Henry Woodward and Anne Perrin now know much more about the history of their home.
That’s thanks to research by freelance writer / title examiner Betsy Biesenbach. Old homes appeal to her, as she wrote in a recent Roanoke Times op-ed piece: “Part of it is the history. Your home is not just yours. The generations of owners who lived there somehow seem to leave a bit of themselves behind.”
(Another benefit? “… it was built with long-lasting materials,” wrote Betsy. Usually, that is: A big ol’ chunk of my kitchen ceiling just fell down, so — coincidental to today’s topic — I’m up to my ankles in Old House Charm. My Higher Power is such a kidder.)
Betsy looks through court records, city directories, the internet, census data via the Roanoke Public Library’s Virginia Room, etc. For Henry’s and Anne’s house, she also consulted architectural historian Michael Pulice.
Owners, of course, also supply her with information — though “much of it is misinformation,” she wrote via email. She finds it fun to discover a kernel of truth to those oral histories.
So it was with some of what Henry had heard about his large, Queen Anne (think “gingerbread-y” Victorian) house on North Broad St. He and then-wife Martha (Marty) had been told during their 1986 purchase that the house had been built in 1864, but — as he had suspected, figuring the Civil War an unlikely time to build a big house — Betsy found no record of a building on the site as of 1890.
Betsy also seems to have sorted out which McClung built the present structure (circa 1893). Newspaperman / investor / Mayor William McClung listed it in wife Emma’s name. (He “had parents flog young miscreants in his presence,” kept the town “dry” and kept streets free of roaming cows.)
Nearly every room has a coal-burning fireplace.
Eventually the house fell into serious disrepair. In 1970 architect Huntley Houck and wife / interior designer Phoebe saw its potential, “with its grand staircase and high-ceilinged entrance hall,” and made major improvements. They might also have been the ones to add a whimsical cornice over the basement door; the basement might have been a springhouse under a porch (a creek runs through the back yard — and now sports a new bridge).
Jerry and Kate Forbes lived in the home after the Houcks; they sold it to the Woodwards. Henry and Marty refinished the heart-of-pine floors, and reared Owen and the late, dear Amy there (whose garden still flourishes under Anne’s care). Coincidentally, one of the Robertson sons (previous residents) taught now-scientist Owen AP Biology at Salem High School.
The 32-page booklet is filled with such tidbits; its cover is a color photo of the house. It opens with histories of the Roanoke Valley and Salem.
There’s also a section about the home’s “Monteiro” subdivision — linking back to a Portuguese count (“quite unexpected,” wrote Betsy) and the nearby “Monterey” mansion, now part of Roanoke College.
And about the proposed Valley Railroad, whose tracks would have run right through this quiet neighborhood; you can still see parts of the roadbed. (John Hildebrand’s “Iron Horses in the Valley…” on this topic is available in the Salem Museum shop.)
Betsy’s research-your-home offer was an item for the annual Unitarian Universalist Church auction. She charges $30 an hour, which can add up (“it’s cheaper if you live in a neighborhood [she’s] already done”).
Through she includes maps and a chain-of-title, she stressed that she is “not a real historian…with footnotes.” But by delving into hundred-year-old public records, which back then included very personal business, Betsy learns “about the lives of those who lived here before us.”
And she makes a house-history a good read.
For more information: Biesenbach2@aol.com.