Taking care of history in West Virginia

May 12, 2003|by Chris Copley

Owners of old and historic houses are blessed and cursed, according to architectural preservationist Tom McGarry of Birnam Wood Joinery, Charles Town, W.Va. He likes to quote a friend.

"He said, 'When people buy an old house, they're getting a piece of history. They're not the owners, they're the caretakers,'" McGarry recalls. "But it's a money pit. There's always something that breaks."

Living and working in Charles Town, W.Va., McGarry finds plenty to make him happy. And sometimes sad. He tells the story of a real estate agent in Charles Town who asked him to examine the inside of a historic home about to be put up for sale.


"All the woodwork in the rooms still had the original faux wood paint on it," he says. "I saw that and said, 'Wow, this is neat!' The real estate agent I was with said, 'It doesn't matter. If someone bought this, they'd just paint over it.'

"It wouldn't be a selling point. It's primitive," McGarry explains. "I like it because it's original. It was expensive at the time. That's how they became the Joneses, the people other people wanted to catch up to."

McGarry finds that many buyers of historic homes like the idea of living in a historic home, but the reality sometimes involves unpleasant surprises.

"Why do people like old houses? There's a sense of communion with the past," he says. But "old houses don't accomodate modern lifestyles - like lack of closets."

Historic homes in adjacent Berkeley County will be on display during Preservation Week. On Tuesday, May 13, historian Don Wood will lead a bus tour highlighting not only homes but landscapes.

The nine-stop tour leaves the Belle Boyd House at 9 a.m. Tuesday and visits Green Hill Cemetery in Martinsburg, Van Metre Ford stone bridge, Smoketown School, the Morgan Cabin and Griffith's old time store in Gerrardstown. The tour ends at 3 p.m.

The cost for the tour is $30, which includes lunch at the Peking restaurant in Martinsburg. For tickets and more information, call 304-267-4713.

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