A 'Sympathetic Addition' To An Old Farmhouse National Trust Award Winners

February 03, 1991|By Lynn Williams

One category in the 1990 Great American Home Awards was especially hard-fought, according to Sara Chase, one of the six preservation professionals who judged the National Trust for Historic Preservation's second annual competition. While each of the categories -- including exterior renovation, interior rehabilitation and bed and breakfast inns -- had many worthy contenders, the "sympathetic addition" division was a particularly tough call.

But when jurors gathered in Washington for a three-day session of reviewing materials, comparing notes and (as Ms. Chase jokes) "slugging it out," one house emerged the victor: the O'Hare House in Silver Spring, owned by Martha R. Lanigan.

"I think as much as anything it was the conscious attention to scale and proportion that won an award in a field of so many good contenders," the juror says.

A "sympathetic addition" is a newly built addition to an old house, which harmonizes with the original structure in size and materials; inside, these additions may be crammed with modern conveniences, but outside they often appear to be the product of the craftsmanship of an earlier day.

No one could have been more surprised than Ms. Lanigan, a procurement analyst for the Commerce Department, when her house won first prize in the category. O'Hare House, built in the first half of the 19th century, is not a big Victorian laden with gingerbread or a dignified, boxwood-hedged Federal, but a small, tidy farmhouse, as plain as a Garth Wood painting. But its very simplicity satisfies. The new wing, made of white-painted redwood, blends seamlessly with the white brick house, and the total effect is pure, fresh and very country -- despite the fact that the house sits in the middle of a brand-new housing development in the state's wealthiest county.

The first thing a visitor will notice, though, is not the architecture but the cats. A couple of felines scramble off the porch and into hiding when a stranger approaches. Inside, a long-haired, sweet-faced calico lounges on the kitchen table, a tabby perches on a windowsill and a little black head with round yellow eyes pokes out of a basket on top of a pine armoire. They look right in their element, adding an extra cozy touch to a house that has been home to Ms. Lanigan at two different times in her life.

Her family lived in the house, then surrounded only by fields, for a couple of years while they built their own home nearby. While Ms. Lanigan was not actually born in the house, she lived there during her earliest years. Her photo album includes a picture of the 1-year-old Martha and her twin sister posing out front.

Even by that time, almost halfway through the 20th century, the farmhouse had never been been modernized with plumbing and heating systems, although a newer addition on the side had a bathtub and sink. Heat was provided by a wood-burning cookstove, and there was an outhouse in the back yard, next to the brick smokehouse. The next family to live in the house were farmers who kept cattle, and used the antique smokehouse, as well as a root cellar and well, until they moved away in 1980.

"They had kids the same age as my brothers and sisters and I," Ms. Lanigan reminisces. "There was a pond down there, and we would ice skate together."

The area was still rural in 1984 when Martha Lanigan, who was visiting her mother, decided to take a walk across the fields and visit the house she had known in childhood.

"It was being vandalized and destroyed," she remembers.

When the developer who owned the land applied for permits to build houses, she says, Montgomery County officials discovered the old house (called O'Hare House after a 19th century owner) and put it on the county "master plan" for historic buildings. As the developer could not bulldoze it, he left it vacant -- and, unfortunately, at the mercy of vandals who broke out the windows, made off with much of the interior woodwork and ripped out the (admittedly rudimentary) electrical wiring.

Ms. Lanigan, who has a soft spot for creatures in distress, immediately wanted the house -- to save, and to live in.

She arranged to buy the property, essentially paying the cost of the land alone. Then she set about stabilizing the house to keep vandalism at bay. The vandals had done her one favor, though -- in knocking out part of a wall, they revealed a fireplace that had been boarded up, and that she hadn't known existed.

To find out more about houses of the period she spent an afternoon at the Library of Congress going through the Historic Buildings Survey. She was aided in her research efforts by Bobbi Hahn of the Montgomery County Preservation Commission, who also advised her about renovation guidelines she would have to observe as the owner of a protected property.

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