Overlooking a small pond and surrounded by trees, a small burgundy cottage is tucked away in Colonial Williamsburg, just steps away from the Williamsburg Inn.
From the front, the outside is unremarkable: There are only two dark, 12-paned windows at the front corner of the building, and everything except the white trim is washed in deep burgundy paint. A multi-flue chimney straddles the roof line in the center of the house, surrounded by pine needles and debris from the trees.
The house built in 1946 has quietly sat vacant since 2015.
This summer, the cottage moved to the center of a debate the city has faced since Colonial Williamsburg demolished downtown buildings to make way for the Historic Area restoration.
The question: How does the city preserve its existing 19th- and 20th-century buildings, which are now in short supply?
“A lot of that history was taken away when Colonial Williamsburg restored the Historic Area and Merchants Square,” said Carolyn Murphy, Planning and Codes Compliance director. “A lot of those buildings got demolished… That’s why it’s important to have [these demolition guidelines].”
Called Bucktrout Cottage in city documents, the 900-square-foot burgundy house on Bucktrout Lane was the subject of a demolition request by Wells Fargo, the trust manager for the Virginia Haughwout Estate.
Wells Fargo made a request to the city’s Architectural Review Board in July to demolish the building, saying restoring the building would not be “economically feasible” and that it has no historic or architectural value. The house is not on the National Register of Historic Places, but is eligible.
“All of the value of the property is in the land,” said Luis Portal, senior real estate asset manager for Wells Fargo who filed the demolition request, at a City Council meeting. “The building itself is worth maybe $70,000.”
Colonial Williamsburg voiced an interest in potentially buying the land, Portal added.
The board denied Wells Fargo’s request in July, and City Council upheld the decision upon appeal Sept. 12.
The property was part of a slew of historic land owned by Virginia Braithwaite Haughwout, who created the Bucktrout-Braithwaite Memorial Foundation in 1954 to help preserve historic sites she owned, according to news archives.
The foundation, through Wells Fargo, requested the demolition permit.
How it works
Much of the city is in one of three Architectural Preservation districts, which come with additional protections for historic buildings to ensure history isn’t erased.
About 40 percent of the city is not in any preservation district, Murphy said.
When a demolition request is filed, city staff will collect information on the structure and any “deficiencies” that can be seen from the exterior.
The cottage is in an Architectural Preservation District, meaning it must receive approval from the Architectural Review Board before it is demolished. If appealed, City Council can either uphold, modify, or reverse the board’s prior decision.
If City Council also denies the request, the case can be appealed again to the local circuit court.
Murphy said Tuesday she had not heard any word about whether Wells Fargo planned to appeal the case to the circuit court.
Portal, with Wells Fargo, did not immediately respond to a request for information by email.
There is another option, however.
Wells Fargo has already tried listing the property for rent and was unsuccessful, but has the option to put the house on the market for sale at “fair market value.”
Murphy said that fair market value would be discussed between the seller and city’s assessor to ensure it is listed at the proper price.
If the house doesn’t sell in 12 months, it can then be demolished, Murphy said.
Recreation of 18th-century Williamsburg
The city’s Chapter XI of the Design Review Guidelines details the impact of the foundation’s restoration efforts, which began in 1927 and resulted in “a high level of demolition activity within the last eighty years.”
“.. [D]emolition has removed a sizeable portion of the City’s post-Colonial era historic fabric,” the chapter reads. “Historic resources, which are especially threatened, are from the city’s depleted supply of Victorian and early twentieth century buildings. These non-colonial historic buildings contribute to the City’s character and are evidence of the City’s evolutionary process between the colonial period and the present time.”
At least 68 percent of residential, commercial and accessory buildings in various parts of the city have been demolished since 1930. In some areas, such as the one bounded by Virginia Avenue, Richmond Road, North Boundary Street and the CSX railroad right-of-way, demolition losses were as great as 84 percent of buildings.
The city’s Comprehensive Plan, which was finalized in 2013, also discusses efforts to preserve history other than colonial history after Colonial Williamsburg’s “extensive restoration effort.”
“While many associate Williamsburg’s image and history with the restored colonial capital, Merchants Square, the Colonial Parkway and the College of William & Mary, there are also many other buildings and neighborhoods that have evolved over time,” the comprehensive plan reads.
“These contribute to a sense of history as well as to the visual character of the community, and enhance the setting of the Colonial Williamsburg Historic Area.”