REAL ESTATE- ON THE BLOCK- Off the grid: Distant 'subdivision' nothing like others


ADDRESS: 839 Rockfish Woods Circle

NEIGHBORHOOD: Howardsville

ASKING: $279,000

ASSESSMENT: $200,000


SIZE: 1,800 fin. sq. ft.

LAND: 6.727 acres

CURB APPEAL: 7 out of 10

LISTED BY: Roger Voisinet, Remax Realty Specialists, 974-1500

We here at On the Block have a general antipathy to reviewing houses in subdivisions. Let's face it– how many ways can we describe three bedrooms, two baths, a family room with fireplace (gas), huge ugly fans and Hardiplank everywhere, and generic granite-stainless-center island kitchens? As Ronald Reagan famously said, "A tree is a tree..."

However, more than subdivisions, we despise a foolish consistency, so this week we took ourselves off the grid and out to Nelson County for a tour of "Rockfish Woods." Like many of its Albemarle cousins, this house on a "circle" in the development– in fact, the circle is the development– has a communal place to swim, the ubiquitous fans, and Pella vinyl windows. Ugh.

But any such list of similarities is wildly deceiving, because this "subdivision" consists of only a few houses, and this one is the original homeplace of the tract– built in 1780. We're not in Cory Farm anymore, Toto.

The swimming place turns out to be the Rockfish River, a short walk from the house via deeded community access through 5,000 acres of adjoining land owned by a paper company. No comparison can be drawn between sitting on concrete by a chlorine pool and splashing about (or casting a rod) in a wild rushing river with nothing but forest on every side.

And unlike the dull identical facades of every house in a typical development, here the "front"– with a porch with columns, white railing, and wide steps– is actually the original rear. What was the front is now the back (also with columns, but no railing or steps), facing a large paddock with a barn and four horses (who don't convey). 

This reversed orientation means the house's one bathroom is right inside the front door. The impression is weird– practically c0ming face-to-face with a claw-foot tub as you drop in for a visit. The owners report that the original 1780 house was a typical two-over-two, and the bathroom and adjoining new "living room" are later additions created by enclosing the original back porch. Obviously, in 225 years many things change, but it's interesting that just one difference– the location of the road and the approach– could result in such a disorienting interior.

In addition to the living room and bath, a combination laundry/utility room and a separate closet were created in the enclosed porch space. As expected in such an old house, the floors are wide heart-pine (some now covered with wall-to-wall) except in the bathroom, which has big Florida tiles. Exposed beams are also typical of 1780, and these are pretty. What's unexpected here is the height of the ceiling– almost 11 feet– which provides a feeling of spaciousness at odds with the sense of near-claustrophobia we felt touring other houses of this vintage like Cochran's Mill on Rio Road.

Up what the owner calls "winder stairs" are two bedrooms (but no bath). Here's where the one similarity to traditional subdivisions is evident: in their frenzy to keep warm their first year, the owners replaced rattly, drafty windows with vinyl Pellas, an error they ruefully acknowledge. But the lapse is somewhat forgivable when they point out a fascinating and surprisingly large "hidey-hole" under the rafters off the guest bedroom– a place ideally suited for meditation, pouting, or any other activity requiring solitude and isolation.

And if all that weren't enough to separate this house from a typical Wayland's Grant cracker box, get this. It's completely powered by a solar panel out in the pasture with the horses. People who live here never have to open a Dominion Power bill: the place exists totally "off the grid." This means that in the event of sleet, hail or blizzard, the folks tucked up at 839 Rockfish Woods still have lights, TV, radio– anything electric powered. 

Heat is propane-fired hot air, but a woodstove in the kitchen fireplace can help keep those costs down. Also in the kitchen is the original porcelain farmhouse sink. There's no dining room, but a family room adjoining the kitchen has room for a table.

Outside, the fenced yard is surrounded on one side with huge boxwoods and has a tiny shed with a tin roof like the original house once had– now it's regular old shingles, alas. The "back" yard, as mentioned, is the paddock and barn. 

It's a long way from Charlottesville to Howardsville on the James, and probably for someone commuting to town, the cost of gas would offset any savings from the solar power. But for a retired or environmentally conscious couple who didn't need to leave often, Rockfish Woods offers all the benefits of a subdivision without any of the tedious ticky-tack. 



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