At the southern end of the Shenandoah Valley in western Virginia, Route 11 leads through picturesque and verdant countryside. Turn onto Houston Tavern Lane to see a view that gladdens the hearts of lovers of old houses: A substantial red-brick manor house stands at the apex of a circular drive at Forest Oaks, complete with stepped-back chimneys at either end, dormers in the slate roof, and a Federal portico with reeding and dentil mouldings. The James River flows behind the house and the Blue Ridge is its dramatic backdrop.
The view didn’t exist when owners Cliff DeVito and Chris Walker bought the property in 2011. “It was so overgrown, you couldn’t see the house from the top of the drive,” Walker says. The foreclosed house was abandoned. “People who lived nearby didn’t even know the house was here. Now, cars drive past, stop, back up, and come down the driveway for a look.”
The original house was built in 1806 by Matthew Houston, whose cousin Sam Houston famously ended up in Texas. A tavern and a dry-goods store operated from the front room. Houston called the house Vine Forest, but it came to be known as Forest Tavern. Houston added to his house in 1812. He installed a barrel-vaulted ceiling to echo the shape of the Natural Bridge, a local landmark.
The house changed hands several times, but remained structurally the same until 1916, when Curtis Walton and his Aunt Lily came from Cleveland, bought what was still a Federal house, and transformed it into their fantasy of an English country estate. They added a wood-frame solarium and a billiard room, one at each end, and more bedrooms, enlarging the house into a 32-room mansion measuring 11,000 square feet. Their most dramatic renovation was the installation of an oak Jacobean staircase that likely came from an English manor. They built three cottages on the 50-acre property and installed electric wiring. Since there was no service in the rural area, Curtis Walton built a power plant.
Nearly a century later, Cliff DeVito and Chris Walker were living in Arizona, but actively looking for a house they could operate as an inn. Furthermore, “we wanted to move somewhere green,” says DeVito, who for years had been an antiques dealer. “ We were looking primarily in New York and New England. At first, Virginia wasn’t on our map.”
The men were smitten by a few possibilities in the New York Adirondacks and the Massachusetts Berkshires, but nothing worked out. They’d been relying on PreservationNation.org, an arm of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
“We had three criteria,” DeVito explains. “We wanted a historic house, a property with an agricultural component, and a location near an attraction.”
The property now called Forest Oaks was listed at PreservationNation.org but the pictures weren’t appealing and the house was overpriced. As the price dropped, however, a visit was all it took: they negotiated and moved to Virginia.
“The house was sound,” Walker says. “But we had to install upgraded systems. Fortunately, we did not have to break into walls very much, as a lot of what we installed fit into existing wall cavities.”
The original Federal interior almost had been gutted during the 1916 renovation, so “we decided to take the house back to its 1916 appearance,” DeVito explains. Among their startling discoveries was the solarium, which later had been divided into three small rooms. “In the 1970s, someone had covered the windows and the ceiling with pine paneling,” DeVito says. “We had no idea that the beautiful arched windows and coffered ceiling even existed.”
In 1916, the walls of the stair hall were scored to resemble ashlar. In the 1960s, those walls were painted flat white, making the “stone blocks” invisible. Careful painting restored the look of stone and recessed mortar. In the great hall, the ceiling had been papered but now needed work. The owners installed pressed metal ceiling panels ordered with a fine, factory-applied finish in deep gold, a decision made for the material’s low-maintenance properties as well as its evocation of old Jacobean strapwork ceilings.
“It glows at night,” Cliff DeVito says.
Another Federal that has seen change: oldhouseonline.com/articles/country-federal-keeps-tradition