of style together". Her love for this old home goes far beyond a love for Victorian architecture but to the very depths of Victorian culture.

Many owners of Historic homes go to great lengths to restore and maintain the external architecture of the homes they preserve, yet few go to the lengths that Dr. Guy Trengove-Jones and his wife Lisa have.  It is common for historic home owners to restore the outside and then during restoration of the inside to fully modernize it even to the point of changing floor plans. Yet not only are the Trengove-Jones restoring the outside of the home to it's original appearance they are also returning the interior to is Victorian glory. No longer is the 17 room home that boasts 10 fireplaces divided into five apartments as it was in the '50s.

Once again this house has the opulent look of money both on the outside and inside just as it must have back in the late 1800 and early 1900's. One main difference being that the furnishings and interior decorations would have cost the original owners much more than it cost to decorate a home in this style today. As Lisa explained "Nowadays antiques are really cheap, 10 years ago they had great value but not anymore. Anyone who wants to decorate with Victorian style can snap up a bargain left and right and make it look just like this."

With few exceptions everything from the wall and window treatments to the ceilings and furnishings exudes Victorian opulence. The 1 1/2 story brick kitchen house that still sits on the property is no longer the homes kitchen but it hasn't been overlooked or forgotten. The Kitchen house is now a very quaint living quarters.

Not only have they taken on the enormous task of restoring this historic old home but they have also taken on the task of discovering and preserving the memory of the original owner and his descendants. John Cary-Weston Confederate Colonel and member of the Albermarle and Chesapeake Canal Company purchased the land back in 1852 to build a summer home for his family. Construction of the home took nearly 20 years, beginning  sometime during the 1850's only to be halted by the civil war and then resumed after. The home was finally finished in 1870 just months after his first wife Jane Parks Weston died. Although she had been ill for years with an illness that kept her bedridden in a centrally located bedroom on the second floor of the house, the exact cause of death remains a mystery. Jane's death was just the beginning of the tragedies, mysteries and possible scandals surrounding The John Cary Weston family.
One of the second floor bedrooms

Area to the right looks into that centrally located bedroom.
Scandal soon followed when within a very short time of his first wife's death John remarried to a woman named Nannie  who is believed to have been a former household servant. Then in the beginning of 1871 John's son by Jane, Cary Parks Weston died at the age of 26.  In her research Lisa had gone to the nearby Princess Ann Cemetery and located the family plot. During that time the family cemetery plot was another way in which family's proclaimed their status and she found the Cary-Weston family plot very intriguing. As she explained  "… after the patriarch passed away, his spiral top enormous tombstone is in the middle with his first wife on one side and his second wife on the opposite side with their tombstones being identical even though their deaths were 26 years apart." Another oddity is the fact that the 26 year old son was not buried in the family plot but in another section of the graveyard some distance from the family plot and even stranger is the fact that buried next to him is Julia the first child born from the second wife. The intrigue captured me further when Lisa said "I studied the dates on the tombstone and it is very odd, there is an overlap." This overlap she explained put the birth of the 2nd wife's child less than nine months after the first wife's death, leading one to wonder a number of things first of which, what was the real cause of the first wife's death? Second, why bury Cary Parks Weston and Julia Weston so far from the family plot?
Could it be that Jane Parks Weston was the daughter of Marshall Parks Sr. and sister to Albermarle & Chesapeake Canal Company president Marshall Parks Jr. Was she John Cary-Weston's connection to his position with the Albermarle & Chesapeake Canal Company? Could Nannie's daughter have been buried so far from the family plot because if anyone saw the date of her birth beside the date of Jane's death a connection may have been made that there had been possible foul play which could have jeopardized not only his position with the company but the social standing of the entire family, by this time John and Nannie had another child a son they named Cary Parks Weston II? And Why was the first Cary Parks Weston not buried on the family plot? At first I thought that maybe he had fought opposite his father in the Civil War as did unfortunately happen, but that was not the case. Cary Parks Weston was a V.M.I. cadet sergeant-major and later a lieutenant in the Confederate Sates of America under Stonewall Jackson. According to Virginia Military Institute archives Cary Parks Weston died in February 1871 of scarlet fever after a four day illness.
Cary Parks Weston source V.M.I. archives
Lisa told me that just after they purchased the home, Mr. Roper who is "somewhere in his 70's with an encyclopedic memory", and whose family has lived in the grand old house across the street since the civil war told them he was pretty sure that the Cary-Weston descendants had long since passed away. So that is what was put on the plaque in the front garden outside their home, however they have found that isn't the case.

The line has lived on through the descendants of  Cary Parks Weston II [the second child of 2nd wife Nannie] [b1873 - d1942]  Cary Parks Weston II's daughter Cary married one of the most eligible bachelors of the 40's one of the sons of the Sloane family of the Hermitage museum fame,  and they had a daughter which they named Cary Patricia Sloane. Mrs. Cary Weston Sloane and her daughter left Virginia after her divorce from Mr. Sloane and after a great deal of searching the Trengove-Jones' have located and been in contact with a descendent of John Cary Weston. 
A Weston family portrait which hangs in the dining room
When asked what drew them to purchase such a historic home, not just an old Victorian home but one that was on the National Historic Registry, with a smile on her face and a glint in her eyes Lisa quickly responded "the romance". She further explained that the "lure of the romance of visiting beautifully kept large Victorian homes that you could sit in or stand and picture yourself in that era, it's a fantasy."

Although when they first saw the house it was in ruins and thousands of potential buyers had passed up the chance to purchase the home because of the restoration and upkeep would be extremely expensive, this particular home had everything they were looking for. As Lisa put it "Viewing the house on this street  with it's corner lot, with it's Frankenstein elements, it looked like Eddie Munster's house it was really creepy and cool, in it's run down situation it needed us to save it."  It's corner location with the historic cobblestone road, view of the water and obvious need for someone to care about it made this home ideal to the Romantic Victorian Fantasy. (click here to watch a short video of the area. The waterfront, cobblestone road, intersection and house are visible within the first minute of the video.)
I have often wondered what difficulties other than financial might be associated with owning a historic home and Lisa was kind enough to explain that there are different levels of recognition with historic homes stating that "When you are on the National Registry it just means that they can't bulldoze the place, although they can find ways around that.
The second level is a Chartered Historic District which this house is part of. When your home is in a chartered Historic District  they [the charter] will tell you what you can and can not do to your home from the outside, such as repairs or improvements, replacing a window, painting or fixing a door. All these things you can only do after receiving approval from the city…It can disenchant you and drive you crazy."
current renovations
Still this home, this Labor of Love as Lisa calls it, has it's rewards. Those rewards come when Lisa and Guy can share their home as it was meant to be shared when it was built. Regarding those rewards Lisa recently wrote me "It is a privilege to share this crazy old house with people who have an interest in it (like you) If I never let anyone inside, or I didn't keep it in a good order to show it occasionally to a house tour or a Girl Scout or Boy Scout Troupe, etc., I think it would be a terrible WASTE. It really feeds on itself for my motivation. If someone sees it and really "catches" the character of it/beauty of it, they have made my week! People like that (like you) are constantly inspiring me to have ideas to make it better, more "user friendly" for other people to enjoy, even people I haven't met before! … Whenever we have a gathering or a house tour, it is a VERY interesting house in that we see it was meant to be USED, and the house "likes" lots of people, over 50 and under 200 for an event. The doors all open, the verandas, and the wrap around porch, the back porch, the courtyard, all the pass-throughs, it is pure MAGIC when the house is humming. We ONLY get a sincere glimpse into the golden age when this occurs. "
The welcoming side entrance
There in lies the fantasy and romance, the immersion into a time of grace and beauty, mystery and intrigue. A glimpse into the golden age that I hope to enjoy next time I am in Norfolk, Virginia. Maybe just maybe I will be lucky enough to also take in the annual Freemason District Ghost Tour hosted by the Trengove-Jones and group of talented actors, featuring over 10 historic homes and notable caricatures such as Robert E. Lee, Edgar Allen Poe and Jack the Ripper to mention a few. 

P.S. I hope you have enjoyed a glimpse into this beautiful historic home that sits quietly in my former city of Norfolk, Virginia. You can continue your virtual travel by visiting Unknown Mami's Sunday In My City. ~ Nita Davis


The house and The Weston Family:
Interview with Lisa trengove-Jones

Resource 2
Resource 3

Albermarle and Chesapeake Canal:

Resource 1
Resource 2

Cary Parks Weston:
Interview with Lisa Trengove-Jones

Resource 2
Resource 3

Cary Parks Weston II:
Interview with Lisa Trengove-jones

Resource 2


Keetha Broyles said...

Sigh. It is soooooo beautiful.

Emily said...

Thank you for your photos and commentary of a bygone era!

Unknown said...

Emily, Thank you for visiting and commenting. It was an honor to share this with all of you.

Unknown said...

I do a lot of sighing every time I go inside this beautiful house. There is so much more than I showed here, it is just amazing.

Lori G said...

What a beautiful home and what a charming article. Well done. I wish to visit it. I love old houses and the stories they tell. You must visit the one in Deadwood, with ghost and all! Lori

Unknown said...

Hi Lori, Thank you for your comment. Deadwood is on my list for this summer. I will be sure to check out all there is to offer.

StarTraci said...

That is so cool -- thanks for sharing! When I was young we used to visit several beautiful Victorian homes in Galveston. It was always one of my favorite things to do.

Have a great week!

Claudya Martinez said...

Amazing. This would make for a great miniseries on PBS.

Unknown said...

Thank you. Oh I can just imagine how beautiful those homes are. I would love to visit Galveston.

Unknown said...

I am so glad you stopped by. What a wonderful idea, I do think it would make a great miniseries.