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Peeling Back the Layers

Blenheim estate is being restored to its original look.

Among the large scrawls of graffiti on the parlor wall at the Blenheim estate is a small, neatly written name: Benjamin D. Wheat.

He was born in Washington, D.C. and moved with his parents to Indiana, said Andrea Loewenwarter of the Blenheim Research Committee. Wheat first enlisted in the First 19th Indiana Infantry, but after awhile switched to the 4th New York Cavalry. But in late October 1862, she said, Wheat deserted the Union Army, taking a horse, military gear and arms with him.

"That happened a lot," said Loewenwarter. "Soldiers deserted and then came back."

The over 100 signatures that adorn the walls at the Blenheim estate provide an invaluable glimpse of Fairfax's history, said Loewenwarter. They were inscribed in three different periods during the Civil War, from early 1862 before the second battle of Manassas to summer 1863, just before the battle of Gettysburg. In the fall of 1862 to the spring of 1863, the house was a hospital for soldiers with infectious diseases, she said, so Union soldiers were always coming through the house.

"Really, what we want to do is to people these names," said Loewenwarter. "It's not just writing on the wall, it's the experience of soldiers," she said.

It is intriguing to guess why the Willcoxons left the graffiti in the attic mostly untouched, said Loewenwarter, since they were themselves Confederate sympathizers.

"We are really trying to talk about the everyday experience of war at Fairfax Court House and in that vicinity," she said.

"It was no different than soldiers today that come through and make their mark," said Chris Martin, historical resources director for the City of Fairfax.

THE SIGNATURES also require extra care in Blenheim's restoration, said Martin. The restoration will bring the house closer to its original look and still allow visitors to have a sense of what Blenheim, built by Albert Willcoxon in the late 1850s, was like throughout its history. Restoration crews have removed a kitchen addition to the side of the house that was built in the 1950s, restoring the house to the original Greek vernacular architecture and central-hall layout. Where the kitchen once stood will be a set of bulkhead doors in the ground, like a root cellar the original house would have had.

Also, said Martin, crews are chipping away some of the modern Portland cement previous owners used to patch between the bricks and replacing it with a more breathable and historically accurate mortar. Likewise, the asphalt-shingled roof has been replaced with a zinc-coated copper roof, which is both accurate and environmentally friendly, he said.

Inside the house, later residents added amenities such as electric lighting, new molding, and wallpaper, and modernized the original fireplaces. The electric lighting will stay and will become overhead museum lighting, said Martin, but the molding and fireplace additions are being removed.

"We have removed a lot of later wallpaper and discovered layers upon layers of various residues and paints," he said. Certain parts of the house have up to five layers of paint or wallpaper on the walls. One area is lined with 1890s newspaper sections, another painted with a faux-wood varnish common in the mid- to late-19th century, while another bears a 1960s-era wallpaper in mustard yellow. Right now, Martin said, conservators are doing analysis of paint samples to get the right finish for the original wall. However, he said, Blenheim was brand-new when the Union soldiers occupied the house.

"The soldiers wrote on unfinished plaster," said Martin. "The house was like a blank canvas for the soldiers."

WHILE THE WALLS on the first floor are mostly covered with signatures and a few drawings, Blenheim's attic is famous for its prolific drawings and poems.

The interpretive center, which will sit far behind the house on the estate's 12 acres on Old Lee Highway, will replicate the attic drawings. Although budget concerns on the part of the City Council caused the interpretive center to be smaller than originally planned, the center will still incorporate the attic replica, information about the signatures, a small gift shop, meeting room, storage and office space, and even a small kitchen, said Hildie Carney, chair of the Blenheim Committee. The center will allow large groups and people who would have difficulty accessing the attic to view the signatures, she said.

When the house is finished in 2007, the first floor will be interpreted as three different time periods. The parlor will be decorated and furnished to show what Blenheim looked like in the late 19th century and to document the Willcoxon family history, while another room will be interpreted as if it were under occupation by Union troops. In another room, visitors will be able to see the process of uncovering the signatures and learn what it takes to restore a historical structure.

"We want to tell the whole story," said Carney. "We want to tell the story from when the property was purchased."