Oh boy, do we ever have a house for you today! This is the sort of house that Open Housing was made for, and we're really excited to share it with you!

There's a particular block in Old Town that is home to some of the most historic and beautiful old houses in the city. It's located in the 200 block of Prince Street and is called "Gentry Row." Some of Alexandria's most famous and important early residents built and owned houses in this historic block, and it seems these homes never appear on the market with any regularity. Even rarer are these homes ever held open for the home tourists (like us) to see. This weekend one of these Gentry Row homes happened to be on the open house list, and there was no way Wendy or I were going to miss it!

The house I'm gushing over was built in 1784 and boasts three bedrooms and one bathroom, spread over three floors. Houses of this age were typically built as very small homes and grew with additions over time as the inhabitants' needs required change. From the front of the house it is a modest and attractive Federal style row house that has seen its fair share of alterations. Though the facade appears largely intact, the evidence of flaking paint and a paint outline around the door and off center cement stoop point to some of the changes which were probably added and removed over the years.

Entering the front door you expect a staircase to greet you, but instead there's just an empty hallway with a door on the opposite side that exits to the back area of the house. I was surprised there weren't stairs.

The photo above is my photo of the space, but the listing's wide angle lens from the other end of the hallway gives a much different perspective.

To the right of the entry hall is the home's main living space and modest parlor. The ceilings are surprisingly high in this room, especially for the age of the house, but the room is actually much smaller than the wide angle lens leads you to believe. That being said, it's not a bad type of small, it's just more cozy than anything else. The fireplace is functional and the large front windows let ample southern light into the room.

The second room in the home, and originally the furthest back the home went, is a nice sized room with some great original details. 

The floors throughout this and other rooms are absolutely beautiful antique pine of varying widths.

The home's central stair is in this second room and is a winding stair that makes somewhat efficient use of the space. This staircase is far more typical of the style of stairs you'd see in a home of this age than the grand staircases with large banister in more grand homes. This tells me that this house was probably built for someone who was working class and didn't have has much money to throw around on grand gestures. This style of stair made it much easier to heat the home, as it cost less to keep the heat on the floor you wanted it to stay on. 

We also loved the fact that there seemed to be storage pretty much everywhere you turned, like this nook under the main staircase. It was like a Harry Potter door!

The listing states the home was "renovated" in 1972, but I think that renovation consisted of the addition of various dental crown moldings and the addition of the back kitchen (though the kitchen space could have been added in 1920s or 1930s). 

I think you can see from the photo, the kitchen requires some updates...

Apparently the home has been used as a rental for quite some time, and up until two months ago, it had a tenant, so the lack of a nice kitchen is not incredibly surprising.

The staircase back in the middle of the home is tight and winding, and the second floor "landing" leads you forward to a very large main bedroom.

The ceiling height in this room is surprising, and equal to the room on the first floor (if not higher). Where the first floor has the entry hall to eat into the front room, this bedroom is the full width of the house.

The room's fireplace is also functional, and the fireplace wall houses some great original details.

The rear of the second floor is the home's only bathroom, which looks to have been added out of necessity. Obviously the house didn't have a bathroom when it was built, so this does look a bit like it's out of place.

The third floor is by far the most interesting aspect of this house's layout, or perhaps it's a 2nd and 1/2 floor. Mid way up the stairs to the third floor the stairway branches off to the back of the house with a rather large step up (as Wendy demonstrates).

This leads to a second bedroom that would be pretty amazing as a home office or kids play room. It's funny, this room's door is far shorter than Wendy, but the room is plenty tall for full size adult people. 

There's even a closet off of the room towards the front of the house, and this really cool window looking out over the back of the house and neighboring roofs. 

Back out of the hobbit like door, you continue up the stairs toward the true third floor (or is it now a 4th floor?). When we reached the front third floor bedroom we were shocked at how much space there was. The room was equal size to that of the second floor's main bedroom, which is a complete surprise.

Looking back form this room I saw that detail that I absolutely LOVE in Old Town homes, the odd angled and interesting staircase. That's the hobbit door straight ahead and the tiny window to the left looks into the hobbit room's closet. This leads me to believe that the tiny room built as the 2nd and 1/2 floor was added on after the home was originally built, but from the look of the interior of the room, it is still probably early 1800s.

The architectural items throughout the house are a mishmash of hardware and doors from different periods. It's interesting to see 18th century doors with early 19th century locks and late 19th century or early 20th century knobs.

You might think this is the end of our tour, and if it were, this is already a spectacular house, but there's one more thing I want to show you. Though you can't access it from the interior of the house, there's a large iron bulkhead door you can open to descend into the basement, down the wooden ladder that happens to be missing its second rung (so be careful). And when you're down into the dark basement with the stone foundation, this is what you see.




I almost don't have words. 

The uneven floor, clutter, utilities, handing wiring, random piping, doors, oil drum, all this stuff. 

It was literally unbelievable. I can't believe places like this still exist in Old Town. Part of me just assumes everything has been renovated, but this gem still exists!

As you can see, this home is a special place that is very much in need of an owner that has the time, money, and desire to do this renovation the right way. If a flipper or developer buys this place and does a quick update it will be a true modern tragedy. This needs extensive planning, methodical research, full restoration, and a dedicated soul. 

While writing this blog post I've been brain storming what I'd probably do if we somehow owned this house and were planning on spending the next several years decades working on it. After much thought and deliberation, I think I know how I might handle the renovation. Here's my shot at it. 

One of the major drawbacks of this home is the last of backyard/outdoor space. It's surrounded on all sides by other houses and properties, and the backyard is limited to just a few feet of narrow storage space. This may be shocking, but I think I'd remove the kitchen addition from the rear of the house to reclaim just a little bit of outdoor space.

However, with the kitchen removed, you have no kitchen in the house. This is where the large and decidedly unfinished basement comes into play. The basement offers a tremendous amount of potential. It spans the whole footprint of the house, and with the odd entry hall, you could add a stair of some sort just beyond the front door. It might be a little unorthodox, but it would turn the basement into an indoor space rather than simply being accessible from outside. 

With access to the basement, and quite a bit of work, you could turn the basement into either a full living area with half bath, or a half bath and kitchen. I actually think I'd take the living space and keep the kitchen on the first floor, placing it in the second room with the stairs. 

I would keep the room layout of the second floor intact, and do some major upgrades to the second floor bathroom, and I would turn that 2nd and 1/2 floor room into a great home office.

The third floor main bedroom could then be divided a bit and a full bathroom added to that room. It wouldn't be quite as spacious, but it would work beautifully as a guest room (or even master).

A renovation like this would leave you with four full finished floors with three bedrooms and two and a half baths with a modern kitchen and separate living area in the basement. It would still be quite a strange floor plan, but this is quintessential Old Town in an almost 250 year old house. To be totally honest, I'd love every moment of working on the house (even the ones I would truly hate).

Now for our game...

Would You Trade?

Alex: Hardest decision I've ever had to make on a "Would you trade?" I'm going to have to say "No." GAH, Wait, did I just say that? What's my problem? It's over 200 years old, most ideal location in all of Old Town, beautiful, historic, intact, not ruined, so much potential! Why wouldn't I trade? What's my deal? 

I want to say yes, I really do. But the layout just isn't as functional as our house, there's no yard to speak of, and no parking. BUT I LOVE THIS HOUSE! I want this house. I wish we were somehow being forced to trade our house for this house, and I'd just willingly go along with the trade, but it can't be a permanent house, it just isn't practical enough. Okay, so I guess my answer is "maybe if I were being forced I'd be okay with it." I just wish we he enough funds to buy this house and work on it for a while. I want to become an Old Town house collector so I can buy this house and love it and restore it and make it wonderful! 

Wendy: Well, although this house has amazing potential, gorgeous curb appeal, and a location to die for, no, I wouldn't trade. Our floor plan is much more conducive to everyday living, I've come to love our (modest) outdoor space, and I wouldn't give up parking. I've also been living in a renovation for the last decade, and really love living in a comfortable home that has a lot of projects, rather than living amongst a lot of projects in an effort to make it a comfortable home. Fingers crossed that someone with a passion for restoration is the next owner. We'd love to see what they come up with!

If you'd like to see additional details, they are available on the home's official listing page.

Interested in reading about other interesting homes for sale? Want to offer your take on "would you trade"? Check out the Open Housing section of Old Town Home.

Photo Credits: Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage and listing agent, Donnan Wintermute, where MRIS is noted in watermark.

Comments 17


Kathryn Howell Dalton
5/20/2013 at 1:58 PM
Love it! Missed the open house - so glad to see your review. What a gem-to-be!
Bummer that you missed it! Yep, it was a really cool property, but in need of the right person to give it TLC.
5/20/2013 at 2:09 PM
i love that you guys love the weird staircases, tiny doors, and creepy cellar storage space! i hope whoever buys this home appreciates the quirks, too!
Those are typically our favorite parts of old homes! We're still hoping one day we'll find a hidden passage in our house. :-)
Tiffany Washington
5/20/2013 at 2:34 PM
really cool house. i think, actually, that modest staircases were the norm at that time regardless of the dwellers' occupations. it wasn't until a bit later when grander staircases were being built in homes of much more significant sizes.
Neat! Thanks for the correction and insight on this, Tiffany!
Lisa Johnson
5/20/2013 at 3:34 PM
NO! And I say that with the utmost saddness. I too toured the house yesterday,and was very upset by the condition it had fallen into. The dryrotted floor joints and spongey floorboards, are beyond repair the crumbling foundation, and bricks might be able to be salvaged and remortered. I think the only safe way to live in the house is if the entire inside is gutted down to the outer bricks and brought back. It is WAY to far gone, and the wiring is all silk- knob and tube- YIKES, fire waiting to happen.
BTW- according to the "Alexandria Bible" as I like to call it- the house had a wooden Hat Shop in the front originally. It was torn down in the 1800's and the front room, and the two above it were added in brick. From what I know about renovation, it would be my guess that this is about a 750K-1Million dollar job just to bring this up to livable standards.
Lisa Johnson
5/20/2013 at 3:47 PM
Sorry- forgot to mention the real title of the book- "Alexandria Street by Street Directory"- It is invaluable to all who love Old Town houses and their history. Bought my copy at Carlyle house, but they are sold in many of the gift shops. Truly the Alexandria Bible of real estate!
Thanks for providing the book's name -- I was going to ask! We own that one as well and refer to it all the time for information.

For anyone else who's interested, here's a link to it on Amazon: amzn.to/13CGg45
5/20/2013 at 9:25 PM
It's a nice example of early Federal architecture. The staircase is interesting - enclosed staircases tend to be a feature of northern Federal era construction (Philadelphia through New England). I can't imagine how difficult it would be to move furniture up those stairs!
I've also seen this style of staircase quite a bit in local Virginia and Maryland farmhouses. I'm willing to bet that there was once a door that closed off the upper stairs a few steps up. I think at a certain point you either build all of your furniture in the room or you take out a window and just hoist it up from the street.
Virginia Hughes
5/21/2013 at 7:17 AM
Even thought there is no outdoor space at the house, Old Town begs you to come out of your home. Not the same as your own yard, but perfect for strolling. You can't say that for a lot of places.

The first place I usually look is the basement. It holds the skeletons, just like a family. Thanks for posting pictures of this as well.
This is so very true about the wonderful outdoor spaces in Old Town. It's nice to have your own area, but it isn't like you have nothing if you don't have your own.

The basements are always omitted in the online tours, and that always makes me sad, so I try to make sure I take a photo or two. Clean, messy, dark, or finished, the basement is often my favorite part of old homes.
5/21/2013 at 5:02 PM
The part I'm a bit confused about is the foyer. It does seem extremely odd that it's just an empty room with no staircase. I also wouldn't know what to do with this space. It seems too narrow for a large clothes armoire or any other piece of furniture, so you're limited to just wall-hangings, and maybe a narrow hall-tree. The room just seems like a waste of space.

I'm also confused about where the door directly across from the front door leads to. From the photos, it looks like the dining room with the staircase is just past the living room, with the kitchen just beyond that. I also see that the door in question has a deadbolt. Does it lead straight outside to the back "yard"?

I actually find that the kitchen doesn't seem too bad. I quite like 1920s and 30s kitchens, but I know from experience that they are not always in the best shape up-close. The bathroom, however... yikes.

I'm also 6' so that short door where Wendy is posing would probably need to be enlarged. I guess it could also be kept as-is, depend on the likeliness and frequency of head-bashing from use.
That door does go right outside into the narrow alley that runs along the side fo the dining room and kitchen. It's very strange, but might have made more sense before there were neighboring houses. Wendy suggested that she might like to turn the back half of that hall into either a half bath (closing off the door), or perhaps a mud room with marble floor. In either case, it's a better use than what's there right now.
5/21/2013 at 5:57 PM
Too bad I didn't win the big Powerball jackpot -- I'd have set you guys up to save and work your magic on needs-love old houses in OT Alexandria while my husband and I would do the same in Petersburg.

I can totally relate to your immediately coming up with all kinds of possibilities to make the home more functional and beautiful, while retaining all the charm. While what flips my switch is early twentieth century homes rather than the 18th century ones that enthrall you, I go through the same process when looking at a neglected diamond-in-the-rough. I can come up with tons of ideas on how to reconfigure spaces, modernize without looking modern, and in general give an old house the love it deserves! It is heartbreaking to see what most flippers do when the let their unimaginative minds run wild (doubtless because they're only seeing the dollar signs).
Hey, if we can't win a $600 million jackpot, your plan sounds like a pretty darn good one and we'll root for you. We often have those thoughts of "what if." Not just lottery, but what if suddenly we're Scrooge McDuck rich and swimming in a money bin, what would we do. Both of our minds immediately run to all of the great houses we'd buy and fix up. It would be a lifelong project that I hope would be very fulfilling. We'd surely invite all of our friends to use them whenever they want.
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