How to sell ‘this old house’: Owner, realtor talk Lee boyhood home strategy

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The exterior of 607 Oronoco St., the boyhood home of Robert E. Lee (Courtesy photo)
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By Alexa Epitropoulos | [email protected]

Each of the 43 layers of paint on the walls of the Robert E. Lee boyhood home at 607 Oronoco St. had a story to tell.

The home’s owners, Mark and Ann Kington, were drawn to the dwelling because of those stories – and they uncovered them layer by layer upon buying the operated house in 2000. The couple purchased the home from the nonprofit Lee-Jackson Foundation, which it used as a museum, for $2.5 million.

The Kingtons weren’t looking for a new home at the time, Mark Kington said. They were on the verge of renovating their house at the time, which was located on South St. Asaph Street.

The two, nevertheless, took up the offer to view it from a friend involved with the nonprofit.

“It didn’t look like [it does now]. The walls looked like they hadn’t been painted in 30 years. It was gloomy and gray, but as we walked through, you could tell that this was a significant house and, architecturally, that’s a lot of what we were drawn to,” Kington said. “It’s an 18th-century house and that spoke to us.”

The living room of the 18th-century home at 607 Oronoco St. (Courtesy photo)

Kington said, in particular, he and his wife were impressed by how intact much of the fabric of the home remained.

“The house is very pure. There are a number of places where it’s not the original fabric, but in many, many places it is the original fabric, which is unusual for Alexandria because
if you look at Gadsby’s Tavern, the woodwork in Gadsby’s Tavern is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” Kington said. “… I thought if we’re going to spend the money, if we’re going to go through the effort, maybe we should consider saving this house. It’s a more significant house. It’s an expensive process. Maybe this is worthy.”

Eighteen years later, the house is on the market once again – this time, for $8.5 million. Kington said the move just made sense for them. Their children have moved out of the house and the two found the house’s more than 8,000 square feet to be excessive for two people.

“For two people, it’s a lot of house. We’ve thought about it for a couple of years and talked to our neighbors about it,” Kington said.

The price tag itself is lofty, however, especially for the North Old Town neighborhood. It’s the most expensive house on the market in Alexandria, according to Zillow, and the next most expensive house – a $5,250,000 home on South St. Asaph Street in the desirable Southwest Quadrant – is several million dollars less.

Kington, however, said the price reflects the amount of money he and his wife have spent on renovations.

“We have detailed records on everything we have spent to get to this point and if you’ve looked at all the checks we’ve written to restore this house … it’s almost exactly where we would be if we sold it for the asking price,” Kington said.

“When we bought it, the front steps were in structural failure, the side wall was in structural failure. I was convinced as soon as we closed that the wall was going to fall on someone.”

The Kingtons have replaced the roof, repaired the outside stairs, removed 43 layers of

The kitchen at 607 Oronoco St. (Courtesy photo)

paint, rebuilt and replaced original windows and restored interior fixtures. During their time in the house, they also conducted a Historical Structure Report, which is available in local libraries and the Library of Congress, and commissioned Historic American Building Survey drawings.

During the nearly three-year process to restore the home, the couple drew a number of conclusions about the house’s history. They speculate John Potts and his business partner, William Wilson, built 607 Oronoco St. as a spec house.

They also discovered, during the paint removal process, that an early layer of paint on the home’s mantelpiece was black. Though they haven’t found hard proof of this, they speculate that the house’s owner, William Fitzhugh, a close friend of George Washington, painted the mantelpiece black while mourning Washington’s death in 1799, as
was tradition in Alexandria at the time.

Washington himself was a guest at the home a number of times and even stayed in the home with Martha Washington the month before his death.

“We live in the midst of all this history and it makes you appreciate it,” Kington said.

Robert Hryniewicki, one-third of Washington Fine Properties’ HRL Partners, said the history of the home, its features and its size make it stand out. 

“This is an authentic period house. Those are difficult to find in this condition. This is not a renovation – this was a labor of love, a restoration, a reconstruction,” Hryniewicki said.
“The new owner who is going to come, all they’re going to have to do is decorate because all the systems have been updated. Mark and Ann have done the heavy lifting, so now buyers can come in and make it their own.”

When asked about the challenges of selling a home in this high price bracket, Hryniewicki said it all comes down to marketing – something, he said, they have done through print campaigns and online marketing. The house also attracted significant local media attention when it was listed two weeks ago due to its connection with Lee.

“It’s really about exposure. It’s about trying to look for that buyer who is going to appreciate all the salient features, appreciate the historic significance. We don’t know where they are – they could be local, they could be national,” Hryniewicki said.

“For our marketplace, we know that 75 percent of the time, listings over $4 million are [sold to] local buyers. … It’s not going to be someone that’s coming from Paris or Berlin to buy a second home.”

Hryniewicki said HRL Partners is looking to find the person who will buy into the rich history

One of the home’s bedrooms (Courtesy photo)

of the house.

“I think, ultimately, what we’re looking for is a buyer who wants to be house
proud, who can appreciate the historical significance of the property,” he said. “You’re talking about George Washington, the founding father of the country, saying ‘Yeah, he slept in the bedroom upstairs.’ Where else are you going to be able to say that?”

As for the Kingtons, they plan to stay in Alexandria after the house sells. Mark Kington said the two are ready, however, to part ways with their historic property.

“It’s going to be a bittersweet moment, but we’re the 15th owners and we’ve done what we wanted to do,” he said.

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