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What it means to be a historic home in NoVA

From the qualifications to the maintenance, here’s everything you need to know about the many historic homes in Northern Virginia.

Historic Oatlands Plantation in Leesburg. (© cindygoff / stock.adobe.com)

The list of historic tales and events that the region of Northern Virginia has endured is endless. From George Washington’s former mill operation in Alexandria to the original home of confederate general Robert E. Lee in Arlington, each historic building has a story to tell. But have you ever stopped to think about how a building with such a long past still looks as if it is full of life?

First, for a building to be considered worthy of preservation, it needs to be approved by the National Register of Historic Places, which is an organization that reviews nominations submitted by states, tribes and other federal agencies. If approved, the building will be placed on the National Register and is treated as historically significant nationally, regionally and locally.

“The term ‘historic’ is problematic,” Marc Dluger says, a professor at Northern Virginia Community College – Loudoun Campus, who helps run the Public History & Historic Preservation certificate program at the college. “What really matters is the significance and integrity of a historic home, building or site.”

While the significance of a home varies from building to building, it typically has to do with the architectural design, the people who once lived there or the events that used to take place within it. They are all unique in their construction, as well, ranging from historic countryside estates in Loudoun County to smaller, Colonial-period homes in Old Town Alexandria. According to Dluger, the interior of the home can be altered to match the modern era in most cases, but the original exterior features, such as windows and doors, must be untouched and intact to be eligible.

While historic homes have an original feel that newer sites don’t have, they still need to be maintained through modern standards, according to Kate MacDougall, a historic homes specialist and risk consultant for Chubb insurance. It is MacDougall’s job to help clients in the NoVA region preserve and protect their historic homes so that they can continue to thrive for years to come.

“A house is a lot like a person and a person needs to go to the doctor after a certain age,” MacDougall says. “So with a house, you should go ahead and have it inspected twice a year. You should know the age of your roof, the last time appliances were replaced, how the water supply lines look. All of these things, as they start to age, are lost potential of a home.”

According to Chubb, historic homes typically cost about twice as much to maintain than a newer home does due to the older features and material involved, such as antique doors and true dimensional lumber.

Another challenge to preserving historic homes stems from the owners themselves. While listing a home on the National Register of Historic Places is beneficial for a site, it doesn’t completely restrict a homeowner from bulldozing the property or selling it to a developer, according to Dluger.

“Communities can help mitigate some of the ownership issues, especially if the house is a contributing structure to a historic district,” Dluger says. “Having owners who care and respect the house is key, recognizing the importance of the historic property that they’re living in.”

Here in Northern Virginia, most counties, including Arlington, Fairfax and Loudoun, have preservation review boards or an architectural review process that assists owners in preserving their homes.

While development and urban expansion consistently grows throughout the area, the NoVA’s history continues to be heard due to the many historic homes that are preserved.

“I really like how historic homes feel when you walk in,” MacDougall says. “I like attics and basements where you can see handmade nails, pegs that used to hold beams together. Other than the physical part, I like seeing how clients react to their homes. They’re not the owners, they’re the caretakers and their job is to take care of the house for the next generation.”

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