A humble, two-story house sitting among some of the grand Rivermont Avenue homes is one of the last of its kind.

The Miller-Claytor House at Riverside Park marks the first iteration of a townhouse. Built in 1791 in what then was the newly formed town of Lynchburg, it didn’t always sit in the space it occupies now.

Originally at the intersection of 8th and Church streets, the house faced a wrecking ball in the 1930s as the value of the land in the growing city became far greater than the old house.

This house, though, is believed to be the fourth house built in Lynchburg, and a group of citizens and civic organizations set out to save it in one of the first preservation projects of its kind in the Hill City.

“Point of Honor, Poplar Forest and we have this,” said Katheryn Moseley Brown, executive director of Lynchburg Historical Foundation, gesturing to the parlor around her. “... This has its own charm and its own place in Lynchburg’s history. It marks another period and another socio-economic history. We are fortunate in this area to have all of them.”

Saving the house connected with the tale of Thomas Jefferson eating a “love apple” at its gate to prove tomatoes were not poisonous brought together people from across the city.

Their efforts culminated in 1936, when the Miller-Claytor house opened to the public during the city’s sesquicentennial celebration. Ever since, it has served the community as a lesson in the early history of Lynchburg and a location for celebrations and events.

“Presenting a charming — and accurate — picture of a typical Piedmont Virginia house of the late eighteenth century, the Miller-Claytor house is significant not only in itself but as one of the cornerstones of historic preservation in Lynchburg,” S. Allen Chambers wrote in his book, “Lynchburg: An Architectural History.”

The history of the house began in 1790, four years after the Hill City’s founding, when tavern keeper John Miller purchased Lot 15 and began constructing his townhouse.

“Three years later, when Miller transferred his holdings to his son-in-law, Thomas Wiatt, the deed made note of ‘the mansion house, outbuildings, and other improvements thereto belonging,’” Chambers wrote. “In 1799, six years after he acquired the property, Wiatt insured the house with the Mutual Assurance Society for $1,000. The policy described the house as ‘34 feet by 20, two stories high, built of wood, covered with wood underpinned with stone, two brick chimneys,’ a capsule description that, with only slight modification, still applies.”

Wiatt, who became Lynchburg’s first mayor in 1805, sold the house to William Warwick in 1802. Warwick lived there for eight years before selling the property to Benjamin Essex, who owned it for 15 years. Essex was a tailor and his wife a milliner. During Essex’s ownership, the house was rented by the family of Owen Owens, which is when the “love apple” legend came about.

Mrs. Owens opened a school for girls and had a sizable book collection, which eventually became the city’s first circulating library.

“Legend has it that Thomas Jefferson ate a tomato from its garden to prove to an Owens child that ‘love apples’ were not poisonous; hence the house acquired the nickname ‘Tomato House,’” according to the foundation.

The house later was purchased for $1,000 by Samuel Claytor, a tobacco merchant who served as a Virginia Senator in 1835, according to the Lynchburg Historical Foundation. From the Claytor estate, it passed to Andrew Elliot in 1837 and Ambrose Page four years later. The Page family held onto the house until 1921.

By the 1930s, though, the house was in a state of disrepair and somewhat out of place in its downtown home of 140 years. The 17-story Allied Arts building rose beside the modest frame house in 1931.

“At its well-located vantage point, the Miller-Claytor house witnessed the passing parade of the growing town for over one hundred and forty years. Its once choice residential location however, became ever more valuable as commercial property, and it had been converted to office use prior to being threatened with demolition in the 1930s,” Chambers wrote. “Because it was one of the few remaining ‘first houses,’ a concerted effort was made to preserve it, if not on its original site, at least on another somewhere in the city.”

A groundswell of support came for the old house, and that led to the foundation of the Lynchburg Historical Society, the precursor to the Lynchburg Historical Foundation.

The newly formed society purchased the house from Walker Pettyjohn, who offered it up for just $100. The house was carefully dismantled in 1935, placed in storage for a brief period and then resurrected at Riverside Park.

“Either they were just used to those kinds of buildings and had knowledge of how it was put together so they could take it apart or they were just miracle workers,” Brown said of the effort it took to move the historic property.

The preservation of the Miller-Claytor home was one of the most successful efforts in the city, Chambers wrote.

“The restoration of the Miller-Claytor House involved everyone,” he wrote. “Among the architects were Stanhope Johnson, who prepared the reconstruction drawings and a rendering showing it at its new location — which immediately became the logo of the Historical Society. Pendleton Clark wrote an article on the restoration for The News. Everette Fauber represented the Architects’ Club at the formation of the Historical Society. Local historians delved into the records; local businesses donated lumber, cement, paint and wallpaper; workmen were paid out of WPA funds. Charles F. Gillette landscaped the yard, which was established and continues to be maintained by the Lynchburg Garden Club.”

The Miller-Claytor House first opened to the public in 1936, during the city’s sesquicentennial celebration.

The parlor mantle was donated but the two second-floor mantles are original, Chambers wrote, adding, “other than these and several other minor items, the Miller-Claytor House retains a remarkable amount of original fabric.”

The house is owned by the Lynchburg Historical Foundation, Inc. and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.

Brown thinks its age, simplicity and role in commerce were important factors that saved it from the wrecking ball.

“I think they were passionate about moving it and keeping it and that this kind of architecture wouldn’t get lost,” Brown said. “I don’t think it really had any historic significance other than timing.”

The Miller-Claytor House is believed to be the fourth house erected in the town of Lynchburg, and “is probably the oldest extant Lynchburg dwelling,” the application for the home’s inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places reads.

The two-story house is clad in tan-colored beaded weatherboards with a gabled roof covered in standing-seam sheet metal. The foundation is made of stone and the house has chimneys on each end, one entirely exposed and the other mostly encased in the exterior wall.

“A two-story brick section of the latter chimney is exposed to the weather, a charming idiosyncrasy that has perhaps some economical advantage in saving lumber,” Chambers wrote. “This feature is not often found in houses in Piedmont Virginia, but has been noted in other places on the eastern seaboard.”

The Miller-Claytor house has three exterior doors for each of the two first floor rooms, indicating it likely was built to serve a dual purpose of commerce and residence.

The exposed chimney also served an external kitchen, but that structure didn’t make the move.

The home’s windows — still original — feature green louvered shutters. A one-story covered porch runs along the rear of the house.

“The Miller-Claytor house hardly warrants or needs any stylistic label, depending simply on pleasing proportions and honesty of expression for its effect and appeal,” Chambers wrote. “Elements of particular note include the extremely steep gable roof, reflecting both its pre-Georgian design heritage and the practical necessity of providing space for bedchambers in the attic.”

The house’s floor plan features a dining room and parlor but no central hall. A small narrow staircase climbs the back wall of the parlor to the second floor.

“The stairs — it’s a wonder mankind survived before we had a building code — are steep and narrow,” Brown said. “It also limits what furniture we can get upstairs.”

The second floor features an updated kitchen and bathroom for hosting events, which Brown hopes to tile with a simulated wood grain. She plans to open the third floor, set up as a one room schoolhouse and a child’s bedroom, paying homage to the Owens family’s time in the house.

“We have worked very hard here recently getting it to period,” Brown said, adding recent changes have brought the house back to early American decor. “We have a lot of very generous donors who have given not just money but furniture.

“It’s not my style but the house seems to like it.”

Brown said the foundation hopes to get a few more period costumes to decorate the space. Period coverlets will dress the beds and the Beeswax Candle Company is working with the foundation to get proper candlelight for the house.

A colorist determined the mantelpiece would have been painted in two color tones, with one color highlighting the depths of the carvings.

“Even though they had fancy faux painting and marble inserts, they wouldn’t have been in this house,” Brown said. “But they would have been able to do a little bit of accentuating of their architecture.”

Brown hopes to garner enough volunteers to keep the house open for a regular set of hours. She said many city residents have driven past the house but haven’t had the opportunity to see the inside.

“I’ve scared I don’t know how many people that have been out in the garden and I’ve walked by the window and I see them jump,” Brown said. “I say ‘I’m in here cleaning. You’re welcome to come in.’”

The garden in the backyard is filled with peonies and lily of the valley, and other plants. It remains an ongoing project of the Lynchburg Garden Club. And those gardens still lure people to the charming little house that overlooked so much Lynchburg history.

“It has its own little charm,” Brown said. “It’s not the elegant home that Point of Honor is and it’s not the historical and grand architecture that Poplar Forest is, but it has its own charm.”

The house is available for weddings, meetings and other events. For more information, visit www.lynchburghistoricalfoundation.org.

PHOTOS: One of city’s first townhomes became successful preservation project

A humble, two-story house sitting among some of the grand Rivermont Avenue homes is one of the last of its kind.

The Miller-Claytor House at Riverside Park marks the first iteration of a townhouse. Built 1791 in what then was the newly formed town of Lynchburg, it didn’t always sit in the space it occupies now.

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

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

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