Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Welcome to the Castle

Observer, voyeur, call me what you will.

Fact is, I like to look inside unique houses regardless of how appealing the house is to me personally. Do I want to heat a Romanesque Revival house? Definitely not. Can I see myself keeping all those rooms clean? No way.

But do I want to nose my way through it, seeking out parts of it that speak to me or pique my interest? Hellz, yes.

So when Mac informed me that she'd scored two tickets to tonight's House Story, I was all about seeing the inside of one of those monster houses on Hermitage Road. The one in question was 4500 square feet and had every overblown detail you'd expect, from hand-cut granite columns and arches to twelve rooms "of gracious scale" to recommend it.

Because it's been snowing/raining since the middle of last night, it wasn't easy to see much on the porch when we walked up the stairs. But the enormity of the tiled front porch - which took off down the front of the house to a rounded area where a large wrought iron table and chairs sat and then back down the side of the house, too - made itself felt with a weightiness and solidity that made the house seem impervious to anything that might hit it.

Short of cannon fire, I can't even see Mother Nature making a dent in this place.

Inside, we escaped the gathering crowds by heading upstairs, where the first room I found myself in was the library. And you know how I like to ogle other people's books: "Do You Sleep in the Nude?' by Rex Reed (whom my favorite grandmother read and my Mom disdained), "Graham Greene on Film" (I admit, my interest was piqued) and "20,000 Years of Fashion" are just a few of the unlikely tomes wedged on shelves rising to the 11' ceiling.

Best of all, a library ladder was propped against one wall. Be still, my heart.

Most people seemed to breeze through the hallway leading to the bedrooms and bathrooms, but I took my time because of the framed prints and etchings lining it. My favorite? A Vanity Fair print called "Men of the Day No. 36" featuring a slender man in a loose gray suit, his whiskers growing halfway down his cheeks.

The caption read, "I say, the critic must keep out of the region of immediate practice." Pretty funny, right?

Passing by the back of the house servants' stairs, I walked into one of the bedrooms to see a Chinese wedding bed, its ornate, carved wooden frame sheltering a bed covered in colorful pillows with a nightstand. The side walls were covered with open carvings, perhaps for ventilation?

One man walked in, took a gander and proclaimed, "Looks like an opium bed!" More like a deflowering bed, sir.

Mac was especially taken with a book spindle which housed two layers of books that could be spun to view all the book spines. Someone had told her that spindles were originally used in libraries until it became apparent that people weren't removing or returning books gently enough and the spindles were breaking.

And this is why we can't have nice things.

There were no small rooms (well, maybe except one, which was probably a trunk room originally), allowing ample space for the owners' eclectic taste in furniture. Bathrooms were laid out with no thought of conserving space, so the toilet would be off in its own nook but still connected to the main bath area. An odd shaped room, but one that easily accommodated two.

One bathroom especially charmed me with its double windows, the first one opening into the bathroom and the second one the kind you push up. Mac and I discussed how we'd have one or both of those open every chance we got.

Downstairs, a door led to a screen door over some bushes. Our best guess was that the door opened to allow cross-ventilation and for no other reason since the architecture made it clear that it had never been anything but a window.

A door with no purpose except air flow is my kind of door.

One feature that spoke to Mac and me was the back porch, bringing to three the total number of wide, generous porches with stained, wooden ceilings. I admit my head was also turned by the owner's extensive collection of 1920s and vintage travel posters throughout the house.

When it came time for the owner of the house built by architect D. Wiley Anderson to speak, everyone gathered in the double parlor to hear about the 1898 residence and the man who'd designed it. Seems Anderson tried his hand at several styles of architecture and designed 50 houses in Richmond, ten of which have been knocked down.

The owner mentioned that Anderson had done a similarly styled, if not quite so grand, Romanesque Revival house on Floyd Avenue and I immediately knew what house he meant, having lived a few blocks from it during my 13-year stint on Floyd.

Frankly, it's tough to miss the massiveness of turrets, deeply recessed entrances and short, squat columns among the townhouses of the Museum District.

Interestingly enough, the owner mentioned that Anderson's work owed a debt to the work of Henry Hobson Richardson, whom I'd only learned about when we toured the Customs House in Key West. Richardson redux.

We heard about how by 1988 the house had fallen into disrepair after being unoccupied for 20 years so the Shriners, who owned it, had called in a wrecking ball to sit menacingly behind the house, waiting to destroy it. Seems it took the neighborhood exactly 48 hours to get Historic Richmond involved and stop the demolition.

One of the pleasures of House Story, besides hearing the current owner talk about their house, is when the house's long-time neighbors get up to talk, since they usually have more knowledge of the house than the new owner does.

Tonight that person was Frank Wood, who got the ball rolling to stop the wrecking ball from doing its job. We also heard about how Hermitage was an early streetcar suburb with aspirations of being Monument Avenue Part Deux, so they asked the widow of Civil War general A.P. Hill. if they could dig up his remains and replant them under a statue of Hill on Hermitage Road.

Miraculously, she said yes, take them bones.

And that, ladies and germs, is how A. P. Hill wound up spending eternity in what is now a roundabout at Laburnum and Hermitage. Who doesn't love a good history lesson out of the blue?

Although it was too wet and cold to go out in the back yard, we were told that if we had, we'd have seen two carriage houses, one a stable and the other for Sunday carriages. Mac and swooned over the notion of Sunday carriages and the gentile world that begat such a thing.

Meanwhile, a woman from the Hermitage Road Association got up to speak, mentioning that they're trying to position the neighborhood as the gateway to Scott's Addition, a pretty dubious aspiration, if you ask me.

Which nobody did.

And speaking of our voyeuristic tendencies, once we'd opened doors (as Mac pointed out, the closets were unbelievably spacious for an 1898 house), peered through windows to check out the views and admired elaborate transoms, we bowed out after the talk in service of my hired mouth.

The critic can keep out of the region of immediate practice only if she doesn't want a roof over her head.

And while mine has nary an arch or crenolation, it is home. A place where the bathroom window opens in, there's superb cross-ventilation and the shelves are lined with a wild array of books no one else would care about.

It's no opium den, but then, whose house is anymore?

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