By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
If history is a work in progress, Michael and Victoria Vergason’s Old Town home has gone through more than 200 drafts.
The brick façade of 808 Prince St. looks like any number of other Old Town residences, and, like those homes, it has plenty of history and charm. But stepping across the threshold, through the 227-year-old boot-scuffed door sill, is another story.
It’s a story filled with a century-spanning cast of characters – French merchants, doctors, a former mayor, Confederate officers and even a Washington – who have all left their mark on the Vergasons’ home. And the Vergasons are no exception.
Michael, an award-winning landscape architect who has worked on projects at Mount Vernon, Washington National Cathedral, Monticello and the Virginia Theological Seminary, and Victoria, owner of vintage barware shop The Hour, have taken a historic home and avoided making it into a museum. The period appropriate details are still present, but Michael and Victoria have imbued their home with a warmth and familial intimacy through touches both significant and subtle.
“It’s how I feel about my vintage barware: It’s beautiful to look at, but [you should] drink out of it. That’s how I feel about this house. Yes, it’s beautiful and it has history and has character and good bones, but it’s meant to be lived in,” Victoria said. When Victoria toured the house in 1998, all she knew was she wanted to live in Old Town. She said she didn’t expect to connect with the house on such an instinctual level.
“I was a recent divorcée and living in Chevy Chase, and I wanted to get a new vibe on life and decided that Old Town was going to be it,” Victoria said. “It was the first house I walked in, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, I love this house.’”
The more Victoria learned about the house, the more she fell in love. Morgan Delaney, a third generation Old Town resident and president of the Historic Alexandria Foundation, was the previous owner and had taken care to chronicle the history of the house in great detail.
“Everything was done as it was back in 1795 in that period. It’s a house that’s got a lot of history,” Victoria said. “I’m a history buff, so it sings to my soul.”
First constructed around 1795, the house was originally owned by Thomas Jacobs, a French merchant. Later, during the Civil War, Robert Barry, the mayor of Alexandria at the time, resided in the house, followed by Liza Washington, daughter of John Augustine Washington III, the great-grand nephew of George Washington. She lived in the house between 1870 and 1910, and it has since become known as the Liza Washington House. During that time, since Washington married Robert Hunter, a former Confederate officer, the house hosted former Confederate Gen. Fitzhugh Lee and Col. John Mosby.
Eventually, Delaney bought the house and hired Paul Buchanan, the architect who had overseen Colonial Williamsburg for more than 30 years, to renovate the property.
Since moving into the house in 1998, Victoria has made few changes, for both practical and aesthetic reasons, to what Delaney did to the home. The doors, which were painted by the White House’s painter, still have the same faux painting style as the doors at Mount Vernon. The living room mantelpiece is largely unchanged, still shining white, depicting a scene straight out of Greek myth. Even the window latches are the same kind that were used in the late 18th century.
A series of renovations and projects over the years have transformed the once humble brick home into a sprawling assemblage of 12 rooms spread over four floors. There are 10 fireplaces, including one in the kitchen that Victoria occasionally uses to cook with, a small garden and even a greenhouse, now a bar room, that was added in the 1980s.
“I love … the juxtaposition of scale between the older part and the newer part,” Michael said. “This [newer part] has a wonderful intimacy to it with the ceiling heights and the room sizes.”
According to Victoria, every detail and story helps her feel more connected to a home she has lived in for more than two decades.
“As a retailer now, I love the fact that I have a shop on King Street and the house I’m living in was originally a shop,” Victoria said. “There’s something that’s just extraordinary about that.”
Victoria met Michael a month after moving into the home, and he was also in awe of Delaney’s renovations.
“It was so beautifully done in every way, in terms of the materials and detailing and the authenticity but also just the aesthetics of it,” Michael said. “Morgan had extraordinary taste in terms of his eye and decisions.
“There are certain rooms that are white, but … I live in my kitchen. I want it to feel warm and cozy. Not many people paint their ceilings persimmon, but I wanted persimmon,” Victoria laughed.
A second floor living area became a master bedroom, while the bedroom that was originally adjacent to the living area became a bathroom with a large tub in the center. Two bedrooms on the third floor were largely untouched, but a fourth-floor attic was made into a play area for the Vergasons’ triplets.
“It was really beautiful, and I hope that I just made it more homey, but I didn’t want to touch a whole lot because it was just gorgeous,” Victoria said.
While the Vergasons took a light touch with the inside of their home, they opted for a more adventurous approach with the garden and outside of the home. Michael used the same philosophy he does with any of his professional projects – creating designs that fit into the context of the space and refuse to call attention to themselves – but with a more experimental edge.
“I did a lot of stuff here that was great fun for me because it was stuff that I would be hesitant to do for somebody else because it was things that tested the limits of materials and details,” Michael said. “… It has a quiet, contemporary flair within that historic setting, but it is a significant change not just within the pavings, but the plantings over what was here when we came in.”
Michael and Victoria made a moss garden raised a few feet off the ground using lightweight steel. Water bubbles up through the garden and then drains into a runnel that flows down into what used to be a rectangular koi pond but is now a pot of water and separate garden.
“[The garden] is very orthogonal, very ordered, very classical. The one oddity is the angle of this runnel, and that was done on purpose to add a little dynamism to it and to kind of give you a false perspective that draws out the garden, makes it look a little longer,” Michael said.
Michael and Victoria have added more than style to their home; they’ve added memories.
“I think we’ve added to the texture of it,” Victoria said. “… We got married here, the babies were baptized here. Everything, we’ve done it at this house.”
On their wedding day, Michael floated the wedding rings down the runnel he had constructed, and their oldest son, who was the ring bearer, caught the rings before bringing them up to his parents. The ginkgo trees that the Vergasons planted as saplings on their wedding day have grown and now fill the garden with shade and color.
As time has passed and the ginkgoes have grown, the Vergasons’ relationship with their home has remained a constantly enriching one. The difference between a house and a home is memories – the birthday parties, movie nights, Thanksgivings and daily rituals that contribute to a sense of belonging and ownership.
Perhaps it’s why when asked about his favorite memories of the home, Michael thinks about a single image: their kitchen bookshelf, illuminated with the faint glow of an overhead light, viewed from outside in the garden during twilight. “It is the color and the texture and the warmth of the place,” Michael said.
“It’s a bit disembodied from what I know it is, but it is just that clipped view. Whether there’s any activity in there or not, it’s a wonderfully enticing view.”