By Olivia Anderson | [email protected]
D.J. and Nels Nordquist’s Duke Street home has seen a lot over the years, from renovations and transformations to historical figures and family gatherings.
While the home is now a simultaneously cozy and capacious space with a screened porch, dug-out basement and many years’ worth of memories, it once didn’t even have a front door.
“We’ve put a lot into the house. I jokingly say it’s like a fourth child, and it’s the most expensive one,” D.J. said. “ … It’s been a labor of love.”
The Nordquists, who have both held prominent jobs in the federal government, purchased the home in 2004, but they aren’t the first dignitaries to reside there.
The home is thought to have been built in 1787 by Elisha Cullen Dick, one of George Washington’s three physicians. Dick likely conducted his medical practice in the home’s basement, D.J. said.
The youngest of Washington’s physicians, Dick invented the tracheostomy. When Washington fell ill with the quinsy that ultimately killed him and needed care to restore his breathing, the by then former president’s other physicians opposed Dick’s desire to perform the procedure.
Dick, who was a mason, administered the masonic rights upon Washington’s death at Mount Vernon. He cut the cord on the bedroom clock, permanently stopping the hands at 10:20 p.m.
Yet Dick was not the only prominent historical figure – or physician – to reside in the house. In the late 1800s, it belonged to another doctor, Kate Waller Barrett, who gained attention in the early 1900s for founding the National Florence Crittenton Mission to support unwed mothers. In addition to her work as a philanthropist and physician, Barrett was a powerful voice in the women’s suffrage movement.
After delivering a speech at the 1924 Democratic National Convention as a Virginia delegate, she became the first woman whose name was placed in nomination for the United States’ vice presidency.
Whenever guests visited her home, Barrett would add another entire bedroom and bathroom for them to stay in, eventually filling up almost the entire side garden with 13 additions.
“It was this huge wooden thing that went all the way over,” Nels said. “We even found a toilet [hook up] in the garden.”
Barrett’s front door was attached to the addition, so when the Lewis family, who owned the home just before the Nordquists, took the addition down, they consequently took down the front door, too.
“To come inside the house, because there was no front door, there’s a gate on Duke Street and you had to walk all the way along the side [to reach] the front door,” D.J. said.
These days, the home looks much different. When the Nordquists bought it from investors, who bought it from the Lewis family in the early 2000s, they made several additions of their own.
The initial renovation was what D.J. called the “1820 addition.” When they moved in, the downstairs hallway leading to the kitchen was all exterior and part of the garden. The Nordquists converted the doorway into a cabinet and windows into archways; the curved wall that was exterior brick now leads to a hallway.
The first sight one might notice upon exiting that hallway and stepping foot into the Nordquists’ spacious Old Town yard, formerly Barrett’s side addition, is a massive catalpa tree. Around 135 years old and believed to be planted by Barrett, the tree is native to Virginia.
The Nordquists actually had researchers from Virginia Tech come out to measure the catalpa. The university confirmed that it is in fact one of the largest trees in the state.
“We’ve put a lot of resources into maintaining it and preserving it, because we just feel like it is our responsibility,” D.J. said. The Nordquists schedule an annual arborist visit and have attached a cable to the tree just in case it were to fall.
Also known as an Indian cigar tree, the catalpa dumps its ornaments every three to four months. In the spring, it drops fragrant, white, sticky blossoms and throughout the rest of the year it drops pods, D.J. said.
Tucked away in the back of the house is a screened porch overlooking the tree, yard, garden and water feature the Nordquists installed with the help of a landscape architect. The family likes to enjoy barbecues, parties and gatherings on the porch when the weather permits.
Another major renovation the Nordquists tackled was the kitchen, which involved rearranging appliances and adding a window to the left of the stove. The Nordquists believe this is the location of the old front door.
“When we went to frame it and they opened up the wall, they were like, ‘Oh there was a window here,’” D.J. said. “All the framing for a window was already there, inside the wall.”
There used to be a fully functioning fireplace in the kitchen, so the Nordquists decided to optimize the space and reconstructed it into the current stovetop. However, they retained a large metal plaque that was already there that reads “Virginia,” which Nels had powder coated.
The second story reveals the main reason why the Nordquists decided to create a side hallway. Upon reaching the top of the stairs, one would previously have had to walk through two bathrooms before reaching the study.
“We really needed a hallway,” D.J. said. “[The house] has definitely grown and changed.”
One such expansion took place on the basement level, where the Nordquists made their third major renovation. The basement originally had a dirt floor, which they dug out and transformed with two closets, a bedroom that formerly housed the family’s au pair and a bathroom.
Down the hallway, they also added a mini-kitchen with marble counters and a “movie room,” replete with a 3-D television. The whole process took about a year to complete.
“I mean, they were down here literally manually digging the dirt out with buckets, so it was six months of just digging. It was a long time,” D.J. said.
As proactive as the Nordquists have been with their renovations, the home’s real transformation is a result of their thoughtful personal touches.
The living room, for instance, is a comforting space filled with European and Asian antiques. Nels worked in the foreign service in the State Department and the couple was stationed in Thailand and France for about two and a half years each before having kids.
Along the dining room wall sits a built-in stark white bookcase adorned with various trinkets from overseas, including an elephant sword that ancient tribes in Thailand would use during battle. The shelf also features a 2,500-year-old drinking cup from Periclean Athens that the Nordquists got deaccessioned from a museum in Oxford, England.
“I’ve got all kinds of junk like that, lots of weird stuff,” Nels said with a laugh.
Some other examples of this “junk” include mirrors and 1500s-era paintings from the couple’s time living in Paris and a coffee table depicting a Thai battle scene.
From top to bottom, past to present, the walls of the Nordquist home contain centuries of stories – both historical and personal.
Not only did they completely renovate their Duke Street home, Nels and D.J. also raised their three children in it. D.J. recalled holding easter egg hunts when the kids were younger, where she and Nels would spread hundreds of plastic eggs all across the garden for them to find.
“I miss the days when the kids were little,” D.J. said. “There are a lot of happy memories. Obviously, that’s what you want when you’re raising a family; you want them to be happy in their home and comfortable and able to run around.”