By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
History is everywhere in Old Town, hidden under the feet of tourists and within the homes of residents.
For those who call Old Town home, rehabilitating a home that dates back to the 1800s is more than just part of the move-in process; it can be a passion project that brings out the best in both the structure and owner.
When Corinne Winburn first heard about 417 Prince St., she was told it was “a great project,” a fixer upper with a solid foundation.
“I fell in love with it as soon as I walked in. I saw that the bones were good,” Winburn said. “As I described it, it was a grand old lady that just needed kind of a facelift. It was just a stunning infrastructure.”
Winburn has lived at 417 Prince St. for about 19 years, but she has lived in Old Town for more than 30 years. Before moving to Prince Street, Winburn lived in an 11-and-a-half-foot wide historic wooden house on Gibbon Street and then another house on South Fairfax Street. All three of Winburn’s Old Town homes have been featured as part of the Virginia State Garden Club Tour.
Her most recent home wasn’t always the three-story beauty it is today.
When her family moved in, the floors were in terrible shape. They had to put hardwood over subfloors that “were so thin you could see into the basement,” Winburn said.
A brick wall on the second floor had to be broken down in order to connect it to the back of the house. The broad entryway that now welcomes visitors had to be cut open, replacing a tiny door that led upstairs. They even hired a craftsperson to recreate some of the original ceramic work in the living room.
“When we bought it, it was an old apartment building, and we had to convert it back into a single-family home, which meant a lot of construction work,” Winburn said.
Building something new out of the old bones of what came before is a creative challenge, Winburn said.
“It really is the creativity of taking something that needs to be adapted or rehabbed and creating something new, and it’s still sympathetic, so to speak, with the structure and with the community,” Winburn said.
Winburn has done similar creative work at 204 S. Royal St. She repurposed the space, which was originally the ballroom for the Concordia Hotel in the late 19th century, into a mixed-use event space and apartment that can accommodate 75 people.
Winburn calls historic preservation the ultimate form of recycling. It’s easier to tear down an old building and start from scratch with modern materials, but, especially in a neighborhood like Old Town, one runs the risk of losing centuries worth of stories.
The soul and character of Winburn’s house was made even richer when she hired historian Ruth Lincoln Kaye to produce a comprehensive history of the home.
According to Kaye’s research, the three-story building that now sits on the site was built in 1883 by a hardware merchant. During the 1880s, the 400 block of Prince Street was occupied by “folks of divergent backgrounds,” including a painter, a paperhanger, a cutler and a bank. The bank, which was two doors down from 417 Prince St., would become the state house for Virginia’s provisional governor during the Civil War.
“You bump into so many wonderfully interesting facts about the structure, the soul of the structure, when you’re in the middle of rehabbing it,” Winburn said. “I think that’s appealing to me too because I love history.”
Today, Winburn’s home has a kitchen, dining room, living room and entryway on the first floor; two full bathrooms, a bedroom, a back office, a library and laundry room on the second floor and Winburn’s master suite with a bedroom, private bathroom and dressing area on the third floor.
The garden behind the house, accessible through a back door in the kitchen, is enclosed by brick walls.
Similar to the rest of the house, the garden was a big project, Winburn said. Other than some crumbling brick walls, the garden was non-existent when the family moved into the house. The trees that now sit there were lifted in by crane.
In the spring and summer, the garden is a quiet, shady spot for relaxation, Winburn said.
“What’s great is that it’s an English kind of garden. I’ve put in a lot of shade-loving plants, lot of camellias, lot of boxwood,” Winburn said.
Inside, every square inch of Winburn’s home seems like it’s meant to draw the eye. Art and photography cover the walls.
“I have a really interesting collection of some beautiful paintings, a combination of contemporary photography versus traditional in this house,” Winburn said. “That’s what I love about my downstairs. I can just walk around and look at great images everywhere.”
A framed reproduction of the original lyrics to John Lennon’s “Imagine” that he hastily scrawled on a paper bag sits next to black and white photography, one of Winburn’s favorite modes of expression.
Some of the photos are Winburn’s own black and white photos from a trip to Africa.
But the majority are the work of Jack Leigh, a Savannah, Georgia-born photographer who Winburn called a close friend and inspiration. Several original Leigh photographs are scattered throughout the house.
Leigh’s work evokes the rich, unmistakable textures of the American South. Born in Virginia and married into a Georgia and South Carolina family, Winburn also has a deep admiration of and love for the South, she said.
“I think certainly marrying into a family that lived deeper south, being in Savannah and Beaufort, it influenced me tremendously in terms of historic preservation,” Winburn said.
Besides Leigh’s photos, some of that southern comfort has made it into Winburn’s house. A portrait of her grandmother, Virginia, sits on top of a dining room console, a gift from southern architectural historian Mills Lane.
Much like the South itself, Winburn’s home is the result of past and present colliding. It was challenging, but, as her friend originally said, it was a “great project.”
“It’s a challenge, but it’s not difficult for me. I seem to love looking at a space, going, ‘Ok, this is easy,’” Winburn said. “This might be a challenge, but it was a lot of fun actually.”