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Mason Hearn's restoration project on cover of Renovation Style
from Renovation Style, Winter 2000
Saving the White Elephant
by Candace Ord Manroe
Photography by Tony Glammarino
Produced by Mona Dworkin

Excerpt from article—

In Richmond Virginia, no street carries quite the clout of Monument Avenue — yet not long ago, one of its historic homes seemed headed for extinction.

Its restoration team nicknamed the 1908 mansion-gone-bad “The White Elephant” — and even had T-shirts printed declaring it so. But all jokes aside, saving the big white house was serious business for everyone involved, beginning with its owners, Mary and Tom Horton.

“We decided this house was worth saving because it was regarded as one of the best examples of Arts and Crafts style in Richmond.” And when Mary and Tom first saw the house, it seemed to be on an irreversible course toward demolition.

“This big behemoth of a house was in horrendous condition,” says restoration contractor Mason Hearn. “No one had lived in it for over a decade, and before that, its last owner grew old and couldn’t take care of it. The roof leaked, there was termite damage, the floors had collapsed — the kitchen floor had fallen through clear to the basement. There were plenty of animals living in the house, which had no working electricity, plumbing, or mechanicals. Plaster was falling off the walls.

“It was kind of a haunted house — an enigma on this wonderful street of mansions. The idea of saving it was so daunting that most people would look at it and say, ‘No way!’ They knew they wouldn’t have the time, patience, vision, or money to even consider it.”

Then along came Mary and Tom. Tom, a stockbroker, had two mandates for the project: that he and Mary meet weekly with Hearn’s team to brainstorm, and that they and daughter Claire, 17, not move into the place until the last coat of paint was dry. The family stayed involved in the dramatic rescue while keeping their distance from the chaos.

Good thing, for the restoration was neither quick nor pain-free. The design process alone — just cobbling together a vision — took months. “Every week, we’d have coffee and doughnuts at the Hortons’ and talk about what we were going to do in this or that room,” says Hearn.

The restoration stayed true enough to the original floor plan to ensure architectural integrity. “The major formal rooms that were important to the essence of the house were maintained — the vestibule, the living room, and the dining room,” says Hearn. Five small rooms at the back of the main floor were reconfigured as a big, modern kitchen with an octagonal breakfast room off one corner.

Similarly, major upstairs rooms kept their original dimensions, while smaller secondary bedrooms and baths were made more family-friendly — more spacious, functional, and appealing the the modern eye.

Before and during restoration, the curator of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts led tour groups through the home, explaining that this is Richmond’s most important extant example of Arts and Crafts architecture. “It would’ve been cheaper to build a new, larger house than to restore this one,” admits Hear, “but the character of the original could never have been replicated.”

Despite the time and expense, the Hortons have no regrets about saving their White Elephant. “Through this, I discovered I love restoration,” says Mary. “I would like to do it again.” Tom? No comment.

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