Years of work took house back 190 years


February 03, 1991|By Lynn Williams

"Here's the principle of restoration," says Virginia Cox. "Preserve what you can preserve, restore what you can restore, repair what you can repair and reconstruct what you have to reconstruct."

In an era of instant gratification, few homeowners would take the pains that Mrs. Cox and her late husband Thomas did to restore a period building. But the principle stated above served the Coxes well during the more than 10 years they spent restoring Woodlawn, a Federal mansion situated on a 200-acre farm at the southern tip of Maryland. They restored as many of the stately but shabby old manse's original features as possible; where the depredations of time or nature made restoration impossible, they did a museum-perfect re-creation, using materials and techniques that Woodlawn's original builders would recognize and respect.

The Coxes' passion for quality craftsmanship and adherence to authenticity recently won recognition from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which awarded Woodlawn the grand prize its second annual competition, the Great American Home Awards.

Anyone who drives up the long straight farm road and sees the house standing proudly at the water's edge will realize just how much a labor of love its restoration was. It was also an act of homage to one of the oldest remaining buildings in one of the state's earliest inhabited areas.

"This is really a very historic area. It is where Maryland began, of course," Mrs. Cox explains. "This house is built on Trinity Manor, which was a feudal manor granted to Leonard Calvert in 1634, by his brother Cecil Calvert, who was Lord Baltimore."

By the end of the 18th century the land was owned by Matthias Clark, whom Mrs. Cox calls "an entrepreneur of this new $H country." Records show that sometime between 1798 and 1805 Clark, a wealthy merchant, built the house that Mrs. Cox now calls home.

"It's a very high-style house for this area," she says. "It's simple, but it's got a lot of sophistication. Because he was exposed, from his importing and exporting, to Europe and Philadelphia and New York, he had an opportunity to see these things, and wanted them. They liked to be up with the Joneses, too -- probably even more than we do."

But Clark eventually lost his fortune, and in the 1820s his stylishly symmetrical house, with its fashionable double parlors and waterfront location, was sold at auction. The house, which acquired its present name after the Civil War, passed through many hands before it was purchased by the Coxes in 1972.

"It was devastated," Virginia Cox says. "It hadn't been lived in for 27 years." (Except, she amends, by a clan of raccoons, whose bright eyes looked down on the new owners from holes in the plaster ceilings.)

Although a modern wing and porches had been added in the 1930s, the old part of the house had been left largely untouched by remodeling or modernization, and most of its original woodwork was still intact.

"The opportunity to restore a house that has been changed so little does not come along very often," Mrs. Cox says. "That's what we had to learn. And we learned it, thank goodness, before we struck our first blow."

During their first few years of ownership, they attended every historic preservation workshop offered, traveling to Williamsburg, Richmond and Charlottesville to sharpen their eyes and increase their knowledge.

They also gradually began work on the house, hiring consultants and craftsmen experienced in historic preservation, and pitching on a lot of the work themselves. Mr. Cox was active throughout the process, despite the fact that he was battling cancer toward the end. He had vowed to live until the construction was complete, his wife says, and he did; the Coxes moved into their renovated home at Christmastime 1989, and Mr. Cox died last August.

First steps included replacing the damaged shingle roof and removing the 20th century additions. "This looked like the tail wagging the dog, so the first thing we had to do is get the tail off," Mrs. Cox says of an oversized porch on the water side of the house. The porch, which seemed to have been inspired by the White House portico, was not only out of scale with the rest of the structure, but was rotten, and inhabited by birds and snakes.

In 1979, the restoration began in earnest. Mrs. Cox moved into a trailer on the site, so that she could participate in the renovation and confer with architect Jim Wollon and the artisans. Mr. Cox stayed in Baltimore during the week and commuted to Woodlawn on weekends.

Exterior work included removing a stucco facade and replacing the decayed pine siding underneath with look-alike (but sturdier) cedar, specially milled to duplicate the uneven widths of the original boards.

When the house was stripped down to its bare essentials, the renovators discovered that over each of the doorways the original builders had etched a fylfot, a crosslike symbol designed to keep out evil spirits and bring good luck into the house with each arrival.

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