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Venerable home saved from the ravages of time

When they came across Rock Stop Farm in Caroline County, Phil and Kathryn Fitzhugh weren’t looking for a house as much as they were for land to establish an organic farming operation.

They certainly weren’t looking for an old house that would need to be restored before they could live in it.

But life doesn’t always follow the intended path; nevertheless the Fitzhughs couldn’t be happier with the way things turned out.

“We are history buffs,” said Kathryn Fitzhugh, which explains a lot about how things progressed.

The house that sits on the property they bought dates to 1791. Its Rappahannock Academy location is historic as well, along Hicks Landing Road just off Tidewater Trail and not far from the Rappahannock River.

The derivation of the name “Rock Stop” is unclear, but it may have some relation to a rock formation in the river and the steamboat traffic that carried tobacco and other goods downstream to the Chesapeake Bay and north to Baltimore.

In any event, the house had seen better days. It might have even made sense to raze it and build new. But history buffs think twice before doing something so rash.

So last summer they sought out a contractor to help determine whether the house was worth saving. Enter Dan Spear.

Spear’s company, Spear Homes of Virginia, has built a lot of new homes in the Fredericksburg area, but in recent years the struggling economy gave him the opportunity to pursue his other love—old homes. He’s turned his property along Courthouse Road in Spotsylvania—Stevenson Ridge—into an events venue and virtual village of reconstructed historic structures.

He also restores the old homes of clients looking to retain the historical nature of their homes with salvaged and repurposed materials.

“To be able to save a place like this makes a great statement about the owners’ willingness to do it,” said Spear.

Spear determined that while the Fitzhughs’ house appeared decrepit, it was structurally sound and worth saving. He put the job in the hands of Dan Hannah, his historic-detail-oriented superintendent, and Ray Haney, a craftsman for Spear for the past 20 years.

RETAINING FLOOR PLAN

The original house was a standard two-over-two with a center hall and English basement. The basement had always held the kitchen, and that’s where it would stay.

“We thought of moving it upstairs, but we’d seen how it had been done in London,” said Kathryn Fitzhugh. “If they’re still doing it in London, we can do it here.”

The new kitchen, by Absolute Kitchen & Bath of Fredericksburg, has a rich cherry wood-topped island, granite countertops, cream-colored cabinetry and stainless steel appliances.

Above the kitchen fireplace, a portion of the original brick wall was left exposed.

Over the years, additions to the main level were built—one dating to the 1920s—and Spear said he found evidence that the structure was one and a half stories at first and raised to a full two stories at some point.

“It’s fun when you find those things,” Spear said.

A screened porch had also been added to the rear at some point.

There are two chimneys, each fed by three fireplaces stacked atop one another on the three levels. Safe Chimney Co. of Orange was called in to work on them. One quake-damaged chimney needed to be rebuilt.

The beautiful floors are mostly the original heart pine and required little more than light refinishing.

Spear called on Craig Jacobs of Salvagewrights Ltd. in Orange, his favorite resource for historical parts and materials.

The house needed to be gutted, but all possible trim and features were preserved and eventually put back in place. The old bead-board ceiling of a carport, which was converted into living space, was saved to become wainscoting in the basement dining room.

“It’s amazing the light that comes into the basement now that we’ve cleaned the windows and removed the bushes,” Spear said.

Some historically sensitive changes Spear made were to add salvaged pocket doors between the foyer and the left parlor, and to replace the main entry with a handsome double door taken from his own collection.

He also noted the original curved handrail on the main staircase, which would have been a straight piece of wood that was softened with steam and bent into shape.

HIDDEN SURPRISES

Once they got behind the walls, Spear said he was surprised at the differing levels of craftsmanship in the construction. He ended up needing to do significant structural work on the house as well as installing new plumbing (with tankless water heater) and electrical systems.

Phil Fitzhugh pointed to “before” pictures that show joists that were cut into by as much as two-thirds to run pipe, compromising their structural integrity. They were replaced and properly reoriented.

Given the impossibility of fitting ductwork within the framing, Spear and the Fitzhughs opted for Mitsubishi wall-mounted heating and air conditioning units. The house was sealed with a new Tyvek envelope and new insulation.

The exterior siding is LP SmartSide engineered wood clapboard. It pairs nicely with the new brickwork that was dusted with paint to help match areas of the original brick.

A new standing-seam metal roof was added, an ideal choice for the historic structure. French drains have been installed to avoid the use of gutters and downspouts.

The restoration cost exceeded the $250,000 they paid for the entire 25-acre property, Phil Fitzhugh said, but the land remained key to the deal.

“We’re getting land that hasn’t been treated chemically for 40 or 50 years,” he said, which is what you’d want for organic farming.

Kathryn said that with Spear’s help, the entire package has come together perfectly.

“We’re thrilled with our piece of history,” she said.

Richard Amrhine: 540/374-5406

ramrhine@freelancestar.com 

ROCK STOP FARM THOUGH THE CENTURIES

The recorded history of the property known as Rock Stop Farm dates to 1722, when Richard Buckner gained title to 4,500 acres along the Rappahannock River that included part of what is now Fort A.P. Hill. He served in the House of Burgesses from Caroline after the county was established in 1727, and died in 1733 or 1734.

The plantation house is believed to date to 1791, according to history compiled by Alex Long, the real estate agent who listed the property. He found deed records from 1839 that indicate it was owned by Champe Brokenbrough Thornton, who lived in nearby Port Royal. He didn’t reside at Rock Stop except during the Civil War, when he moved his family there for safekeeping after the town was threatened with a Union gunboat attack.

In 1866, Thornton passed Rock Stop to his son, Champe Brokenbrough Thornton Jr. He sold the property to the Motley family.

Before World War II, the estate was bought by Helen Hull Jacobs, a tennis champion who won five Grand Slam championships between 1932 and 1936. She won at Wimbledon once, and was the runner-up five other times.

The property was bought in 1959 by U.S. Army Col. Philip St. G. Cocke IV and his wife, Emma Arntzenius Cocke. Emma Cocke retained the property after her husband’s death, and lived there until she died in 2005 at 92.

—Richard Amrhine

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