Cochran's Mill: Step back in history on Rio

ASKING: $485,000

SIZE: 2600 finished sq. ft.

YEAR BUILT: 1754

ADDRESS: 435 E. Rio Road

NEIGHBORHOOD: Stonehenge/Rio

CURB APPEAL: 10 out of a possible 10

LISTED BY: Bert Blikslager of Jos. T. Samuels Inc. * 295-8540

Everyone who travels Rio Road knows Cochran's Mill, although all you can see as you drive by are its chimneys and slate roof. The little Hansel and Gretel cottage sits tucked up against a hill below the road, facing a serene stretch of Meadow Creek. Although it's within walking distance of the Downtown Mall, when you cross the threshold of this historic house, you step two centuries away from the bustle and noise of modern life.

Cochran's Mill, built in 1754, is one of the oldest residences in the county. The mill itself has long since washed away, but its foundation remains on the property as the base of a garage/workshop closer to the creek, about 200 yards from the house. The building, with electricity but no plumbing, has been used by the current owner as an antique shop, but with imagination and a bankroll, it could become a charming guest cottage.

The main house is a typical mid-eighteenth century dwelling: it has an English basement (with kitchen, breakfast room, and dining room); sturdy exposed oak ceiling beams; and stone walls two feet thick, which are both a blessing and a curse. They keep the house blissfully cool even on the hottest days, obviating air conditioning, and they are painted inside and out with aesthetically appealing whitewash.

However, that admirable thickness means that the deep-set windows are a good distance from the rooms, which creates the one main drawback to the house: it's dark in there. And it's hard to imagine how this problem could be solved.

Apart from that, however, there isn't much to complain about. The "basement" level which is really the first floor, and where the main entrance is has pretty red quarry tile throughout the original section and in an addition, now used as the dining room, which was put on in the '50s. On the second and third levels, the wide heart-pine floors are in excellent condition.

Of the many unique design features throughout the house, the staircase from the second-floor living room to the third level is probably the most interesting. The stairs, which make a sharp right-angle turn about a third of the way up, are open to the room, and tiny shelves have been built onto the back of them.

There are four working fireplaces in the house (which accounts for the three chimneys visible from Rio Road); the current owner has surrounded the one in the den/study with antique Dutch tiles. They combine with a gorgeous soapstone floor to make the room cool and elegant.

On the second, or main level, a large living room, the study/den, and the main bedroom have 11-12 foot ceilings and average-width doorways, one– between the living room and den– with very unusual single-pane-width French doors. In the rest of the house, however, the low (7 ft.) ceilings and very narrow doorways may be a problem for average-size, never mind "plus size," people today.

The third level has two bedrooms, both with sloping ceilings (because they're under the steep roof), and the house's one full bath. The bathroom has a huge porcelain tub and a separate (pink-tiled) shower under the eaves, which makes the shower almost useless for anyone over five feet tall. Another problem on this level is that access to the second bedroom is through the bathroom.

These details will matter to an average buyer used to today's building standards. That person shouldn't bother looking. But what will matter to the sort of buyer who will love this house and take it, warts and all, are these facts: the house sits on 2.6 acres in Albemarle County. It has a beach that's right, a beach, between downtown and Fashion Square Mall. It has a private well which has not run dry even during the current water unpleasantness, and it has a newly repaired beautiful slate roof.

And last, and best of all, it has a glorious screened porch across the whole front of the house, with a view of the river and trees and lawn, and tranquility and solitude unimaginable in a house so close to town.

As we were leaving, the agent said, "Let's hope the person who buys the house realizes what a treasure it is."

We can all say "Amen" to that.