Friday, February 3, 2023

Historic Yorktown home struggles to find new life

The historic Cole Digges House in Yorktown is up for lease, but business owners in the area are wary of moving there because of the cost of maintaining a historic building. (Alexa Doiron/WYDaily)
The Cole Digges House in Yorktown is up for lease, but the cost of maintaining the historic building could be an issue for small businesses, according to former tenant Glenn Helseth, owner of the Carrot Tree Kitchen. (Alexa Doiron/WYDaily)

In Historic Yorktown, the Cole Digges House sits on prime real estate.

It’s on the top of a hill. It overlooks the York River. 

But there’s no one inside to enjoy the view.

“I was really upset to have lost the lease in the first place,” said Glenn Helseth, co-owner of the Carrot Tree Kitchen, which was in the house until January 2014.

After more than a decade of leasing the structure, Carrot Tree Kitchen vacated the premises and moved to a business complex down by the water; the National Park Service, which owns the building, had raised the value of the house and nearly doubled the insurance evaluation, Helseth said in a recent interview. 

At the time, Helseth was unable to renegotiate a new concessionaire’s contract with the park service. A 10-year lease ended in 2012 and was extended for another year when Rep. Rob Wittman and Senator Mark Warner contacted the park service. After the extension expired, Carrot Tree Kitchen moved.

“We loved that house, it was almost 300 years old, it was a really rich, old building,” said Sue Conlon, manager of the Carrot Tree Kitchen.

Helseth isn’t giving up, though. He plans on trying again, but needs to familiarize himself with a new lease proposal, he said.

Glenn Helseth spent 13 years at the Cole Digges house before his business, Carrot Tree Kitchen, had to move in 2013. (Alexa Doiron/WYDaily)
Glenn Helseth spent 13 years at the Cole Digges House before relocating his business, Carrot Tree Kitchen. (Alexa Doiron/WYDaily)

Because the house is part of the National Park Service, there is a request for proposals, a type of bidding process for businesses interested in leasing in a historic area, and the terms of a lease can be more daunting than for a regular lease, according to Marilyn West, owner of Auntie M’s American Cottage on Waters Street at Yorktown Beach.

At first, Helseth found the conditions restricting. He had to maintain the premises in good condition, with his own time and money, and the expense of operating in a historic home could be difficult for other small businesses, according to Helseth.

Repair costs included items such as window repairs and broken groundwork, according to Helseth.

He also couldn’t insulate the windows to lower energy expenses during the winter, Helseth said.

Still, there seems to be something about the property that draws people in.

Helseth remembers being in a California airport when strangers mentioned to him how much they loved the Cole Digges House. 

“I’ve probably never worked so hard in my life,” Helseth said. “But it was also the most satisfying work I had ever done.”

Looking to the future

In the past few years, there have been minor renovations to the property, such as new doors and window trimmings, that may appeal to prospective tenants on Tuesday, during a site visit of the property scheduled for 10 a.m. to noon, said Becky Eggleston, Management Support Specialist for the National Park Service.

Until 2003, the structure was known as the Pate House when it was changed to reflect evidence of it having actually been owned by the Digges family in the 1700s, according to the historic structures report from National Historic Parks Service. (Alexa Doiron/WYDaily)
Until 2003, the structure was known as the Pate House; the name was changed to reflect evidence it was owned by the Digges family in the 1700s, according to a historic structures report from the National Park Service. (Alexa Doiron/WYDaily)

“We are excited about the possibilities for the use of the building and hoping it is something that would keep with the historic character,” Eggleston said.

One local resident, Ellen Raffeto, said in an interview she was sad to see the Carrot Tree Kitchen leave its long-time spot, especially because its new space is much smaller and lacks the same atmosphere. 

While the small kitchen made working in the house extremely difficult, the property still has a special atmosphere and public appreciation that makes it worth it, Helseth said.

The Cole Digges House was built around 1720 by Thomas Pate, a local ferryman and tavern keeper. The house survived the Siege of Yorktown in 1781 and the Civil War.

Now, visitors can enter the backyard through an iron gate that opens to the back side of the house, where there is a small outdoor patio. The backyard is next to a small graveyard and is closed in by a brick wall with moss growing along the edges.  

But inside, the home is empty.

The home has been available for lease since March 14 and interested businesses can attend the site visit tomorrow from 10 a.m. to noon, according to Becky Eggleston. (Alexa Doiron/WYDaily)
Prospective tenants can visit the site Tuesday from 10 a.m. to noon, according to Becky Eggleston, Management Support Specialist for the National Park Service. (Alexa Doiron/WYDaily)

Eggleston said she isn’t sure why it has taken so long to find a new tenant.

“Everyone loved going to the Cole Digges House because of the atmosphere,” West said. “So it’s sad to see nothing there now.”

WYDaily archives were used in this story.

Alexa Doiron
Alexa Doironhttp://wydaily.com
Alexa Doiron is a multimedia reporter for WYDaily. She graduated from Roanoke College and is currently working on a master’s degree in English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Alexa was born and raised in Williamsburg and enjoys writing stories about local flair. She began her career in journalism at the Warhill High School newspaper and, eight years later, still loves it. After working as a news editor in Blacksburg, Va., Alexa missed Williamsburg and decided to come back home. In her free time, she enjoys reading Jane Austen and playing with her puppy, Poe. Alexa can be reached at alexa@localvoicemedia.com.

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