By Pam Schipper
On a bright, sunny day in early September, Urbana historian Gil House is sifting through the bones of Landon House — nails, beams, mortise-and-tenon joints, old wiring and insulation — looking for the clues of time. This is an amazing opportunity for House, who has researched Landon House for at least a decade.
The 12,000-square-foot historic house is famous for its roles in the Civil War. It housed Gen. J.E.B. Stuart and his men in September 1862 and was the site of the Confederates’ Grand Ball at Urbana, later termed the “Sabers and Roses Ball.” At that time, the house was used to treat CSA soldiers wounded in a skirmish the night of the ball. These Rebel soldiers left charcoal drawings of President Jefferson Davis over one of the first-floor mantles. Later on, Federal troops used Landon House, and Union soldiers added a drawing of President Abraham Lincoln.
Today, the house is being renovated by Kidwell Contracting, under the direction of Al Clapp of Architectural Concepts Group, who asked House to consult. In its stripped-down state, Landon House is giving up more of its secrets.
That is, if you know where to look.
There’s the brick nogging, an early form of insulation, that was inlaid in the walls and the tar paper on the outside of some of that brick, most likely put in during the 1940s. Some of the original window panes remain, betraying their age with charming bubbles of imperfection. You can even see some knob and tube wiring, commonly used between 1880 and 1930 and most likely still operational when current renovation on the house began.
Nails especially reveal a lot. Today, they’re scattered throughout the three story, two-staircase house. Flathead nails date from 1820 to 1850, House explained. If you find a rosehead, named for the way it was fashioned in a rose shape with multiple strikes by a blacksmith’s hammer, that nail dates back to the 1700s.
Sources date Landon House to 1754, and one story suggests that it was originally constructed on the shores of the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg. Dismantled in the 1840s, it was brought to Urbana and reconstructed as The Landon Female Seminary in 1846.
There’s a door here, House explained, with 1754 written on it. It’s considered part of the evidence that dates the house, but he’s skeptical. Transporting a large, dismantled structure from the Fredericksburg area to Urbana in the early 1800s would have been time-consuming and expensive. The dated door could have been repurposed from an earlier structure.
In mid-September, House made a discovery that may lead to further revelations about Landon’s origins and construction. Practically every day, House brings his camera to Landon, photographing aspects of the house as they are revealed during the renovations. On Sept. 16, he photographed some roof underlayment boards. It was not until he arrived home and took a good look at the images that he realized what was written on one of the boards, “R Phillips Ijamsville.”
The Rev. Richard H. Phillips had the house constructed as The Landon Female Seminary in 1846. House surmised that this board arrived by rail since it was marked Ijamsville and not Urbana. The board would have then been brought by wagon to Urbana.
The writing has remained hidden since at least 1846, House explained. It was only discovered because the plastered ceiling has been removed during the renovation.
To date, House has collected many records relating to Landon House, and is especially interested in primary sources like the diary of Heros von Borcke, Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s aide, and newspaper accounts, many from the 1940 to 1970 period when Bulgarian diplomats Marion and Ivan Stancioff owned the property. House relates his excitement when he found a Baltimore Sun photo of Ivan Stancioff standing in the same room that hosted the CSA’s Grand Ball.
Marion Stancioff, a devout Catholic, converted the property’s smokehouse, located in back, into a private chapel. Today in disrepair, the chapel still bears a peeling portrait of the Blessed Virgin Mary and sacred phrases on the chapel’s beams, painted in white against the blue commonly associated with Mary. The new owners of Landon House, Urbana residents Praveen Bolarum and Rohit Khirbat with their partner Chakri Katepalli, plan to move Mrs. Stancioff’s chapel to the front yard and turn it into a museum featuring artifacts from Landon, some discovered during the restoration.
These include an old canteen, a Civil War-era bullet and some picture frames. Architectural artifacts like examples of wood-and-peg construction and Roman numeral hatch marks etched in the wood (a system used by sawmills to tell carpenters what pieces belong together) will also be included in the museum, said House.
House is quick to point out that he’s not a professional historian. Paula Reed, Ph.D., an architectural historian, is consulting on several phases of the project. But House, a Frederick native, has long held a passion for history, research and observation.
When House retired from COMSAT in 2000, where he worked as an engineer for 25 years, he began researching the Buckingham Industrial School in Buckeystown (now the Claggett Center) where his father had been educated. Since then, House has undertaken many research projects, including one on Urbana area post offices — really important back in the day of horse and buggy when people could not travel easily and post offices were within a couple of miles of each other, he said. Recently, he put together an historical walking tour of watering holes in the Downtown Frederick Historic District, a Preservation Trades Workshop hosted by the National Park Service’s Historic Preservation Training Center. He also does building accessibility reviews for the county as a volunteer, and gives presentations to a variety of groups, including the Urbana Senior Center.
All of which keep him extremely busy. “It’s a good thing that I’m retired,” he smiled, “or I don’t know where I would find the time.”
And finding time is his specialty — the markings of time that still exist, if you know where to look.