A Washington, D.C., DIYer Restores a Victorian-Era Beauty
Aaron Rinaca on his 1880s house in the heart of the nation's capital.
From our interview with Aaron Rinaca (shown above, left, with partner Alec Johnson):
I’m definitely hands-on. I have to have a project. Every condo or house I’ve lived in in D.C. has been a project.
Up to this point, I had done very open-concept, very modern houses. This house has changed my mind from that. It’s simple in its elegance. The house was designed in the Italianate style, so it has that traditional Victorian Romanticism. It’s got elements of a Midwestern country farmhouse look, which is kind of beautiful.
The building permit for the house was pulled on my birthday—same day, same month—in 1880. We think the builder, or at least the architect, was James McGill—he designed all the architecturally significant houses in this neighborhood, LeDroit Park. The neighborhood was originally designed in the 1870s as a gated, whites-only community on what was at the time the edge of Washington, D.C., next to Howard University.
The house’s first owner was a pioneering geologist, Charles Abiathar White, who lived here with his family until about 1908. Then the house was purchased by Fountain Peyton. He bought it as the neighborhood was becoming racially mixed. Peyton had been born into slavery in Stafford, Virginia, before escaping to D.C. with his mother, Mary.
He studied law at Howard and became a successful lawyer in D.C. He wrote a book about Ira Aldridge, a famous African American Shakespearean actor who died in 1867. I found an original copy of the book in a rare bookstore in New England, and I keep it on the mantel.
The third owners of the house were Councilman Frank Smith and his wife, Winifred. Frank was a D.C. councilmember for this ward for a number of years.
They sold the house to a developer around 2015. The developer gutted another house in this neighborhood and turned it into condos. My guess is that this one would have met the same fate. But the house was put up for sale.
It took the better part of two months of negotiations for me to buy it. I stretched beyond all reasonable stretches, from a financial standpoint. That was in the summer of 2016. The basement had a separate rental unit that the previous owner had built out, and job one was refinishing it so I could have the rental income from that. I was able to do that work myself.
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From there, it was the most critical projects first, such as the porch. It had extensive water damage from the leaking roof. I ended up just pulling up the original wood, restructuring the porch, and replacing the termite-infested wood. The original wood for the porch floor was Douglas fir, and it’s a size and width you can’t really find today. I found a mill in Oregon that would mill it to the right dimensions. Then I replaced the railing caps and had the bottom halves of the columns, which were rotting, re-created by a carpenter. We removed the concrete steps that had been added and rebuilt it to what, as much as I can tell, would have been the design of the original steps.
I had the house’s main roof replaced with Buckingham slate from the same quarry as the original roof, in the original pattern. It was one of those things where, if I’m going to spend the money and I plan to live here for my lifetime, I don’t want to ever have leaks or to put another roof on anything. So I decided to do it once and do it the right way.
Now, it’s one room at a time. I’m going through and refinishing the windows, then going back and doing the things that are less obvious, like baseboards and doors. To refinish one window takes me about a month of working on it, nights and weekends, in between my actual job in marketing technology.
I’ve redone the staircase—all the rails, the runners, the stairs. The original pine floors on the first level have all been refinished.My partner lives here with me. And then we have a roommate who lives here in the house as well. The income from the basement tenants and the roommate all goes to pay the mortgage on the house. Then there are the utilities, which surprisingly enough are not that terrible.
We sit on the porch Friday and Saturday evenings. I bought the church pew out near West Virginia and restored it myself. It’s a fun old piece that fits in this shallow porch.
I have zero regrets about buying the house. I wasn’t sure about it at first, from a design and aesthetic standpoint.But the neighborhood has an incredibly rich and interesting history. The more I learned about the house, the more I wanted to respect that history. And then I’ve also learned so much just about Victorian hardware and construction methods.
It’s little stuff, like finding out that the beams for the second floor don’t rest on anything. They span the entire house, like 25 feet, with no inner support. Those beams, the floors, and the millwork are all heart pine from old-growth pine trees, which you can’t get now.
Today you get soft pine and it just doesn’t age well. The golden color of the wood in this house—you just don’t get that anymore.