Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Dora Armistead House finds new life and historic recognition

The Dora Armistead House has now been added to the National Register of Historic Places. (WYDaily/Courtesy Dennis Nordstrom)
The Dora Armistead House has now been added to the National Register of Historic Places. (WYDaily/Courtesy Dennis Nordstrom)

On a street corner in Downtown Williamsburg sits a yellow house with no stairs.

While the house is outside the historic area, the structure has drawn breath during the Victorian era, welcomed guests during Colonial Williamsburg’s reconstruction and has even traveled miles in the modern day.

Now the house is once again coming alive and continuing its history.

The Dora Armistead House, originally constructed in 1890, was added to the Virginia Landmarks Register in June. But even without recognition from the register, it has become part of Williamsburg’s local history for years.

“It’s important because it’s a rarity,” said Carl Lounsbury, an adjunct professor or architectural history at William & Mary. “Williamsburg didn’t fall asleep in 1780 and nothing was built after that time. [Colonial Williamsburg] did a great job of effacing the next 120 years of history so in that sense it reminds people there was a Victorian period of architecture here.”

Cary Peyton Armistead, a lawyer and head of the local Democratic Party, built the house for his family in what is now the historic area of downtown Williamsburg near the Capitol Building, according to register documents. The house was constructed on a colonial-era piece of land formerly known as the Richard Charlton’s Coffeehouse, which posed a problem when Colonial Williamsburg started reconstructing the colonial area.

“That building stood there and seemed out of place with colonial architecture,” Lounsbury said. “And it turns out, the Armistead family who owned that house…had been thorns in the side of Colonial Williamsburg for at least three generations.”

After Cary Peyton Armistead died in 1901, his unmarried daughters, Dora and Cara Armistead, lived in the house while the street around them transformed into colonial history. Throughout their lives, until Dora Armistead died in 1983, the family held onto the property and refused to sell to John D. Rockefeller Jr. who had torn down all of the structures around them.

As a result, the Dora Armistead House has become one of the few surviving homes of the Victorian era.

The Armistead heirs leased the house in 1985 to the Association for Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, now known as Preservation Virginia, and the home was decorated with Victorian styles by Laura Ashely, Inc. With the new decor and history of the house, it was operated as a Victorian-era museum in the colonial historic area. 

After generations of antagonism between the Armistead family and Colonial Williamsburg, Judge Robert T. Armistead decided to gift the house to Colonial Williamsburg in an effort to save the house, Lounsbury said.

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and the Armistead family came to an agreement the house would not be destroyed, but rather relocated. The foundation removed the house from the land in 1995 and wheeled it a mile down the road to North Henry Street, where it was believed the architecture would be better suited.

“It took three days to move it,” said Lounsbury, who was senior architectural historian for Colonial Williamsburg at the time. “It was sort of interesting to watch. Just very dramatic to see this big Victorian house being wheeled down the street.”

Once the house was relocated, Colonial Williamsburg could then excavate its former location to reconstruct Charlton’s Coffeehouse.

The Armistead House still remained key in that process because it was discovered the house had been built with components, specifically wood fragments, of the colonial coffeehouse. Loundbury said it was very common during the Victorian era to build structures with bits and pieces from former buildings, but in the modern era it made the house vital to colonial historians.

Many of the wood fragments as a result were removed from the Armistead house and used to reconstruct the Charlton’s coffeehouse, but some fragments still remain. 

“It is one of those remarkable survivors that would’ve been torn down had there been a more compliant owner,” Lounsbury said. 

A new life

In the late 1990s the property found its history continuing with a new family when it was bought at auction. 

Julie Nordstrom and her husband have bought and remodeled Victorian homes in the past, said son Dennis Nordstrom. The Nordstrom family bought the home with the view of preserving the location, but the project hit a standstill when Julie Nordstrom and her husband moved to Florida. 

“It has been a labor of love for my mom to keep it in good shape until she got up the energy to restore it,” Dennis Nordstrom said. “Shortly after they purchased the house, it was difficult for them to do the renovation while living in Florida.”

The Nordstroms moved back to Williamsburg recently and have restarted work on preserving the Victorian home and opening it as a six-bedroom inn.

Dennis Nordstrom said getting the building listed on the register is just one step in the process because it allows a certain amount of state and federal tax credits for income-producing properties. 

The structure is in the process of re-doing the heating, plumbing and other aspects but Dennis Nordstrom said they hope to have the place ready for visitors in the fall.

“It’s notable for a town that is not noted for its Victorian architecture,” Dennis Nordstrom said. “My mom’s goal has always been to bring it back to its former glory.”

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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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