Saving Selma

After years of neglect from an absentee owner and decay significant enough to threaten its survival, historic Selma Mansion in Loudoun County is getting a second chance.

For more than a century, there may have been no more tantalizing dream house for residents of northern Loudoun County than the stately Selma Mansion. Sitting on the side of Catoctin Mountain and towering over the valley below, the 20-room Colonial Revival mammoth bellowed “antebellum aristocracy.”

But for most of the past two decades, Selma also murmured “money pit.” Plaster and stucco were fissured—if they remained at all. The foundation drooped along major fault lines. Any hardware of value— doorknobs, light fixtures, copper anything—had been stolen by vandals. All windows were broken out, and many of the interior wooden walls were rotten or spotted with black mold. The roof leaked rainwater, which then came to sustain vines inside so formidable that some were given names. By 2016, one creeper dubbed “Twisted Sister” had ravaged the walls and ceiling in the corner of one room.

Sharon Virts was well aware that dark comedies and cautionary TV shows are often based on the horrors hiding in the proverbial “fixerupper.” But the longtime Loudoun resident and history buff, who grew up in nearby Lucketts, threw caution to the wind when she learned the endangered beauty might be for sale by its absentee owner.

A Dutch businessman, Peter J. ter Maaten, had owned the house and then-212-acre property since 1999. He had planned to restore and transform it into, among other things, a high-end corporate retreat. But the grand plans never materialized. By 2007, the house and its 50 remaining acres (Maaten sold more than threefourths of the land to developers in 2002) was in such disrepair that local preservationists, led by Lori Kimball, now director of programming and education at Oatlands Historic House and Gardens, formed a group to attempt to save the structure from irreparable decay. The group received permission from Maaten, who lives in Europe, to access the house and begin to document its condition. The group, consisting of about a dozen volunteers, bought plywood (with their own money) to cover windows and other materials to protect the house as best they could from vandals and further water damage. “But we just couldn’t afford to keep paying to keep up someone else’s property,” Kimball says. “We did our best to secure it, but we couldn’t do much more. Then it just sat there for years.”

Even as the structure approached an apparently imminent demise, Maaten wasn’t selling.

But Virts, the hard-charging founder and executive chairman of Ashburn-based government contractor FCi Federal, said that once she saw the house and pitched the idea to buy it to her husband, Scott Miller, she wasn’t going to accept no for an answer from Maaten. Early last year, Maaten finally agreed it was time for him to let go. Virts and Miller, who is FCi’s president, first offered $800,000, which Maaten refused. But after hard negotiations, a deal was reached. The couple bought the mansion for $1.2 million in March of last year.

“I was cold to the idea at first,” says Miller during a recent tour of the mansion. “We’ve all heard the horror stories. But it’s an amazing place and it needed to be saved.”

The land on which the mansion sits was first purchased in the early 1700s and became part of a 10,000- acre plantation. In the early 1800s, Armistead Thomson Mason, U.S. Senator and grandnephew of George Mason IV, author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, built and lived in the first house on the property. It only stayed in Mason’s possession until 1819, the year he died in a pistol duel with his cousin over a political disagreement.

Some of the house burned down in the 1880s, sparing only a brick outbuilding. The structure—perhaps the original home’s summer kitchen— became the kitchen wing of the current house, which was built in 1902 by respected local businessman E.B. White (no relation to the author of the same name). White spared few expenses. Beyond all the finest woodwork and hardware throughout, the mansion included heavy brass “speaking tubes” (a turn-ofthe- century intercom system) for summoning servants, and an ornate spigot in the smoking and billiards room (a fin de siècle man cave) to run sweet Catoctin Mountain spring water directly to the room in which White drank his beloved bourbon and spring water.

After the difficult negotiations with Maaten came an even more challenging endeavor: Creating a battle plan for first securing the structure and then determining the depth of the decay, and drawing up architectural plans that respected and restored the original structure while adding modern amenities and living spaces.

At the heart of the restoration design is a copy of White’s original 1902 plans for the house, which were designed by Richmond architectural firm Noland and Baskervill, a firm that also was working at the time on the east and west wing additions of the Virginia state capitol building.

Beyond a fully renovated kitchen and updated bathrooms, most of the modernizations will be subtle, especially in the case of the new air-handling system. Ductwork, for example, will be hidden behind sections of imperceptibly expanded and re-plastered wall. The estimated total cost for the restoration and expansion: $2 million (in addition to the purchase price).

Black mold and a few other complications have bumped the price up, but not considerably more. “We’re deep enough into the bones of the structure that we’re past the hidden issues,” says Miller. “There are a lot of issues to deal with, but we know what they are now.”

The house is teeming with contractors working on dozens of projects, everything from sanding or replacing woodwork to gutting and refurnishing all the mansion’s bathrooms. Among numerous other signs of progress: A new roof has been installed, all of the windows have been replaced, the exterior stucco is new, the foundation and walls have been shored up, and the property has been fortified with a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire to protect from further vandalism.

Virts and Miller plan for the restoration to be finished by fall and hope to move into the house by Christmas.

The restoration has garnered immense interest from Loudoun County residents and preservationists from outside the area. The “Selma Mansion Rebirth” Facebook page has more than 50,000 “likes” and has a steady stream of posts by the family showing the progress of the restoration, as well as comments and photos from fans of the house. When finished, besides serving as the private residence for Virts and Miller, the home will host private events for preservation groups and charitable organizations, including Virts’ new endeavor, the Sharon D. Virts Foundation, a non-profit she started to support local preservation, education and healthcare initiatives.

“We want Selma to be a place where we can come together for the betterment of the community,” says Virts. “There is a bigger goal to all of this work. Hopefully, there’s an example here. With this project and the foundation, we want to help strike that balance between growth in Loudoun and the continued preservation of the culture that makes Loudoun an exceptional place to call home.”

This article originally appeared in our June 2017 issue.

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