Mark Wenger is an architect in Virginia and I’ve recently had the good fortune of working with him on the restoration at Montpelier. When Mark asked me if I wanted to look at another project, I jumped at the opportunity. To sweeten the pot, this new project was nested right in the heart of Williamsburg, Virginia. It will comes as no surprise when you find out the house had a great story to go with it.
A History of Bel-Mede
Bel-Mede was built around 1770 in rural South Hampton County, across the James River from Williamsburg. The house was the centerpiece of a farm that stayed productive for many generations. As you might expect due to its proximity to Richmond, it even had its own Civil War story. Supposedly, the family that occupied the farm feared Union troops would confiscate their food so they took all their hams to the attic and hung them from the rafters. Luckily the Yankees never showed up but that didn’t stop the hams from curing. Over time the fat dripping from the curing hams fell on the second floor ceiling until it collapsed.
Eventually Bel-Mede fell into such a state of disrepair that the land it stood on was considered more valuable for growing corn and the sturdy old house was scheduled to be razed. Lady Luck prevailed in the form of one Thomas E. Thorne, a Professor of Fine Arts and Chair of the Fine Arts Department at The College of William & Mary. He and his wife Lelia intervened and bought Bel-Mede, then began the task of dismantling it for moving. The house was placed on barges to cross the James River. It was then brought to a lot near the college campus for reassembling and became one of the focal points of one of the Garden Club of Virginia’s tours.
Restoring Old Hardwood Floors
Within recent years, new owners have sought to enhance Bel-Mede while keeping its mid-eighteenth century charm. Mark’s challenge to me was to restore the original wide width pine flooring that came with the house across the James River. The old finish was very dark and badly discolored. Luckily when I did my sampling to make sure Passive Refinishing® was appropriate, we got a glimpse of a beautiful long leaf yellow pine that had aged to perfection.
The work began in earnest shortly after the 4th of July this year. Collaborating with Mark was Peter Post out of Richmond and coordinating the various other trades was Jack Kniest of Van Kniest Construction. Our focus was on all of the original floors on the first floor level. There were issues to be dealt with on the second floor but they were cosmetic in nature.
The floors had been sanded before, most likely in 1947 when the house was moved. But sanding is really too kind a term; it was a brutal removal of old paint and finish that resulted in a huge loss of original material. With Passive Refinishing®, we were able to eliminate any additional loss of original material. As we exposed the old pine, we saw that none of the discoloration was in the wood. We also saw that most of the original wood went from one wall to the other without any breaks. This was an impressive sight to see.
The final phase of the project dealt with the application of clear oil sealers to the surface and blending some replacement wood added earlier that was out of synch with the color. By leaving the surface of the wood intact and not sanding, the aged pine puts on a colorful show when it starts the finishing process. After matching up colors, we completed the process by making four applications of finish. We were extremely pleased with the results.
Bel-Mede has led a charmed life for an old house. The stories it could tell would keep us up all night. It was around for the Revolutionary War. It was already nineteen years old when George Washington was elected president. When ham was being hidden in the attic during the Civil War, it was almost a century old. Now, the house sits in a quiet neighborhood within walking distance of The College of William & Mary. Because of the conscientious stewardship of the owners, Jim and Pam Penny, Bel-Mede is ready for another two or three centuries of watching America grow.
Let me leave you with a few final pictures of Bel-Mede. Our work experience was exceptional and you couldn’t as for a better place to spend a work trip on an old home than Williamsburg, VA.