How the city is preserving a piece of history

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Joe Reeder, the owner of 517 Prince St. for the past 16 years, sits in the living room of the 18th century home. (Photo Credit/James Cullum)

By Alexa Epitropoulos | aepitropoulos@alextimes.com

There isn’t a detail of 517 Prince St. that goes unnoticed by its owner of 16 years, Joe Reeder.

He enjoys pointing out those seemingly minute details to guests – the line that delineates where the original set of stairs to the upper level begin, the pipe in the dining room where a gas lamp used to be.

The exterior of 517 Prince St., which dates back to 1772 (Photo Credit/James Cullum)
The exterior of 517 Prince St., which dates back to 1772 (Photo Credit/James Cullum)

It’s his attention to detail and passion for preservation and history that first brought him to the Prince Street house. Since he bought the home, considered one of the most preserved 18th century dwellings left — not just in Alexandria but in all of Northern Virginia – for $850,000 in 2001, he’s invested nearly $500,000 into maintaining it and ordering historic studies on it.

Reeder, a lifelong preservation advocate who has owned historic homes throughout Alexandria for 55 years, is still dedicated to preserving the home. That’s why he approached Lance Mallamo, director of the office of historic Alexandria, as he pondered putting it up for sale.

“I wanted it to be preserved,” Reeder said, while sitting in an antique armchair in the living room. The home’s timber foundation indicates it was built in 1772. “This house could easily be ruined by someone with money and without historical knowledge.”

Mallamo agrees with Reeder’s assessment, saying that renovation is a huge concern in a building with so much historic value.

“If he had sold it to someone else, one of the things I always say is, the greatest enemy to a historic house is someone with lots of money,” Mallamo said. “It could have been stripped of its original finishes.”

The city recently finalized its deal to buy the Prince Street home for $1.25 million, a cost financed exclusively by outside preservation grants from the commonwealth of Virginia and other groups.

It’s an effort that Mallamo led after a deal fell through that would have seen the Northern Virginia Regional Parks Authority purchase the home in conjunction with the city extending its lease on Cameron Run Park through 2036.

“I was looking for outside money while also minimizing the city’s financial support. I was looking to get it completely financed,” Mallamo said.

The benefit to the city is clear: The home can function both as a

A newer addition to the house, the kitchen is furnished with many antiques from Joe Reeder's personal collection (Photo Credit/James Cullum)
A newer addition to the house, the kitchen is furnished with many antiques from Joe Reeder’s personal collection (Photo Credit/James Cullum)

park and as a living, breathing museum in the heart of Alexandria.

“By purchasing a project that was not only for historic preservation, but for preservation of open space, it’s a dual benefit,” Mallamo said. “We have limited park areas in Alexandria. This adds a beautiful public space one block from our main shopping street.”

Under the agreement, Reeder is guaranteed lifetime residency in the Prince Street home. He would like to see the property maintained as much as possible and, if possible, used less as a museum with extensive foot traffic and more as a venue for research.

“Traipsing through with 40 school children on a rainy day would be difficult,” Reeder said.

Reeder said his friends in preservation claim the house is fragile and he worries that the home could require more maintenance than the city can afford if it gets the same volume of visitors as a museum housed in a modern building.

Mallamo said the city is also looking into the possibility of hosting classes at the home dedicated to numerous topics, such as historical cooking.

From a research and history perspective, there’s no doubt that 517 Prince St. is valuable. As Reeder points out, it’s one of the best examples of a home built in the 1700s that wasn’t owned by a member of America’s super elite, such as George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.

“Most of the buildings we have saved are ones belonging to people that had money,” Reeder said. “This was owned by a successful family, but not a super wealthy family.”

It’s the uniqueness of the home – owned by well-off merchants and businessmen who could afford to keep it in the family, but weren’t quite wealthy enough to extensively renovate it – that contributes to its value.

“It’s important for historians to see examples of that,” Reeder said.

Reeder sees a glory in the generations of Alexandria residents, including members of the Brown, Huff, Fawcett and Cheesman families, who passed it down from generation to generation. They were, after all, the reason the home has remained a glimpse into 18th century life to this day.

“By staying in the family, there was always a grandma to tell someone who wanted to renovate the house ‘leave it the way it is,'” Reeder said.

Mallamo said it’s that uniqueness that will benefit the city in the years to come.

“To have a building that’s lasted 245 years is nothing short of a miracle,” Mallamo said.

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