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Early house built to German plan

This is the 171st in a series of articles about the historical and architectural treasures of Washington County.

This is the 171st in a series of articles about the historical and architectural treasures of Washington County.

August 10, 2008|By PAT SCHOOLEY Special to The Herald-Mail

Hicksville Road starts at Rockdale Road west of Conococheague Creek in an area of small farmsteads and fields. Standing close to the road, a sturdy stone house turns a blind wall toward the public way. Stone arches top windows in its gable ends. Twenty feet away stands the remains of a summer kitchen, now a summerhouse with a ribbon of windows. A great stone bank barn rests beyond.

This is the Joseph Fiery homeplace, a farmstead dating from the settlement era of Washington County.

On Aug. 17, 1768, Joseph Fieri (Fiery) bought a 100-acre parcel of land from Evan Shelby. Fiery built a handsome house, with facades of ashlar-cut stones and with watertables on its east and south sides where these amenities would be noticed from the road.

The date of the stone house's construction is unknown, but it was built shortly after Fiery purchased the land. The roughly 30-foot-by-36-foot house is one of the earliest buildings in the county. Both house and barn have date stone niches, but the stones themselves have been lost.

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When first built, the east side of Fiery's house faced Rockdale Road. The house has three south-facing bays, with its only entrance in the easternmost bay. The back wall, facing north, had no openings. Then Hicksville Road was built, sometime after 1859, along the back of the house. So a blank wall now faces the road nearest the house.

Even during the settlement period, walls without any openings at all were rare. Early settlers often built their houses to face south, so doorways and windows could take advantage of the sun's heat; north faades had fewer, smaller openings, but blank walls were almost unheard of.

The south-side door opens into the main room of the house, the kche or kitchen/hall of the three-room, center-chimney floor plan typical of early Germanic homes in this area. Closed stairs to the upper floors wind to the right of the entrance. A vast 13-foot-wide cooking fireplace, with its 8-foot-by-5-foot firebox, extends three feet into the room.

On the left side of this fireplace is an original door with six panels, raised on both sides, set in a massive mortised-and-tenoned frame with ovolo trim. Its original strap hinges have been replaced with butt hinges. On the other side of the fireplace is a simpler two-plank door with molded battens securing the planks at the top and bottom. These doors lead to the stube and kammer, the smaller rooms in the main floor.

In the mid-19th century, a story-and-a-half log wing was added to the west side of the house, offset so that one bay is still exposed. With single rooms on each level, the lower space became the kitchen.

Joseph Fiery acquired adjoining parcels, then died in 1833. His will left the 320-acre farm to his son, John. Daughters Mary Catherine and Mary Eve were given use of "the stone end of the house wherein I now live, The Garden in the Hollows, Firewood sufficient for their use " as well as slaves, if they wanted, thus providing for these unmarried women.

John Fiery died in a drowning accident; and the farm, now 172 1/8 acres, passed to other family members, who sold it to Sally Grove for $12,051.50 in 1867. A few months later, she sold 159 1/4 acres to Gustavius Ditto and Jacob Strite for $11,992.96. Earlier, she had sold Strite nine acres of the property. The mortgage agreement among the parties lists improvements as "a stone dwelling house with a log part attached, stone bank barn, sawmill, a dilapidated grist mill and other outbuildings "

By July 1874 Gustavius Ditto signed all of his estate into trust "for the benefit of creditors," and three years later his trustees sold the farm to Christian Lesher. The Lesher family retained ownership until 1974.

By the late 1990s, the Fiery Homeplace, now 3.1 acres, had not been lived in for some time. Twentieth-century owners had replaced the window sashes, built a brick chimney on the west wall to serve the furnace and kitchen stove then removed the center chimney to below the roofline and roofed over it. At some point, an interior concrete staircase to the cellar had been built in the north end of the kche, which then became a study. A new porch was built over the cellar entrance next to the front door.

In 1999, Karen Bream and her husband, Daniel, were looking at houses. They checked out the Fiery Homeplace. Debris filled the house and barn, the land was overgrown and the kitchen floor was more than 12 inches out of plumb. But they saw saw the home's potential.

The project began with clearing and planning. Karen and Daniel worked with Paula Reed to get the Joseph Fiery Homeplace named to the National Register for Historic Places so that they would be able to take advantage of preservation tax credits.

Restoring an old house is a big project best undertaken in steps. Karen cleaned the mortar joints from the west wall so that Preservation Associates, the firm hired to do most of the restoration work, could point them.

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