By Margo Wagner | [email protected]
Early American history emanates up from the floor boards and echoes through the walls in Nancy and Danny Smith’s three-story brick townhome in Old Town.
The townhome, located at 401 S. Lee St., was built in 1798 and expanded in 1897. Caring for the home and ensuring its historical integrity is a priority for the Smiths.
“We took a great interest in historic preservation of this house and then more generally, of Alexandria,” Danny said.
Both Nancy and Danny have served as president of Gadsby’s Tavern. Danny is currently vice chair of the Historic Alexandria Resources Commission. Their impressive careers and love of restoration shine through every room in the house.
The first room in the home is a sunny sitting room. The walls are lined with books – some of which Nancy wrote herself – and mementos of the couple’s life together. The room shows off the couple’s taste and passion for early American history with a bright, airy and welcoming atmosphere. There is a handwritten note from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, a photo of Secretariat signed by his jockey and a painted portrait of the family dog. The cushioned couch and armchair invite guests to sit down and have a cup of coffee or a glass of iced tea.
“I was inspired to do everything very light, non-Williamsburg. I didn’t want anything too traditional,” Nancy said.
Nancy’s parents purchased the house in 1964, and she lived there while attending T.C. Williams High School. Her mother, Adrienne Koch, was a history professor, even teaching graduate classes out of the front room. Koch’s admiration for the Kennedy White House redesign inspired her to paint the walls in the living room and office light yellow and the ceilings mint green.
“Trust us, it’s really hard to get those colors right,” Nancy said.
The Smiths refinished the home again in 1999, restoring the floors and walls, redesigning the kitchen and updating the house.
In addition to restoring the house, Nancy had another mission: She wanted to make sure that the house felt livable and bright. She took pride in filling the home with comfortable furniture she purchased at auctions. As a teenager, she and her brother felt like the house was too dark and formal, so she replaced the heavy curtains and added lighter wallpaper.
“We didn’t want to live in a museum. We wanted people to feel comfortable in this
house,” Nancy said.
The floral wallpaper in the dining room was at first a point of controversy. The Smiths had purchased a hand-carved wooden chandelier from an antique shop on King Street. When they told the designer that they planned to put wallpaper in the dining room, the designer was insistent that it would not complement the chandelier. He asked Nancy to bring a sample of the paper into his store, and when she brought it in, the designer immediately admitted he was wrong.
The curves of the vines in the wallpaper mimic the arms of the chandelier, and Nancy’s attention to detail pulls the room together. The antique furniture fits perfectly into place, and the room feels like an 18th-century garden.
The dining room is completed with a Queen Anne Scottish dining set, a painting of Alexandria’s Market Square, a Peter Hsu painting above the mantle, a vase full of Nancy’s signature fresh flowers and a small horse statue, a nod to the Kentucky Derby parties the couple throws each year.
Just past the dining room is a small colorful bathroom. All of the fixtures were hand-painted in England. According to the Smiths, it was the most expensive room in the house.
“The bathroom probably took three months to get all the pieces here,” Danny said.
The kitchen is at the very back of the house. It is not part of the original 1798
structure but was added on in 1897. It is decorated with hand-painted backsplash and another Peter Hsu painting. The couple displays at least one painting by the water-color artist in each room.
The living room and library are upstairs. The light and cheery Kennedy-inspired color pallet is illuminated by a wall of east facing windows. Nancy and Danny’s affinity for collectables is evidenced by their array of tiny boxes and cranberry glass. The living room is also home to two carved tusks, one belonging to a 50,000-year-old mastodon and the other to a hippopotamus that died of natural causes.
The library is connected to the living room and shares a similar color pallet with more whimsical touches. The room is rooster-themed with a rooster printed couch, pillows and a rooster lamp. The library houses a large collection of works by William Faulkner, who shares Danny’s Mississippi hometown. The collection rests against a signed copy of Hellen Keller’s autobiography.
The historic touches carry to the exterior of the townhouse. On the north exterior wall, there are a variety of names and dates carved into the bricks dating as far back as the 1920s.
“People didn’t have any compunction at all about carving their initials and the date into the bricks,” Danny said.
Instead of writing thewall off as an eyesore, the couple enjoys searching for different names and dates. The wall has been embraced by the community and is often used as a backdrop for Instagram and wedding photos.
Next to the wall is a small strip of land, home to roses, azaleas and chameleons. The garden is popular among members of the community, and according to Danny, some neighbors stop by to smell the flowers every day. Gardening is one of his favorite hobbies, and he ensures all of the plants are well cared for.
“I grew up on a farm and I just can’t resist getting my hands in the dirt. But I have so little dirt I just have to manicure it just to keep myself occupied,” Danny said.
The Smiths love to share their home with the community, opening it up for the Campagna Center tour and auctioning off dinner parties to raise money for Gadsby’s Tavern.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, they canceled their Kentucky Derby party this year, but they are looking forward to the day that they can share their home with friends and family again.