Past is Prologue

Clint Schemmer writes about history, heritage preservation and the American Civil War.  On Facebook: Past is Prologue  On Twitter: @prologuepast  ContactEmail Clint or call 540/374-5424.

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Salubria at risk from Hurricane Irene; rescue work to begin today

Architect Douglas Harnsberger (left) and caretaker Leta Scherquist eye quake damage to Salubria's western chimney on Wednesday.

Marc Wheat says it was “really shocking” yesterday to see photos of Tuesday’s earthquake damage to Salubria, a pre-Revolutionary house in Culpeper County.

Strong shaking by the quake fractured and twisted the tall chimneys above Salubria’s roof, putting the circa-1757 structure in danger if more bricks fall or the chimney tops–through which one can now see blue sky–collapse.

But Salubria’s steward, the Memorial Foundation of the Germanna Colonies in Virginia, isn’t going to take chances, said Wheat, the foundation’s president.

Racing to beat the winds and rain coming north with Hurricane Irene, now a Category 3 storm, the Germanna Foundation and committed experts–many volunteering their time and effort–will work furiously over the next 48 hours to disassemble the unstable top of each chimney so that they don’t threaten to puncture the house’s roof.

The Orange County-based nonprofit is acting “on faith that they money for this will come,” Wheat said.  “There’s no time to raise funds.

“We hope that people will realize that Salubria is important to the culture of the Piedmont and that they will be generous in making contributions earmarked for quake damage to Salubria.”

It is believed that Salubria was built by  the Rev. John Thompson for his wife, Butler Brayne Spotswood. He was the rector of St. Mark’s Parish. She was the widow of the Colonial governor, who brought the first German settlers to the Virginia frontier, forged an iron-making industry and built one of the grandest homes in the land, which visitor William Byrd II waggishly dubbed the “Enchanted Castle.”

The home has some of the finest original interior paneling in the entire Mid-Atlantic region.

Just as Tuesday’s earthquake was the strongest to rock Virginia in more than a hundred years, Wheat said he hopes that the need for emergency repairs–and the fundraising appeal–will be once-in-a-century events.

“This is something we have to do,” he said. “We don’t want anything crashing through the home’s 18th-century roof and its support structure.”

Wheat vowed that the graceful chimneys will be restored, using as much of their original material as is possible.

“We’ll be very careful, we’ll save every brick and once we get the money, every brick will be going back up in place–for the next 250 years.”

Douglas Harnsberger, principal of Legacy Architecture Inc., was optimistic about the prospects for safeguarding the house and restoring the portions damaged by the quake.

Harnsberger, who has long experience with historic buildings in Virginia, had left his home in Swarthmore, Pa., before dawn on Wednesday to hurry to Salubria and begin sizing up the damage to its chimneys, walls and plaster.

“Out of this crisis, something good can happen,” he said on site. “We can manage this.”

Contributions can be made via the foundation’s website at or by calling 540-423-1700.

If you own a quake-damaged historic property, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources is eager to hear from you so that it can properly gauge the harm the quake did to structures across the commonwealth. The department’s staff can also offer advice on how to diagnose and treat such problems. More information is available here.

(As I was writing this blog post at 1:08 a.m Thursday, another earthquake aftershock was felt rumbling through The Free Lance-Star newsroom for a solid minute or two.)


A ‘wow’ discovery in search at SalubriaWANT TO VISIT?



In historical research, one good find makes for a rare day of discovery.

But a half-hour yesterday at Salubria, the mid-18th-century Culpeper County home built for the widow of Colonial Gov. Alexander Spotswood, brought several full-fledged eureka moments for people investigating the structure.

“Wow! This hip shingle is the kind of Rosetta Stone that you look for,” historical craftsman Peter Post exclaimed as Kevin Simmons handed him a long, narrow piece of wood he found in a dark, dusty corner of the mansion’s attic.

It’s unusual enough that such an original piece survives from a circa-1757 building that was re-roofed many times.

But in addition to the hip shingle with a hand-wrought, blacksmith-made rose-head nail still embedded in it, they found the two bevel-cut shingles that sat on either side of it. A mouse nest yielded a colorful piece of early wallpaper and its ceiling border, and a fragment of paper with quill-and-ink writing.

Such small clues are crucial to hopes of stabilizing and restoring one of Colonial Virginia’s grande dames.

“This is just like what was found at Montpelier,” said Post, who put a historically accurate cypress-shingle roof on President James Madison’s Orange County home during its $24 million restoration, informed by a similar fragment. “This is the kind of evidence you dream of. There’s probably no telling what you can find up here with a little sleuthing around.”

When Post and Simmons descended from the attic and showed the items to Kathy Ellis, a trustee of the nonprofit that owns Salubria, her mouth dropped open and then a big smile lit up her face.

Douglas Harnsberger , an architect and veteran of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, was also excited. Harnsberger , Post and masonry expert Jimmy Price visited Salubria yesterday to inspect its roof and masonry, and advise the foundation on care of the structure.

Hoisted 50 feet into the air aboard a cherry-picker’s bucket, Price and Post took a close look at Salubria from a vantage point that few have had in its 250-year history. The home sits on a rise off State Route 3 just east of Stevensburg.

“These experts’ advice is crucial,” said Lewis, a board member of the Memorial Foundation of the Germanna Colonies. “The foundation views itself as the steward of the property, and we want Salubria to be standing for many generations to come.”

Price and Post are considered “two of the best in their business,” she said.

Their inspection, done in concert with Harnsberger and tradesmen from HITT Contracting of Falls Church, will determine the condition of Salubria’s roof, walls and chimneys, recommend preservation measures and provide ballpark cost estimates.

Price’s Virginia Lime Works in Madison Heights has done restoration work for the White House, the University of Virginia, Monticello and Poplar Forest, Thomas Jefferson’s retreat near Lynchburg.

Peter Post Restoration in Richmond just finished roofing outbuildings at Mount Vernon and Gunston Hall, founding father George Mason’s home on the Potomac River, as well as major exhibit work at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

All of the experts provided their time and expertise for free. Harnsberger drove four hours from his home near Philadelphia, leaving before dawn, to volunteer.

The foundation, which was given Salubria in 2000 by its last private owner, the Grayson family, recently formed a committee to research the building’s history and architecture to help determine how best to save it for future generations.

Last year, working with a leading British expert in timber tree-ring dating, the foundation determined the house was built between 1753 and 1757, slightly later than most had thought. It is a rare, nearly pristine example of a mid-18th-century Georgian home, bearing much of its original interior woodwork.

Calder Loth, the dean of Virginia’s architectural historians, has said the house is especially significant as “a document of Colonial-period artistry.”

Its interior paneling, Loth wrote in the fourth edition of the Virginia Landmarks Register, is “some of the finest and best preserved in the mid-Atlantic region.”

Salubria was built by the Rev. John Thompson for his wife, Butler Brayne Spotswood. She was the widow of the Colonial governor, who brought the first German settlers to the Virginia frontier, forged an iron-making industry and built one of the grandest homes in the land, which visitor William Byrd II waggishly dubbed the “Enchanted Castle.”

Thompson’s home is “a close cousin” of Montpelier, which was built a few years later, said Harnsberger , principal of Historic Architecture LLC, which has offices in Richmond and Swarthmore, Pa. A U.Va. graduate, he is descended from one of the Germanna Colony settlers. The brickwork of the two houses bears some distinct similarities.

“Not many people know about Salubria, because it was in private hands until recently,” he said. “It is a hidden gem of the Piedmont Georgian style. Very few homes in the Piedmont were of this quality, just a handful.”

“This is very exciting. We have been very fortunate,” Harnsberger said of yesterday’s discoveries. “This is the start of what will be a long process.”

Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029

Salubria will be open 1–5 p.m. Saturday, April 16, for Culpeper Remembrance Days. Admission is free. Living-historians Dennis and Donna Loba will portray the Rev. and Mrs. John Thompson, Salubria’s designers and builders. Evergreen Shade will provide music and members of the Rappahannock Colonial Heritage Society will dance at 2 p.m. Members of the Sons of the American Revolution will demonstrate period weapons during the afternoon.


Historic preservation experts Peter Post (right) and Doug Harnsberger look at one of the original shingles found in the attic at Salubria. Below, close-ups of a shingle and a piece of wallpaper from the historic home’s early days.


A piece of original wallpaper from Salubria was found in the attic on Thursday. (suzanne carr rossi) —— 3 columns color



Tony Beal, a structural engineer, and Jimmy Price, a brick-and-mortar specialist, inspect the chimney of Salubria in Culpeper yesterday for a report on needed preservation work.

Salubria was built by the Rev. John Thompson for his wife, Butler Brayne Spotswood. She was the widow of the Colonial governor, who brought the first German settlers to the Virginia frontier, forged an iron-making industry and built one of the grandest homes in the land, which visitor William Byrd II waggishly dubbed the “Enchanted Castle.”