ONARCHITECTURE- Saving Nimmo: History avoids the wrecking ball

About half-way down Hartman's Mill Road off Ridge Street stands a dilapidated, unusual Gothic Revival house built in 1870. It's one of a handful of historic residential properties protected by city preservation laws. Dubbed the Nimmo House, it was built and owned by an enterprising carpenter named James D. Nimmo. 

According to architectural historian Aaron Wunsch, the roads running east of Ridge Street were home to free black landowners beginning in the 1840s. However, Nimmo and his family were white. As Wunsch studied the census of the time, a pattern emerged– most of the men who lived on Hartman's Mill Road were in the building trades. Interestingly, long after Charlottesville had embraced Jim Crow laws, it appeared that occupation, not race, was the tie between people living in that neighborhood. 

Wunsch found few details about Nimmo's life and career, but the house he left behind provided fascinating clues. Wunsch calls the house a curious example of Carpenter Gothic, based on a quatrefoil (four-leaved) cutout in the dormer and a pointed but not necessarily remarkable window in the west gable. What is remarkable, however, is the way the house reveals a talented workingman's evolving preoccupation with the high-style architectural forms of the time. 

Indeed, touring the house one can imagine the despair of Nimmo's wife as her husband added yet another fanciful detail–- an elaborate, nearly abstract mantelpiece in an office area, the giant Gothic dormer upstairs, the fancy staircase with its curved Eastlake newel post and carved inlays. Even the complex configuration of cupboards in the kitchen shows a similar ambition. These are architectural details normally found in structures five times as big as this little place, and in neighborhoods several class distinctions away.   

Last July,  the Nimmo House was on the brink of becoming just another victim of the wrecking ball. When they purchased the house in 1994, its present owners, an older couple, had plans to use the lot for a house for their daughter. But when they applied for a demolition permit, they found that the house is designated historic. For several years, they looked for a contractor to renovate the place, but no one would take the job. Everyone they contacted recommended tearing the old house down and building a new one. Suffering from "contractor's fatigue," the couple finally decided to seek a demolition permit by appealing the historic designation to the BAR and City Council.

But then there was Piedmont Preservation to worry about. Members of the local historic preservation organization, as they do whenever someone seeks a demo permit for a historic structure, showed up before the Board of Architectural Review and City Council to argue for saving the structure. As Wunsch– a Preservation Piedmont board member– points out, while the BAR usually votes to deny demolition in such cases, the City has a habit of sympathizing with property owners.

 "At least three houses in the last year would have been torn down if Preservation Piedmont hadn't showed up," he says.  

This time, however, the Nimmo House owners were out of luck, as both the BAR and City Council refused to allow a demolition. That left them with only two options: put the house on the market or keep looking for a contractor. By law, if a property owner puts a designated historic structure on the market and it doesn't sell within a period of three months to a year, the property owner is allowed to demolish the building. (The time limit is determined by the asking price of the property– three months if it's less than $25,000, and a year if the price is $90,000 or more.)  

However, thanks to the persistence of both Preservation Piedmont and the property owners, who were determined to build a place for their daughter, a third option emerged: a partnership between them to rehab the building. 

According to Wunsch, it's the first such partnership with a residential property owner in the organization's history, and represents a complete "180 degree turn-around from where we began." 

"Unfortunately, the system has always created a confrontational situation between the property owner, Piedmont Preservation, and the BAR," Wunsch says. 

According City preservationist Mary Joy Scala, these unpleasant meetings could be avoided if there were a better, clearer notification system for historic designations. Recently, sellers were not required to notify buyers if a property is designated historic, and often buyers– like the Nimmo House owners– didn't find out about the designation until after they apply for a building or demo permit. Wunsch says he'd like to see laws that require historic notifications to be noted in property deeds. 

However, as Scala mentions, an amendment to  Virginia real estate disclosure law was passed last year(SB1114: Residential Property Disclosure Act; violation of zoning ordinance) that requires property owners to disclose whether or not their property is designated historic. However, the amended bill doesn't exactly hold property owners supremely accountable, demanding a disclosure only if the "owner has knowledge of such designation," and putting much of the burden on buyers, who are advised to "exercise whatever due  diligence" necessary to find out if the property is historic. 

Meanwhile, the fledgling Nimmo partnership may serve as a model for preserving other historic residential buildings. In addition to helping the owners get historic tax credits for the renovation–even giving them a grant to cover their legal fees– Preservation Piedmont also helped find a contractor willing to take on a historic renovation, which, given the Virginia Historic Resources Department's rigorous standards for receiving tax credits, was no easy task. 

In addition, Wunsch says the organization can also help homeowners get a construction loan, and hopes someday to be able to purchase historic properties outright. In the meantime, he hopes the long story of the Nimmo House project might make the system of saving historic properties less confrontational.  

"Finally, its a preservation story that isn't just sad," he says.  


The Nimmo House at 208  Hartman's Mill Road could become a model for preserving historic residential properties in Charlottesville.