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One Woman's Opinion

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History of a House

Urbanna, Va. – I love old houses and every old house has a history. It is a good idea to assemble as much history as possible before it is lost to memory.

It was fortunate that I talked to the previous owner, Christian Willaford, about the history of our home, “RiverView” (I call it the “Pineapple Palace”), before he died of cancer last year. He shared information on this place that otherwise might have been lost forever.

Urbanna’s “RiverView” was built in 1950 by local lumberman Harold Barnes for his formerwife, Missy Marchant Barnes. Missy wanted to live near her sister, “Tootsie” Mills, who lived just across the street.

by Mary Wakefield Buxton

Barnes built “RiverView” of the very best materials, hand selecting each wide board of Virginia heart pine that went into all the floors, paneling and wainscoting. He even retrieved the antique mantel from the lobby of the old Saluda Hotel, which had recently suffered a fire, for the parlor.

During the 1960s, retired teacher, Bessie Mae Brown, who was hostess for Lord Mott Canning Co., occasionally used RiverView to host visiting executives here who had come to Urbanna on business and needed a place to stay.

Ironically, Bessie Mae Brown had been my correspondent for many years before she died; she started writing me in 1984 and kept in touch until she passed away sharing with me much history of Urbanna.

Before the house was sold, Urbanna pharmacist Richard Marshall and his wife Pat lived in it for several months after they were married. Christian and his first wife, the late Tillie Willaford, eventually purchased the home in 1962 for $16,000, which Christian said at that time was “a considerable sum.”

During the Marchant and Willaford years, many Urbanna people enjoyed fun parties here. Bill Grove, Jack Pitts, Gibbie Mangum and others have told me of the many teenage gatherings hosted by daughters Lance and Emily.

Charles and Betsy Bristow remembered seeing  American astronauts land on the moon in 1969 at a TV dinner party the Willafords hosted in the basement den that historical evening.

Christian Willaford was the town barber and had a shop in the basement to serve his customers. It had a staircase entrance from the backyard for his customers’ convenience. Many town haircuts came about in a room directly below my present office.

The Willafords turned their breezeway into a den and the garage into an apartment for Tillie’s mother.

Christian and his second wife, Fay, sold the house in 1985 to a Richmond physician who used it as a summer place before selling it in 1990.

The new owners added a large gallery with two French doors overlooking the garden, which was attached to the old garage apartment to create one gigantic room. They used this large space to house a collection of art and statues.

We had been living in a smaller house across the street since 1984. After “Isabel” struck in 2003 and took half our front yard,  we purchased “RiverView” and moved across the street.

We refinished the beautiful pine wood floors, painted the rooms in Colonial Williamsburg colors, added a new kitchen and laundry room, and refinished the bathrooms.

A favorite memory was when Rev. Scott Krejci, who was priest at Christ Church at that time, came over in 2004 to bless our new home. He walked with me from room to room. “Please, God, let Mary cook well in her new kitchen,” he prayed (a prayer especially needed). “Sleep well in this bedroom, and write well in her office.” He also prayed that we would be happy here. His prayers have come true.

The gallery was so massive I had no idea how to use it. When local builder Joe Heyman built a fine floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace at one end of the room, the room finally became livable. The old garage apartment became informal dining, the refinished breezeway-den became a kitchen, and the old kitchen is now a utility room where our golden retrievers, “Lord” and “Lady,” sleep at night.

In 2006 we purchased the home behind us, removed the fence, and incorporated both properties into one. “Sprout Cottage” now welcomes visiting children and grandchildren.

Our homes tell our history. Each house has its own story with its individual cast of characters. A new scene is played out in the rooms with every passing day.

As I walk through the “Pineapple Palace” today, I wonder who will be the next owners and what changes they will make to this lovely old Urbanna home.

Have a good summer! ©2009

(Mary’s column will return in September.)

posted 07.02.2009

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