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New Clues from an Old House

Lee-Fendall House reveals mystery and offers hints.

The recent renovation of the Lee-Fendall House on Oronoco Street has uncovered new facts about the old house. Some of the findings shed light on life in the past while others have created fresh mysteries, puzzles from a distant past when Alexandria was a young port city and the intersection of Oronoco and Washington was known as Lee Corner.

"There's always something to investigate," said Executive Director Kristin Miller Lang. "A house is not a static being."

The process of renovation, which started in January, was the intemperate child of necessity. It all started in 2003, when the wainscoting in the main passage separated about one inch from the wall. Lang decided to take a closer look at the structural integrity of the house. She had a large 19th-century chest of drawers moved from the family parlor, which was on the other side of the wall where the wainscoting had shifted. That's when she noticed a large bulge in the parlor wall. The house had a major problem.

A team of historic preservation experts was summoned, and the project commenced. Lang ordered the wood paneling removed from the central passage, and then a mystery appeared: a brick wall. There in the central passage, Lang stood in awe at the 1785 bricks. She had never seen an interior wall that had been made of brick, nor had any of her colleagues that preserve historic buildings from this era.

"It's a mystery," she said. "Nobody knows why the builder used brick for an interior wall. It's actually great in the summer because the room stays really cool."

AFTER THE SHOCK wore off, the probe continued. That's when the work crew who was looking at the old house delivered some shocking news: the summer beam had been almost destroyed by termites. It was hollow, endangering the house and everybody in it. Had the problem not been addressed soon, the result could have been catastrophic.

Lang went into action. She started raising money for a restoration campaign, the most extensive refurbishment the house has seen since 1850. Replacing the summer beam — a $100,000 task — is only one part of a five-year process. The entire capital campaign will cost $500,000.

Now that the beam has been replaced, the house will re-open for tours on April 15, but guests to the Lee-Fendall House will see extensive renovations that will bring central air and heat into the 18th-century structure, upgrade the outdated electrical system and reinterpret the early Victorian appearance of the house.

Modern technology has revealed new insights into the 1850s appearance of the house: wallpaper. According to a scientific analysis, most of the public rooms had wallpaper on every wall. Some rooms had wallpaper on the ceiling. Lang is now working to find suitable replicas to use in the house and raise the funds necessary to purchase them.

In the 1850s, which is the era interpreted by the museum, the house was owned by the Cazenoves, one of the most illustrious families in 18th-century Alexandria. Louis Albert Cazenove, an Alexandria native, was a local businessman who imported goods for local retailers. His business travels took him all over the world, so he had access to wallpaper from London, Paris and Milan.

"One of the challenges we're going to face is that the Cazenoves [were] the largest importers in the area," said Lang. "The wallpaper could have come from anywhere."

Another find that Lang has made during the restoration is evidence of a stairwell that led from the central passage to the basement. Nobody knows who used the stairwell, or how it was used. It led to a basement that was partially finished, a mystery in itself. Nobody knows what the purpose of the room was in the 1850s.

THE FORENSIC HUNT for an accurate wallpaper reproduction will benefit from the magic of science. As microscopic samples from the house continue to be examined, more clues are likely to surface. The museum is working with Frank Welch, a Pennsylvania scientist who specializes in historic restoration. As the flotsam and jetsam of the past yield their secrets, Lang will be there to make sure that the new information is used to interpret Victorian-era Alexandria

"Our goal is to restore this house to its 1850s appearance," said Lang. "This renovation will reinterpret most of the period rooms in the house."

The process of renovation will continue for the next five years, a time in which the Lee-Fendall House will became a 21st-century version of an 1850s house — a contemporary museum with all the amenities of modern life and the charm of a distant past. As the renovations projects continue, visitors to the house will witness the process up close.

"We want people to see historic preservation firsthand," said Lang. "Hopefully, visitors will understand how we're doing the restoration and what's included in the process."