Latchstring Corporation owners Tom and Liz Thorpe save history through restoration of Virginia homes
Story and photos by Aimee O’Grady
There are homes, from small cabins to large houses, once beloved destinations of comfort for their families, that sit undisturbed through time, sometimes for as long as multiple centuries. Their occupants have long moved out, and nature is moving back in. The structure’s remains are returning to the ground. Spiderwebs hang from the rafters, and dust coats the interior, starkly visible floating in the shafts of sunlight. Animals and insects now make their homes there. The silence is eerie and deafening.
But what to some people appears to be a pile of rubble is the slow dissolution of history to others. Tom and Liz Thorpe are such people.
An experience as a teenager with two historical homes on the family farm had a lasting impression on Tom Thorpe, founder of Latchstring Corporation. “I grew up on the family farm in Bristersburg, in southern Fauquier County. There was an old cabin on the property that my parents used as a barn. Over time, it became too unstable and dangerous to keep so my parents burned it down. I was about 15 years old. It was the right thing to do at the time, but I couldn’t help missing the old structure once it was gone,” he reminisced. Thorpe went on to college and when he returned home to the farm in 1965, his family had found another old cabin in Fauquier County. They dismantled the cabin and rebuilt it their property. “We rescued the old building,” recalled Thorpe.
These moments in his youth set his life on a course to preserve old Virginia homes. Both Tom and Liz, his wife, were employed in the education system, and they would spend their weekends pursuing their hobby.
For 30 years, the couple has travelled the state, collecting antiques and dismantling old homes. “We look for homes that are deteriorating and approach the owners to buy the structure,” said Thorpe. In the three decades that he and Liz have been preserving homes, there are only two cases in which the owner would not sell him a structure he wanted to save, “and today, I can show you a pile of rubble where it once stood,” he said.
Dismantling a 250-year-old house requires a very careful and detailed process—which they have refined over the years—of extensive photographing and careful numbering of the pieces to catalog every part. “We keep everything that is original to the period in which the house was built,” sais Thorpe. This includes every post and beam, every pre-1830 door knob, hinges, staircases, mantels, paneling, and wainscoting found within the structure.
In 1986, the couple created Latchstring Corporation and turned their hobby into a part-time business. The name references the method of locking a door in the 18th century. The door had a small hole in it, through which a string was passed; on the inside it was attached to a simple bar that secured the door, and the remainder was passed through to the outside of the door. During the day, to open the door, the string was pulled from the outside, releasing the latch. At night, the string was pulled inside, securing the house by preventing strangers from opening the door.
Their own home
The Thorpes continued living on the family farm in Bristersburg until 2009, when Dominion Power came through and installed power lines through the property. Feeling that the family farm was unsuitable for a period house, they found a large lot in Warrenton and embarked on a two-and-a-half-year project to build their dream home.
Springlea, the name of their current property, is a testament to the passion the couple shares for antiquity. The 50-acre estate sits at the top of Lees Ridge Road in Warrenton and is replete with Fauquier County relics. A veritable time capsule of pre-Civil War Virginia, Liz considers the estate as a work in progress, although Tom believes otherwise. “It’s done,” he said with a smile.
The home is a combination of three separate historical structures, dating from 1790, 1800, and 1802, that were relocated to the site and combined to form the Thorpes’ dream home. Upon entering the home, guests are immediately transported back to colonial days in Fauquier County through the meticulously preserved details from bygone eras. Intricate, hand-crafted woodwork, solid doors, iron hinges and door knobs, original wavy glass, brass fixtures, and large mantels are all present.
A large, two-story period home forms the center of Springlea, using the historic home’s front door as today’s entrance. The dining room, which has been restored to its original glory, includes two unusually-sized 19-foot-long and 26-inch-wide uncut yellow pine boards on either wall. “It is very unusual to find such long pieces of wood uncut,” explained Thorpe. The room also contains the original formal mantelpiece. “This was a more upscale home at the time,” said Liz as she rearranged flowers in a vase on the dining room table.
As we ascended the stairs to the second floor of this center section, Thorpe asks me to think of all the people who have walked up and down this 250-year-staircase. The handcrafted staircase shows small discrepancies common in hand craftsmanship prior to the use of machinery. On the second-floor landing, Thorpe pointed out the wainscoting, painted a deep green, “This paint was applied when Thomas Jefferson was president.” The rich, green paint has remained on the wainscoting of the house for over 200 years, although wearing in some places, it has never been touched up. This sort of priceless character proliferates throughout the second floor as well, with original heart of pine floors, mantels, crown molding, window trim, and doorways.
The main floor master bedroom, to the right of the home’s main entrance, was once a log cabin deep in the countryside of Virginia, the oldest of the three structures that are built into Springlea. Research done by Thorpe reveals that the cabin once belonged to the Huddle family of Wythe County. The family was renowned in their day for the craftsmanship and paint decoration of their wooden chests. The construction of the cabin was simple and functional, yet it has a beautiful mantel on the fireplace which seems a bit out of place. Thorpe believes that the family started out simply, and then once they acquired some wealth they outfitted the cabin with a more formal fireplace mantel, along with chip-carved wainscoting. “Liz matched the paint and replicated the pattern of the wainscoting in the master bedroom of the house,” explains Thorpe. Springlea is filled with such stories.
When original pieces could not be salvaged, matching pieces were made to perfection thanks to business partner, Kevin Dysart, a cabin builder from Woodstock, VA. “I’m getting older,” Thorpe admitted, “We rely on Kevin for a lot of the heavy lifting today.” In the main floor master bedroom, Kevin crafted a large hutch using two pairs of two-hundred-year-old doors as a base to match the cabin’s period. “This is where Liz displays family photos and keepsakes,” said Thorpe. The images from the life Liz, Tom and their four children have built depicts their story, in much the same way the pieces they salvage tell one.
To the left of the home’s main entrance is the kitchen and family room of Springlea. The kitchen island was made from an original store counter from an old shop in Stanardsville; rustic barn doors and a lot of repurposed iron such as fireplace iron hooks and tie-backs for curtains complete the feel of an old-time country home.
The artifact collection housed within Springlea took several decades to accumulate. “In the late ‘70s, Liz and I began driving all over Virginia, going to auctions and collecting antiques,” he said. Throughout the home are pieces from their collection. Their collection of Virginia history includes paperwork, weaponry, furniture, wallpaper, original documents from Francis Fauquier, Union and Confederate swords, a Mauzy deed that dates to 1718, a needlepoint sampler made by a schoolgirl in Upperville, and an 1830s beehive from an old apiary in Page County.
Latchstring Corporation is based at Springlea, where the gardens and outbuildings are used for works-in-progress: other cabins and historical buildings that are waiting for or in the process of being reassembled.
Behind the estate is a large vegetable garden with only an early bed sprouting during our April interview. In the center of the garden stood small cabin that was in the process of being reassembled, “This was formerly a summer kitchen,” said Thorpe. Inside the small house was another antiquated latch. This one has a thin curved piece of wood used as a “spring” to push the latch closed. “This curved piece of wood has been here on this door for over 200 years,” marvels Thorpe.
Beyond the vegetable garden is a large metal shed. The shed contains the pieces of three homes that the Thorpes have dismantled and are waiting for new owners. “We will store the homes until someone wants them,” he said, knowing that out of the elements, the wood will be protected from further decay. Unlike many other salvage businesses, the intent of Latchstring is to see the entire house restored with as many original pieces as possible.
In addition to a small cabin, the storage shed contains the remains of a prominent home from southern Virginia that dates to 1767 and 1810. The Thorpes have identified the family that built the house. “We gather as much history as we can for every property,” said Thorpe. The home contains unique architectural details, including arch-stopped fluting on the mantel. “I have never before seen this feature in a building, only on some early furniture,” said Thorpe. Original paint also remains on the home’s wainscoting.
The Thorpes know their house, and indeed, they themselves, are unusual and unique in their passion for antiquity. “I was born with the passion in my blood,” Tom said. Through Latchstring, Thorpe hopes to promote the value of preserving Virginia’s older homes before it is too late and their stories are lost forever.
When asked why he has a passion for preservation, Thorpe simply responded with, “If they are not saved, these pieces of history would be lost entirely.”
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