A Lexington, Virginia, Farmhouse Is Restored Using Period-Appropriate Methods
Miller-Knick House, Lexington, Virginia
OWNERS: David Buckner and Anne Riffey-Buckner
BACK STORY David: [Anne and I] met when we were both working at the United States Naval Headquarters for Europe in London. We very much wanted to retire in the U.K., but we decided that if it got too expensive living over there, we better have a plan B.
So we drove down the Shenandoah Valley until we got to Lexington, and thought it looked like a pretty good place. The U.K. did get too expensive, so we rented outside Lexington for a year while we looked for a place to buy there.
Anne: We chose the Shenandoah Valley because I have family roots in the northern end of the valley; I remember visiting there as a child. But [that part] wasn’t as mountainous as David wanted, so we kept going south, and Lexington fit the bill. It’s a wonderful community. We wouldn’t live anywhere else.
We preferred a house that had been left untouched. This place was remarkably intact. We did an inventory of the windows and discovered that 75 percent of the glass was original.
FOURTH GENERATION Anne: Our house is a basic, two-story Shenandoah Valley I-house with two rooms on either side of a central hall. It was built in the 1840s by the Millers, who owned it for two generations. In about 1909 it was bought by the Knick family.
By the early 20th century, there was a railhead here in Lexington. It’s astonishing—all these rural hamlets deep in the country had access to a working railroad system that could connect them with places like Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
The Knicks made it through the Great Depression, but the second generation sold it in 1978. [We bought it] in 1993, so it’s been in four sets of hands. We have been preliminarily approved for the Virginia Landmarks Register, where it’ll be listed as the Miller-Knick House.
AGAINST THE GRAIN Anne: The property has seven buildings and was initially about 200 acres. Now it’s 10 acres. Across the road, we’ve got a barn and two equipment sheds. On this side, behind the main house, there’s a spring house, and behind that is the old hatching house for the [chicken] hatchlings—it’s now a furnace house. Then across from that is a granary that’s now David’s woodworking shop.
David: The granary started off as a one-room schoolhouse located about a mile and a half from here. In the early 1930s, when the county built a new central school and started a school bus program, all these little one-room schoolhouses became [obsolete], so they were sold. The Knicks purchased this one, took it apart, and moved it to its present location. You can still see schoolkids’ carvings on some of the clapboards.
LOCAL TALENT Anne: We found a roofer who can duplicate the standing-seam metal roof that would’ve been popular in the early 20th century. Originally this would’ve been a cedar shake roof, and you can see remnants of the rafters that supported it up in the attic. But everyone switched to standing-seam roofs at the turn of the century.
We had historic paint finishes consultant Matthew Mosca do a paint analysis of the principal downstairs rooms. He was able to determine what colors to use on the walls and the woodwork downstairs. He also told us that the baseboards in the living room had been marbleized, and the doors had been faux-grained.
And we have a brick mason and stonemason, Michael Barry-Rec, who can duplicate the color of the original mortar. We’ve been blessed with local craftsmen who really understand old houses and can duplicate the techniques that were utilized in 1840.
HANDLED WITH CARE David: As we’ve been working on the house, it’s obvious that it was hand-built. You can see plane marks everywhere, except for the window sashes. We figure they ordered the sashes from Baltimore, and the glass was probably delivered along with it and installed here.
But we think all the doors were made on site, all mortise and tenon, and they are as tight and as square as the day they were made. I’m a pretty good woodworker, but I would be hard-pressed to duplicate that kind of craftsmanship.
Anne: The bricks were made on the property. We know where they were fired, slightly uphill from the house. And the nails are all cut nails [a shape and style typical to the period]. A lot of hard labor went into this house.
SELF TAUGHT David: When we bought this place, there was a lot of woodworking that needed to be done. I’d always been interested in tools, so I taught myself. We’ve got our own planers and joiners and table saws.
Anne: David restored 30 sashes and made 13 interior wood-framed storm windows. He would take the sashes out of the window frame, find bits of rot along the rails or the muntins, cut them out very precisely with chisels, and craft new pieces of wood that fit the profile of the wood that he removed. He has an enormous amount of patience.