Drive down Washington Street in the Diamond Hill area of Lynchburg and you might find Vernon Neighbors dutifully grinding away at old paint coating ornate ironwork on his front porch.
Working on this 167-year-old house has been a labor of love for the Neighbors family but it hasn’t been without its challenges, such as Vernon’s hospital stay for lead poisoning while working on that very porch.
Julie Neighbors remembers when she first saw the Gothic cottage-style house, with it palatial curved staircase. It was that staircase she couldn’t get out of her head.
“I was just like, ‘Oh my God, I’m falling in love,’” she said. “I just love this thing.”
That was 1974, and Vernon and Julie had been married just a year when they purchased the Robinson-Stabler-Bocock house. At that time, it had been divided into three apartments.
“When we first bought this house, we moved in Labor Day 1974, we couldn’t fix the toilet,” Julie said. “I don’t know what the hell we thought we were doing.”
Julie compared it to the 1986 comedy “The Money Pit,” starring Tom Hanks and Shelley Long. In the movie, a young couple is lured into buying a suspiciously low-priced estate that falls apart around them, straining the couple’s finances and relationship.
The Neighbors quickly learned working on old houses often becomes a much larger project than initially anticipated.
“That’s the thing people don’t realize when you get into a house like this and you start something, hang onto your hat because it’s not going to be what you think,” Julie said.
The house is one of only two examples of the Gothic revival style in the city, wrote S. Allen Chambers in his book, “Lynchburg: An Architectural History.”
The story of this house begins in 1852 when Christian Robinson Stabler purchased the lot for $1,750. Stabler, a druggist from Alexandria, built the mid-19th century Gothic cottage that year, Chambers wrote.
“The interior of the Stabler house presents perhaps the most fascinating amalgam of styles of any residence in Lynchburg and gives credence to the contention that the battle of the styles often ended in a draw,” he wrote. “Actually, there were few specifically Gothic details in the original interior. Practically the only Gothic space in the house is the second-floor sitting area off the stair hall, which is lit by the prominent arched window of the façade and has a high arched ceiling.”
The curved staircase Julie fell in love with, the ornate columns framing the doorways and some of the fireplace mantles were additions by later owners.
The Stablers lived in the house until 1870 — the same year it was annexed into the city. It then was purchased by Thomas S. Bocock, who served in the United States Congress from 1847 to 1861 before he became speaker of the Confederate Senate in 1880.
James Booker purchased the house that year, Julie said. There weren’t any other homes on the block and Booker decided to sell off lots. It was about that time Julie speculated the Greek columned trim work was added along with the front porch.
T. Ashby Watts purchased the house after Booker, Chambers wrote. Julie believes it was Fanny Watts who added the decorative griffin-adorned mantle in the front sitting room. The Watts family owned the house for about 40 years, Julie said.
A later owner, W.O. Sisk, died out in the yard. After the Sisk family, the house was owned by DAARD Inc. for a few years. Then Vernon and Julie Neighbors purchased it in 1974, paying $35,000 for the 4,500-square-foot house, roughly $182,000 in today’s dollars.
Julie described the neighborhood as a little overgrown and unkempt when they purchased the house, but it has undergone a resurgence to well-manicured, single-family homes that now characterize Diamond Hill.
When the Neighbors first purchased the house, the brick had been painted a brick color with white mortar lines drawn in haphazardly. Remnants of that old paint still can be seen along the porch, though most of the house has been restored to clear-coated natural brick.
“We always laughed because it looked like a drunk had been doing the lines,” Julie said. “They painted all the white lines over the whole house.”
One of the couple’s first orders of business was removing the makeshift walls dividing the house into three apartments.
Julie recalled most of the home’s interior was painted in summer green and battleship grey, and Vernon found himself stripping away layers of paint caked into the valleys of the intricately carved woodwork.
“When we were stripping in here, it was like every time we got to a light switch, we’d find this dead rat, petrified,” Julie said. “So it got to be a joke. ‘Guess what I found?’ ‘Money?’ ‘No.’ ‘A dead rat?’”
The couple hosted a wallpaper stripping party for the foyer, arming friends with scrapers and spray bottles and fueling them with spaghetti and beer. The endeavor exposed an alcove in the stairwell called a coffin corner, used to help transfer a dead body downstairs.
The newel post at the bottom of the stairs culminates in a large knob. Julie believes it isn’t the original, and noted the one sitting there now has been knocked off its post a number of times during their tenure.
“We had people who would ride the banister down,” Julie said with a smile. “My boys were hell on wheels.”
For a while, the foyer’s light fixture didn’t quite fit the grandness of the space. One day, Julie recalled, a woman stopped by and introduced herself as the daughter of a prior owner. When the woman married, she said her mother gave her a foyer chandelier, and she wanted to return it to its proper place.
“So we went over to her house,” Julie said. “We still didn’t have a pot to pee in. … It was sitting in one of those round tubs. I said, ‘We can offer you $300 for it,’ and she said, ‘What about $250?’”
Julie and Vernon took it home and installed the crystal chandelier, but it was missing the center ball. A neighbor later gave a new center crystal to the couple.
“... There are things we just kind of fell into,” Julie said. “I really believe that when the time is right then you just fall into something.”
The wiring in parts of the house still is knob-and-tube style, and Julie noted sometimes when cleaning the chandelier, she has gotten a little shock since the power isn’t all the way off.
In repairing the brickwork under the porch, the couple discovered a little box. Inside was a love letter. The couple later met a relative of the Watts family, who asked about that box.
“It was the cutest thing,” Julie said.
The house was built with two cisterns to gather water — one came into the basement from the front of the house, and the other sits in the exterior basement stairwell. When the couple decided to cement the basement floor, their son, Chris, decided he wanted to see what was in that cistern.
“Back in those days, if they wanted to fill something in they just put junk ... in there,” Julie said. “He pulled out overalls, ladies high heels, and jars and stuff.”
In 1978, the couple decided to renovate the kitchen and hired a contractor. Julie called it a disaster that ended up in court because of unfinished and unsatisfactory work.
The morning after the kitchen cabinets had been installed, Julie remembers jumping up from bed and telling her husband she was going to put away the silverware.
“He said, ‘In what, Julie?’ and I said, ‘The drawers,’” she said. “He said, ‘You didn’t order any drawers.’ I said, ‘Yes, I did.’ I ran downstairs and I was like, ‘Oh ... no drawers.’”
Julie said they used furniture to supplement the cabinets until a 2005 remodel added a peninsula and more cabinetry.
The two upstairs bathrooms originally featured old toilets that had been rigged from gravity-fed boxes to fit a half-gallon tank. Those toilets used so much water the Neighbors tried a number of methods to keep water consumption at a minimum when their boys were young, including putting bricks in the toilet tank.
After a leak formed in an upstairs bathroom, Vernon set out to fix it but, as with all things in old houses, the repairs didn’t go as planned. A pipe burst and the couple decided it was time to renovate.
“Who knows what we were thinking,” Julie said, adding their sons and a foreign student lived at home and assorted family members had come to visit while they had one functioning bathroom in the house. “We thought it would take two weeks. ... It was like four months.”
The large front porch Vernon had been working on recently features ornate ironwork and a beadboard ceiling, designed to expand and contract but so much paint had been caked into the joints, it didn’t budge.
About three years ago, Vernon set out to strip the paint so the porch could breathe. He had tented in the porch in such a way he trapped himself in with the dust and ended up hospitalized for three days because of lead poisoning.
Vernon noted wood on the ceiling remains original, except for just a couple pieces he had to replace. But another problem emerged — the porch was pulling away from the house. It had to be slowly jacked into place 1/32 of an inch each day.
After the porch, the couple installed a rubber membrane roof to cut down on maintenance. Julie blames her shoulder surgery and two artificial knees on painting that roof.
For all the loving restoration, the Neighbors’ house still has its flaws.
Julie noted the rippled plasterwork in an upstairs bedroom that stems from a leak she said they have been chasing for more than 40 years. There’s flooring to fix in the basement and drainage work that needs to be addressed around the house.
A house that lives to be 167 years old will never be flawless.
But for Julie and Vernon, that isn’t the point.
Generations have lived there before the Neighbors family, and sometimes Julie wishes those old walls could tell the tales of the families that came before.
Julie and Vernon feel as though they are caretakers of this piece of Lynchburg’s history for a while and in the process, the family has added their own lifetime of memories to the collection of stories those old walls could tell.