We were very sad today to wake to the news that one of Shenandoah County’s most recognizable historic farm structures had succumb to fire early this morning. The County Farm and its historic Alms House were ravaged by fire, and we understand that it is a near total loss. The Alms House began its mission of providing a home for those in need in 1798, and has continued that mission in various forms up until today. Fire is well known to be one of the greatest threats that our historic structures have to continually face, from the days of roaring cooking fires and candles to the modern era of outdated electrical workings that can prove prohibitively expensive to upgrade and maintain. The Northern Virginia Daily did a piece last year about the farm with a shot of it’s past condition, and the Shenandoah County Historic Society has an article detailing the County Farm’s long history. For those unfamiliar, I was able to find this uncredited rendering of the farm (and if anyone can tell me who to credit I will gladly add that information to this post!):
Our wonderfully talented cousin, Marty French, captured the loss of the Alms House this morning:
While we don’t yet know what caused the fire at the Alms House, here at Edge Hill we are still utilizing wiring installed in the 1940s, and not without a great deal of trepidation. None of our outlets are grounded, and countless dinner preparations have been interrupted by a breaker switching when we use our microwave and hotplate at the same time. The process for updating the electrical systems in these old brick and plaster homes, however, is labor intensive. As our Little House was a total gut job from the beginning, we can show you in detail what this process entails. First, you must remove the old wiring:
When we began working on the Little House, this rat’s nest was still live (this picture is post shut-off)! We didn’t actually think it was active given its state, but of course we double-checked before messing with any wires and found that power was still going to the Little House.
This gem was one of the connections we found in the house. Yes, it is a mess of exposed wires that was just taped over with black electrical tape, and was in close proximity to the shredded newspaper that inhabitants from the 1940s used as insulation. To remove the wiring, we had to literally rip it from behind the paster in the walls. Next, we had to come up with our replacement plan, noting the modern code requirements for spacing of electrical outlets. Since we are keeping the same plaster-over-brick finish in a number of the original walls, this meant calling in the brick masons to bury the new outdoor-rated wiring in our walls:
The masons had to saw channels into the brick to run the wiring and install the receptacle boxes. As you might imagine, this is an incredibly dusty and difficult task.
From there, the lines are cemented into place with mortar:
In our case, the ends of the electrical lines are then fed through the floors and routed to the new panel box in our utility closet:
Needless to say, this already tricky task would be greatly compounded if you weren’t also working with open floors and crawl spaces to run the wiring. We cringe to think of how difficult this will be to accomplish in the main house were we have detailed woodworking and original hand-painted walls that are over one-foot thick and solid brick.
Historic structures require their owners to be constantly endeavoring to update and maintain (read: Spend money!). This process isn’t cheap and, on balance, requires owners to place an intrinsic value on the experience of preservation and the opportunity to share in a space that has sheltered generations through life’s trials. I can’t count how many times we’ve questioned the sheer scale and timeline of our project here at Edge Hill, and each time we come to the same conclusion. We want to be part of the history of this place. We want to care for it and steward it so that future generations can contemplate the experiences of those who have gone before, and so that they too can leave their mark.
In closing, we ask you to think of the mission of the County Farm and Alms House. For over 200 years the farm gave shelter and sustenance to those in need. Those passing through its walls were facing some of life’s toughest struggles, and they took refuge in knowing that our community was dedicated to ensuring a safe place for all. While we have lost a wonderful structure, that mission remains in our community. The only question is what we will do going forward.