Jack LaMonica devotes his time and talent to chestnut trees, architecture, and history
By Aimee O’Grady
Jack LaMonica’s lifelong passion took root when he was still a boy. As a 12-year-old, he went with his family to bring his older brother, Tony, to college at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. While there, LaMonica picked up a few chestnuts that had fallen from the Chinese Chestnut trees that were growing along the pathway. With the chestnuts in his pocket, he returned home to plant them. The trees grew.
Although he was unaware of it at the time, at that tender age LaMonica had disproved the popular belief that chestnuts needed to be stratified prior to planting. The process of stratification, which simulates cold conditions, was believed to be necessary to result in germination. LaMonica’s trees proved that this process was not required to germinate a Chestnut tree.
Today, LaMonica is a well-known and accomplished architect based out of Marshall. A graduate of University of Notre Dame, LaMonica studied urban planning throughout major cities in Europe. Drawing parallels between architects and surgeons, LaMonica reasons that an architect needs to know as much about a building’s association with its surroundings as a surgeon needs to understand how every part of the body is interconnected.
Enrolled in the Notre Dame Rome Program, students were taught a course in Christian archeology, by an architect-archeologist, which required field study. Students gained first-hand extensive knowledge in architecture, archeology, theology, art, history, and culture. Coupled with a decade of work experience with William Dew, Jr., AIA, an architect in Middleburg, LaMonica honed those skills into practical application.
LaMonica has always enjoyed classical architecture. He finds himself drawn to historic preservation of homes built between 1860 and 1890. “These homes have structural redundancy seldom found today,” he explains. Clairmont, a home near Hume originally owned by the Green family, is one such structure. “This property had fallen out of the Green family for several decades, and had remained vacant for nearly 30 years. By the time a Green cousin purchased it, bringing it back into the family, hunters had shot out most of the windows—it was an impressive house, with high ceilings and windows,” he says. Even a poorly attempted basement that caused the foundation to sag did not compromise the structure enough to make it unsalvageable: “We were able to preserve the structure because of the integrity that the house was originally built with.”
LaMonica’s father, Vincent, had a master’s degree in industrial arts and loved to work with wood. He enjoyed making furniture and had a passion for trees. LaMonica can remember planting new trees around the house when he was just a three-year-old toddler, years before he collected the Chinese chestnuts. This passion was passed on to LaMonica.
LaMonica’s preferred style of house is one that was built by the owners themselves, log homes in particular. In the 1980s, when LaMonica and his wife were looking for a home in Fauquier County, their realtor showed them a log home, unaware of LaMonica’s interests. LaMonica was immediately drawn to the 1870s home with a 1919 addition built on. As fate would have it, the home was constructed from American chestnut wood. “It’s the reason we bought the house, which included a number of outbuildings,” he confesses.
Since his childhood, LaMonica held on to the dream of refurbishing a log home. Combining his talent as an architect and passion for historical preservation, he carried out that dream with the restoration of a small log building located on the property. The property also boasts what is perhaps the second-largest American Chestnut tree in Virginia and offers a base diameter of five feet.
His skill and interests have converged more than once. As past president of the Virginia Chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation, LaMonica continued with his interest in the American chestnut tree. Recently, he conducted research on the integrity of the species to see if it would be an optimal building material and potential alternative to treated wood. “American chestnut wood is soft, but extremely durable, and is rot-resistant, making it an ideal material to build with. The trees grow quickly, but their fast growth often causes the wood to crack. Wherever there is a crack, the blight spores will enter and infect the tree,” says LaMonica. Many, but not all infected trees die once they are afflicted with blight.
“Our house has historical significance with regards to the story of the American chestnut tree. It was in the early part of the 20th century that the blight was introduced into North America. It is believed to have been brought here with Asian chestnut trees,” says Lamonica. “Relying on limited scientific knowledge, people were advised to cut the trees because they would die anyway. The addition on our home in 1919, containing both blighted and blight free timbers, coincides with the onset of blight in Virginia, and that unfortunate advice.”
LaMonica’s wife, Clelia, a physics teacher at the Mountain Vista Governor’s school in Warrenton, occasionally consults Jack for student research projects. Another convergence of interests occurred for her when one of her students expressed an interest in a project on wood testing. At the time, the foundation was culling orchards, which provided a source of wood for the student. “The results of her research will be published and offer a better understanding of the present-day integrity of the wood and its potential uses once they are reintroduced in nature,” says LaMonica, who is assisting with the student’s work.
The research will validate what LaMonica already knows about the durability of American chestnut wood, since his own log home was built with it nearly 150 years ago. Furthermore, a Civil War-era wooden home, also made from American chestnut wood from a tree that once stood on Main Street in Marshall, was salvaged by LaMonica. He has plans to reassemble it as an addition to his existing home. “I wanted to purchase the property, but it faced many regulatory obstacles. The family grew frustrated and scheduled to have the house torn down. I happened to drive by as it was coming down and jumped out of my car with my checkbook and bought all the logs,” he recalls.
Thirty years ago when LaMonica purchased his house, it was recommended that it be torn down and a new home built in its place. Trusting his architectural expertise, historical preservation interest, and American chestnut tree passion, LaMonica is glad he didn’t listen. Instead, he applied, and is still applying, this trifecta of talent to preserve, restore, and renovate his home, as well as other homes within the region.