A “Disneyland” for historians: Quirky and storied Revolution-era home goes on sale in Old Town

A “Disneyland” for historians: Quirky and storied Revolution-era home goes on sale in Old Town
A city archaeologist describes Joe Reeder’s home at 517 Prince St. as a Disneyland for historians. (Derrick Perkins)

Joe Reeder has the kind of roof local archaeologists dream about.

Actually, he has two, but it’s the one hidden from sight — covered by a slightly younger roof — and accessibly only by a second floor crawl space that gets historians excited.

In 1784 the owners covered the building at the corner of St. Asaph and Prince streets with a larger enclosure, but left a portion of the original roof where it remains today. It’s like Disneyland for researchers, said city archaeologist Pamela Cressey.

The house at 517 Prince St. maintains its original roof and shingles, above, encapsulated by a more modern roof. (Derrick Perkins)

“You look through this little door that looks like a closet, but you’re looking out at the original roof,” she said. “Wood doesn’t last very long in Virginia and usually when you build up you take off the original roof. This roof was encapsulated within [the home]. It’s like a doll house or something — you can’t believe it’s been left that way.”

It’s one of dozens of historical quirks in the unassuming home nestled in the shadow of the city’s courthouse. To the best of Cressey’s knowledge, the home, now on the market, was built sometime around 1775 when the property was just beyond Alexandria’s city limits.

Reeder, who had tree rings of the original beams tested, believes the home dates to 1772. Either way, several buildings stood on the lot when Patrick Murray built it: the home and a separate structure housing a kitchen and eventually laundry, smokehouse and overseer’s room. And then there’s the outhouse complex, with separate enclosures for slaves and free men, as well as for women and infants.

As further improvements were added, the home slowly enveloped the outbuildings, which eventually led to the house’s eclectic floor plan. Narrow hallways take a visitor to one of two parlors looking out onto Prince Street, the dining room with a view of a the rear lawn and St. Asaph St., an interior bedroom suite and the original kitchen where Reeder keeps the massive wood-fired hearth crackling.

After buying the home for about $850,000 in 2001, Reeder set about tearing up the old kitchen’s floors — laid down in later eras — in favor of the original wood surface, removing modern appliances and demolishing a relatively recently added bathroom among other renovations.

The historic house at 517 Prince St. has a massive wood-fired hearth that owner Joe Reeder keeps crackling. (Derrick Perkins)

Though difficult and expensive at times, the work didn’t bother Reeder, who felt an immediate attraction to the place. Almost from the moment he stepped in the door, Reeder knew he would buy the home.

“It didn’t take very long,” Reeder said, recalling he spent about 20 minutes in the house before making an offer. “I liked the character of it; I liked the antiquity of it … I had a sense of it being exceedingly old.”

But after a decade of work, the home’s become too expensive for Reeder. The tech bubble’s burst combined with the recent recession has forced the former Marine, real estate dabbler and businessman to cut costs and possibly relocate.

If he had it his way, Reeder would spend his final years in the farmhouse. But he doesn’t and the centuries old building is back on the market.

Reeder’s realtor, Paul Anderson of McEnearney Associates, expects an aficionado of American history with a passion for entertaining visitors will fall for the $1.8 million historic home. He wouldn’t be surprised if the new owner already lives in Old Town.

“There are other people living in 18th century houses in Old Town that have kept rooms or entire floors of the house completely true to the period … Somebody like that will be interested,” Anderson said. “It’s got, basically, historic fabric from all the eras. You can see vestiges from the people who have lived in the house through years.”

In the meantime, Reeder hopes a change in fortune will let him keep the home or an area historical organization will take him up on the offer of a discounted sale — with the caveat of allowing him to spend his remaining time there.

“I prefer to give it away and live here,” Reeder said simply, rocking back and forth in front of the hearth.