Welcome to old Norfolk

Cityscape: Neighborhood features some of the oldest houses in Virginia.

January 08, 2003|By Marc Davis | Marc Davis,THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT

NORFOLK, Va. - The fireplace in Frank "Buddy" Gadams' new living room is lavender. It's practically ancient - built exactly 100 years ago, with the rest of the house - so Gadams isn't inclined to change it.

In fact, Gadams' huge new-old house on Colonial Avenue in Ghent features eight fireplaces, and each is unusual. One is raspberry, one pink, one green-black, one white, one aqua, one beige, one cream, one lavender. Some burn wood; some burn coal. Each has finely detailed woodwork.

In recent years, someone painted over the fireplaces and made them a bland white. In recent months, Gadams dissolved the paint and restored each to its original splendor.

`A lot of character'

"This is a great old house," Gadams said. "A lot of history in this house. A lot of character."

He could be talking about Ghent generally.

In September, new figures from the 2000 census confirmed what many Norfolk residents long suspected: Ghent has more old houses than any other neighborhood from Williamsburg to Virginia Beach.

Roughly 62 percent of all the houses in Ghent and West Ghent - nearly two out of every three, not counting the newer section across Colonial Avenue - were built before 1940, according to the census. That's almost two-thirds of the 4,300 houses in three census tracts.

That makes Ghent one of the oldest neighborhoods in Virginia. Of the 1,500 census tracts spread across the state, only 41 have a majority of houses built before 1940. Three of those tracts are in Ghent.

Second to Richmond

Only Richmond, among all of Virginia's 136 cities and counties, has more census tracts with pre-1940 houses than Norfolk.

The evidence? Look around Ghent: Funky houses with wraparound porches, widow's walks and actual basements. They are everywhere, from the coal yards of West Ghent to great old mansions near The Hague.

The funkiest just might be Frank Gadams' new-old chateau.

Behind the yellow plaster wall, there was a secret.

It was brick - old brick, solid brick, beautiful brick. Why in the world would anyone cover it up?

That's how Gadams found the three-story house at 704 Colonial Ave., on the corner of Boissevain Avenue. It was old and run-down and not real pretty. Over the years, someone had carved the magnificent house into five apartments.

Ugly fire escapes covered the windows. The old widow's walk on the roof was gone. The balcony spindles were peeling. Modern yellow walls covered the original brickwork.

$294,000 investment

Gadams, a local developer who turns old buildings into new condos, bought the Ghent house at foreclosure in March for $294,000. It was no ordinary investment. Gadams intended to live there with his wife, newborn son and dog.

Passers-by saw a has-been house. Gadams saw possibilities.

"It was in bad shape. It was limping along," Gadams said. "I like preserving history."

So he gutted the place and started over.

Walls that divided the five apartments came down. Enormous, heavy, eight-foot oak doors were taken off hinges and stripped. A steep, shaky staircase leading to the widow's walk above the attic was restored. New wiring and heating and air conditioning were installed.

It was a huge project in a huge house - 5,500 square feet of living space: five bedrooms, four full bathrooms, two half-bathrooms. That's more than double the size of an average house.

To build the house new would have cost $1.5 million, Gadams estimated. But the old-fashioned charm would be impossible to replace.

With luck and more work, the house will be ready in a month.

"You can't get rid of history," Gadams said. "It's been here 100 years and hopefully it'll be here another 100 years. I'm happy to see a lot of other people in Ghent are doing the same thing."

What is now Ghent was just farms around 1890. Six farsighted Norfolk businessmen bought the land, finagled Dutch investors to ante up, and laid out a street grid.

They filled the streets with large, expensive houses. Developers named the streets for themselves and their friends. By 1900, Ghent was the hot new hoity-toity suburb within walking distance from downtown.

Many of those original houses still stand - 364 built between 1890 and 1910 alone, including Buddy Gadams' place, according to the city assessor's office.

James Farrell, president of the West Ghent Civic League, owns one. His house on Westover Avenue was built in 1910.

`A lot of work'

"It certainly needed a lot of work when we bought it," Farrell said.

"Right now I'm redoing a detached garage that was kind of falling apart. It had termite damage. I basically had to rebuild the walls on it."

New rules make maintaining an old house in Ghent tricky. Much of Ghent is in a historic district, so even routine outside changes must be approved by the city's Design Review Committee.

In October, for example, the commission considered new windows on a Ghent church and a new door on Mowbray Arch.

West Ghent is not a historic district, but even in that area, modern zoning laws trip up homeowners. For example, Farrell could not tear down his garage and replace it. It is built on the property line and new zoning laws require a setback. The only alternative was to improve it bit by bit.

But there are benefits. Homeowners in the historic district can get tax credits worth up to 45 percent of a project's cost for many restorations - such as the ones at the Gadams house. Edward Carson, chairman of the Design Review Committee, sees more and more restorations of big old houses in Ghent. Gadams' place is one of the best recent examples, he said.

"This is an excellent example of taking a house that was renovated for apartments and turning it back," Carson said. "Some people just don't take the effort to renovate places" the way Gadams does. "The place will win an award, I'm sure."

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