There’s a verticality to Sterling Wilder’s Diamond Hill home.

Its steeply pitched roof is broken up by four inverted V-shaped pitches framing the upper windows, giving the vague impression of a mountain range.

The tip of each peak, as well as the edges of the roof’s ridge line, is crowned by a wooden spire that further adds to the perception of great height.

Wilder’s circa-1853 house on Harrison Street is one of only two examples of Gothic Revival architecture left in Lynchburg. Its companion, built on nearby Washington Street during the same decade, has a different look.

It’s those differences in appearance and style of the houses throughout Diamond Hill that Wilder found attractive when he was searching for a new home in 2016.

“The outside is not something you see every single day,” he said. “A lot of these houses, the newer houses, look the same. You can't remember which one you live in because they all look alike. But here, all the houses look distinct. I really admire the design of the house.”

Wilder’s house is particularly unique, as S. Allen Chambers writes in his book, “Lynchburg: An Architectural History.” Chambers describes the house as “perky, open and asymmetrical.”

“The design of the Kean house, however, is not haphazard in the least,” he wrote. “Its proportions and relationships are as carefully controlled as any Greek Revival design. The three smaller gabled bays to the left, set in the same plane, are carefully balanced against the larger, single bay that projects on the right.”

Chambers wrote the identity of the builder is not known, but it bears the name of its most “illustrious occupant,” Robert Garlick Hill Kean.

Kean, the husband of Thomas Jefferson’s great granddaughter, served as Lynchburg’s representative to the Congress of the Confederate States of America in November 1861, and later was appointed head of the Bureau of War for the Confederacy.

“The complete history of this house had not yet been ascertained, nor has its builder been identified. Obviously of antebellum vintage, it was not lived in by Kean until after the Civil War. Kean, who came to Lynchburg in 1853, lived at first on Garland Hill,” Chambers wrote.

The Kean house was constructed as a frame house but later was stuccoed. It now has wood siding, painted a slate blue, accented with white trim and capped by a black metal roof. The decorative spikes capping each of the gables had been cut off at one point but those too have been restored.  

Chambers notes the later addition of a side porch and wing on the right, which forms Wilder’s mother-in-law suite, “disfigured” the Gothic Revival style of the facade.

“Surprisingly, the trim of this porch copies that of the older work and may incorporate original material reused at this location,” Chambers said. “One of the most delightful exterior features of the house is the second-floor window in the projecting right-hand bay — a Palladian motif in Gothic form. The small trefoil window in the attic above is a knowing Gothic touch.”

The house remained in the Kean family until 1885. It changed hands quite a bit in its history, serving as apartments for a while before it was converted back to a single-family home.

Wilder purchased it in 2016. When he began his search for a new house, he had never been on Harrison Street.

He had lived in Fort Hill, and his old house was so cramped he and his four teenage foster sons shared one bathroom. He even converted a porch into a bedroom for one child.

He needed something bigger. He wanted at least five bedrooms, located in Ward 2 — the ward he represents on city council.

What his real estate agent showed him was the Kean house. At more than 4,200 square feet, the house boasts 18 rooms, seven of which are bedrooms and four are bathrooms.

“I was like, ‘... that’s a beautiful house,’” Wilder said.

It’s spacious and a bit of a maze, but the extra room is exactly what Wilder needed. In addition to his role as a Lynchburg City Councilman, Wilder serves as the executive director of the Jubilee Family Development Center.

Part of the old house’s appeal came from its location. Wilder can be at his office at Jubilee in four minutes. It’s quite close to the city council chambers and his boys can walk to the YMCA on Church Street.

“I wanted to move to a good neighborhood,” Wilder said. “I wanted to move closer to my office and closer to Jubilee and closer to city council and this was a good location for me because I have foster kids and I need to have a lot of rooms. Between Jubilee and the foster kids and my church, we have a lot of kids. A lot of times, I’ll have seven guys here playing video games.”

Wilder always had an affection for old houses, their quirks and their character.

“I grew up in the Rivermont area so my parents had an old house,” Wilder said, adding, “not quite this old and not quite this large.”

But old houses have their own challenges. For instance, Wilder has a couple roof leaks he’s been working to fix and the duct work simply isn’t there to bring the air conditioning and heat into the second floor, which will cost $10,000 to rectify.

“You’ve got to plan,” Wilder said. “Renovating old houses, painting — that stuff is expensive. It’s been a learning experience.”

Wilder’s favorite place in the house is the dining room with its pass-through fireplace, where one can peer into the modern kitchen with its stone counter tops and new cabinetry. The large bay window floods the space with light.

The dining room is missing its chandelier. Wilder has one to install, but he didn’t realize he had to hang all its little crystals himself, and he hasn’t had time to assemble it.

“To me, the dining room is like the family time,” Wilder said. “I had a wonderful family growing up and to me, that reminds me of them — the family time, the meals, eating together. It reminds me of that. When we were kids, we always ate in the dining room each day.”

Wilder said some of his foster children weren’t used to that — some weren’t even used to regular meals. Yet each day, the family eats dinner in that formal dining room, without the interruption of electronics and cell phones.

“We have family time where we can communicate in this busy world,” he said. “In this technological world, it’s hard to find time to communicate. That’s why I like the dining room.”

Wilder said the yard is spacious but small enough to be manageable. The back features a courtyard where Wilder can entertain. He even bought a grill.

“If you were to have a cookout, it’s a nice gated area,” Wilder said. “... I’ve been too busy for that, but once I calm down a little I can do that.”

The hall is lined with wood paneling Wilder believes was culled from a church but he admits he doesn’t know all the house’s history.

The entryway has an almost nautical feel with its oval window and arched woodwork above the entryway that looks almost like the helm of an old ship. He still is looking for the perfect piece of art to hang in the front hallway.

Shortly after Wilder purchased the house, it was selected as the Central Virginia Design House, in which designers transform the house into a showcase for their work to raise money for the YWCA of Central Virginia’s programs.

Wilder likes to decorate his home with items he picks up at estate sales, trying to gather unique finds, such as the centerpiece on the parlor coffee table made of gnarls of wood that emerge from the base like tentacles.

“It’s also kind of therapeutic for me,” Wilder said. “I’m always busy with the kids, city council and Jubilee. I can go to the estate sales and just relax.”

Wilder noted the Diamond Hill Historical Society is quite active, holding events such as the Art on the Fence on Washington Street, and working to beautify the neighborhood’s entrances. It’s a quiet neighborhood, occupied by a mix of older residents and younger couples, he said. 

“I like the way it’s kind of tucked in,” Wilder said. “I never knew this was up here. Once you go up Grace Street, it’s a whole almost separate community you almost didn't know existed.”

Gothic home's unique facade drew city councilman

There’s a verticality to Sterling Wilder’s Diamond Hill home.

Its steeply pitched roof is broken up by four inverted V shaped pitches framing the upper windows, giving one the vague impression of a mountain range.

Gothic home's unique facade drew city councilman

There’s a verticality to Sterling Wilder’s Diamond Hill home.

Its steeply pitched roof is broken up by four inverted V shaped pitches framing the upper windows, giving one the vague impression of a mountain range.

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A window atop the front door at the home of Sterling Wilder in Lynchburg on November 13, 2019.

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Sidener is the special publications editor for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5539.

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