Unpuzzling the Past

Unpuzzling the Past

Homeowner digs into history of city home.

It’s the Google era. Type in a word or phrase and an overload of information appears in seconds. A few minutes later and the relevant Web site or article is usually found. Print. Search complete.

Fairfax resident Peter Nissen had no such luck with his search into the history of the carriage house he owns on Roberts Road. Google had never heard of his property.

When Nissen bought the carriage house in 1993, he said that he was only mildly interested in its history. Over the years, older, local residents would relate to him their various memories regarding the property.

“An older woman who’d been going to [Fairfax Christian Church] a long time said that before the church was built, the [carriage] house was associated with a big house,” Nissen said. He later discovered that the big house had been turned into a nursing home before the church bought the property and tore it down. This was his first big clue.

Although the carriage house was added on to when it was turned into a residence and later divided into two apartments, the original portion of the house remained intact.

Nissen’s research began about a month ago when he decided to sell the property and move back to his hometown, Seattle. “I’ve fallen for a girl and she lives in Seattle,” he said.

When Nissen experienced difficulty in finding a suitable buyer, he decided to investigate its past. “Once I started, I became obsessed,” said Nissen. “The research is addicting and a lot more fun than I thought it would be. It’s like figuring out a puzzle."

THE SECOND PIECE of that puzzle came from librarian Karen Moore, who works in the Virginia Room at the Fairfax City Regional Library. Nissen told Moore what little he knew about the main house once attached to his carriage house.

"Phone books are a librarians secret weapon," Moore said. “I remembered going through an old phone book collection … and seeing the ad for the nursing home. I remembered it was the house with the big porch that is now a church,” Moore said.

Armed with a photocopy of the ad for the Singing Pines Nursing Home, Nissen went to the Fairfax Museum and Visitors Center, where staff member Trang Nguyen helped Nissen make another discovery. “My back was to the picture on the wall [in the museum] and suddenly [Nguyen] pointed to the picture of the F. W. Richardson house. I turned around and said ‘Holy crap!’ That was it.” The original carriage house was visible behind the main house in the picture.

Nissen took this information to the Fairfax Court House historical archives where courthouse employee Sandra Rathbun showed Nissen how to utilize the various resources available. "[Nissen] started with the most current land deeds and worked backwards," Rathbun said.

Nissen’s persistence paid off. “Three prominent and very different figures own[ed] the property around the turn of the 19th century in [Fairfax] city,” said Nissen. F. W. Richardson was clerk of court in Fairfax and in 1910 purchased the property, consisting of 6.8 acres, including the carriage house, from Barbara Ford for $11,000. Barbara Ford was the widow of Frank R. Ford, the younger brother of notorious Confederate spy Antonia Ford, Nissen said. It was Ford who built the main house and its surrounding buildings after he bought the 6.8 acres of land for $638 from Andrew Sagar in 1895. Sagar, namesake for the local Sagar Avenue, was a farmer originally from New York and an abolitionist who fled with his family back to New York during the Civil War. He returned to Fairfax in 1865 to find a Union fort and stockade on his land.

Nissen commented on how amazing it was that these divided people were able to bury the hatchet and make these business deals after the war. Ford was a Confederate whose older brother was killed in the war, yet he bought property from Sagar, a known abolitionist who voted not to secede from the Union.

"There are a number of mentions … and examples of intimidation in southern claims. There is a voting poll where three names who voted [not to secede] were crossed out, the votes changed to yes with a note 'vote changed by request of voter,'" said Brian Conley, historian and photo archivist for Fairfax City Regional Library.

THE ORIGINAL PORTION of the carriage house also weaves a story. Nissen points out large hinge pins still visible around the massive front window signifying that it used to function as the door where the carriage entered and exited. A smaller window in the second story was once the door to the hay loft.

"There was a definite chain of people adapting the building, showing ways the [carriage] house changed over time," Nissen said. It was a carriage house, a barn, a garage and a very small residence that was later expanded and divided for renters, then reunited into a whole house by Nissen.

The pieces of the puzzle are coming together for Nissen, but the trouble now is stopping, since each new piece of information leads to new and more intriguing discoveries. Nissen advised anyone interested in solving his or her own puzzle to have a plan and be creative. "You meet some interesting people along the way who get excited about the project," he said. "The research is harder than you think, but don't give up. It's amazing how you figure out truths that seemed impossible at the beginning."