Stepping Back in Time

Warrenton’s “Mecca” has been faithfully restored to its mid-nineteenth-century splendor

Approaching Mecca, the elegant nineteenth-century Italianate mansion on Culpeper Street, I could easily imagine I would be met at the top of the stairs leading to the broad, arcade-fronted porch by a hostess in charming antebellum attire or by a Civil War army officer using the house as his headquarters. Over 150 years ago, either imagined host could have received me.

But today, Ken Alm who, with his wife Sandy, currently owns Mecca, welcomed me into his home and quickly pointed out that they see themselves as “stewards” of this impressive 7500-square-foot mansion, remarking they “just don’t build homes like this anymore.” Indeed, this is true. I was struck immediately by the 15-foot high ceilings bordered by crown molding above an open, expansive living area with beautiful pinewood flooring throughout. Ken confessed that the high ceiling was the most important feature that attracted him to the house; it seems he always wanted to have a very tall Christmas tree in his home, and now he can. Sandy very much wanted a house with fireplaces, and Mecca has a more than adequate number — nine of them, all made of marble. 

General Edwin V. Sumner and staff at Mecca, 1862.
(Photo by Alexander Gardner, Library of Congress).

Off to the right side of the large inviting foyer is the library, where one wall contains well-stocked bookshelves from the floor to the edge of the molding bordering the high ceiling. There, Alm shared with me his passion for renovating the house while preserving its original charm and allure. Although it had strong foundations, including 16-inch thick brick walls, it had not been well maintained before he purchased it in 2001. He eagerly took on the task of stabilizing the house while carrying out his self-imposed responsibility to preserve the interior of his home’s appearance as close to its original design and décor as possible. After 14 years, he says, he has almost achieved his goal. 

Across from the library, I was ushered into the living room, containing period furniture and two large eye-catching mirrors, a French one over the marble fireplace and another stretching nearly from the floor to the ceiling. There was plenty of open area, and a small sunlit enclave surrounded by windows caught my attention; it contained a desk and chair suitable for doing paperwork or, perhaps, just daydreaming.

Ken’s dedication to this task comes through clearly as one walks across those pinewood floors through the large rooms and hallways and up the winding staircase to the numerous bedrooms. Along the way, Ken pointed out the four bathrooms and a powder room that he has brought up to modern standards. I learn that the house originally had a large water tank in the attic and pipes that carried the water to marble basins and water closets — a rare feature for the antebellum period when the house was built, and affordable only to the wealthiest. 

Back on the ground floor, I followed Ken down interior stone stairs to the cellar, where I felt like I was entering the catacombs and almost expected to find tombs on either side of the narrow passageway cut out of solid rock. This space was added long after the house was first built when the occupants needed space for a modern furnace. The Alms have transformed part of this space into a well-stocked and ideally located wine cellar. 

John Spilman, who also built the house on Falmouth Street once owned by Colonel John Mosby, built this one in 1859 for Rice Payne, a prominent local attorney and one of the wealthiest citizens in Warrenton. Payne called the house “Mecca,” apparently a nickname for his wife America Semmes, of the prominent Semmes family of Maryland. 

Spilman seems to have had an almost unlimited budget and paid great attention to detail in constructing the impressive three-story, stucco mansion. He included thick brick exterior walls, semi-circular window hoods, polygonal bays, a gable roof, bracketed eaves, and that inviting arcaded porch and dentil cornice. Behind the house, he built a brick kitchen/servants’ quarters, a smoke house, and a carriage house. The old kitchen building is now rented out as an apartment, and the carriage house has become a workshop.

During the Civil War, which closely followed completion of the house, it was used as a hospital by both armies and was occupied by several Union generals, including Gen. Edwin Sumner who used it as his headquarters, turning the parlor into a military map room and installing a telegraph system directly connected to Union military headquarters in Washington, D.C. Family members were confined to the upper floors of the building, as Federal troops used the first floor. Mrs. Payne and her sister nursed wounded troops from both armies. Unhappily, America Payne died in 1862, a week after the birth of her eighth child, possibly from illness contracted while nursing the soldiers.

Mecca stayed in the Payne family for many years before changing hands and today looks — and feels, I’m certain — very much like it did over 150 years. It is generally regarded as one of the most architecturally significant houses in Warrenton and is cited in The National Register of Historic Places.

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About Gary Carroll 12 Articles
Gary Carroll is a Fauquier native and, except for seven years living abroad, has lived here throughout his life. He has a B.A and M.A. from University of Virginia where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa. He served in the U.S. Government for 25 years where he worked as an analyst, supervisor of analysts, and an instructor for analysts. After retiring, he has continued to work as an instructor for the military and several government agencies where he teaches a variety of communication skills including analytic writing, briefing and public speaking, and supervisor-employee communication. He is married and has two daughters.

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