Sitting at the corner of the Toano Middle School property, the once-glorious mansion now rests at the precipice of crumbling down.
It’s a brick shell with a mysterious appeal for anyone curious enough to explore the 7000 block of Richmond Road.
The ceiling exposes the interior to the elements, vines cling to the outside exterior as if to hold the walls up, and there is most likely mold from the humid summers Virginia is known for.
But there are people who want to see the house restored to its former glory.
It’s called the Gatewood House, and there is feud over its future.
The Gatewood home, located at 7829 Richmond Road, was built in 1911 by Dr. William Lawrence Gatewood, an ENT doctor from Toano who pioneered cosmetic surgery by operating on WWI veterans. Gatewood also had his practice on 5th Avenue in New York City, according to Toano Historical Society’s Facebook page.
Gatewood did not live in the house himself, but built it for his parents, Annie Bell Cowles and Richard Gatewood, who are both buried at Cowles family cemetery in Toano.
Saving the Gatewood
Jack Wray, the president of the Toano Historical Society (THS), is one of the people who want to preserve the 110-year-old house as part of its mission to revitalize the charm of Toano.
“The Toano Historical Society was formed to try to bring awareness to Toano and its past, our history, which is rich with the railroad coming through here in 1881,” Wray said. “And we’re excited about our future.”
The society, formed in 2018, has had success incorporating nine buildings into a plan to create a commercial historic district where it has state and national recognition. The plan to designate a historic district was approved by James City County about a year ago.
The Wray brothers also hired Allison Platt, who helped revitalize Goldsboro, North Carolina. She developed a detailed master plan for Toano — which includes the Gatewood house.
So what’s the issue?
The Toano Historical Society doesn’t own the Gatewood property.
The property is owned by Timothy Johnston, a local dentist who runs Norge Dental Center.
When WYDaily initially reached out to Johnston, he declined to speak on the record about the house.
The town was nearly destroyed in 1966 when expansions of Richmond Road took out a number of buildings, and the society has been fighting to prevent more historical buildings from being demolished.
In the past, Wray has saved properties by buying them. But this time, Johnston’s asking price is too high.
“We’ve been negotiating with [Johnston] for years, and he knows our plight,” Wray said.
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Back in 2020, the Toano Historical Society became a commercial district affiliate in the Virginia Main Street program which opens up opportunities for grants and funding for the society.
“We’re trying to equip a tool box here in Toano so that we have resources to revitalize, and that was just another membership or recognition that gives us more to work with for the historical society as we look ahead for fundraisers and grant applications,” Rena Wray, Jack Wray’s wife, said in a phone interview
“All these tools and building blocks were going to help the Gatewood, because that’s the most endangered thing we have,” Jack Wray said.
Applying for grants takes time – time the Gatewood may not have.
THS can accept donated properties, but that seems unlikely to happen.
According to county property records, the last owner before Johnston was MM & W Properties, LLC in 2008. The sale price at that time was $419,000.
Since then, Coldwell Banker Commercial listed the Gatewood property for sale with an asking price of $545,000; however, the property assessment by James City County is $302,300 as of January 2021.
“This makes it practically impossible for an investor, even one who’s sympathetic with our cause to revitalize Toano, to invest in this property,” Jack Wray.
It also appears time is not a luxury the Gatewood has, as Johnston appears to be pursuing a commercial sale of the property, according to an email Jack Wray received from Johnston in 2017 that he read aloud to WYDaily.
“’Jack, we have decided against an auction on the property and house. Instead we have ramped up our efforts at a commercial sale. We are now pursuing Family Dollar and its competitors. Should be a good fit so close to the school. Of course, the building won’t survive,’” Wray related.
That was in 2017. Since, Jack Wray said Johnston called him a few weeks ago to ask if he was still interested in buying the property, saying it would be his last chance to do so.
Left with the impression that Johnston was soon on his way to demolishing the house, Wray posted on the THS’s Facebook page to alert the public about the Gatewood’s threatened state.
Additionally, there is a Facebook page called “Save the Gatewood House” that Wray is not associated with that has taken up the cause.
When asked by WYDaily about the house’s possible demolition, Johnston indicated the information was false and declined to speak further on the record.
So is the house actually up for demolition?
No, not yet.
According to James City County Building Safety and Permits, there is no record for a permit for demolition, so it is unknown what Johnston’s exact plan is for the property.
Wray indicated there is still time to save the house before a final decision is made on its fate.
“I don’t want to stir up anything,” he said. “We’re trying to bring the community together. I just hope we can find an amenable solution to all of this.”
If not, however, the Wrays hope they can take a memento to keep as a reminder of the simple majesty that is old Toano.
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