Fascinating family history surrounds rechristened house on Main Street
Evelyn Hutchens might live in Newport News, but she knows all about a certain house in the center of Washington.
Entered through a gated rose arbor, the iconic house on Main Street, which was painstakingly renovated this year, has been part of the Inn at Little Washington since it was first leased in 1994 and purchased in 2005.
What confused Hutchens during her infrequent visits to the town, including this past spring when attending Historic Garden Week in Virginia, is why the 19th century property was named The Norman House?
“I was here in April for the garden tour — I wasn’t going to miss that — and I spent the night at the Inn,” she says, “and I asked the same question then that I asked the year before: Why is this not The Carter House?”
In an interview, Hutchens explains that her grandmother and great-grandmother were both born in the house, although that’s recent history.
“My great-grandmother’s grandparents, John and Francis Carter, were actually the first ones here,” she reveals. “I’m assuming they built the house. One of their sons, William Hamilton Carter, was the next to live here. And then his daughter.”
Patrick O’Connell, the Inn’s celebrated chef and proprietor, was more than intrigued with the history Hutchens presented.
“When I was here in April I brought some photographs and history of the house,” Hutchens continues, “and they were showing me around — it was a total construction site then — and everybody was very interested. And now here we are!”
Here referring to this past Monday’s champagne celebration of the reopening — and renaming — of The Carter House (“previously known as the Norman House,” O’Connell’s invitation pointed out, after the last family to live there).
“It’s just exquisite, spectacular,” Hutchens says of the restored home. “I couldn’t be happier. Now I look forward to staying here with my brother and all the children and taking over the whole house, really having a family reunion. I have deep, deep roots and beautiful happy memories of this town.”
In fact, it was just about 40 years ago that Hutchens and her family were visiting her grandmother on Mt. Salem Avenue and the elderly woman (she lived to be 100) handed them $50 “to try out a very nice restaurant that had just opened a few blocks away. It was the buzz of the town and my grandmother wanted us to go there.”
The year was 1978, and O’Connell and Reinhardt Lynch had recently opened — during a raging blizzard no less — a unique country restaurant (soon to become a culinary destination) in one of the town’s former garages.
“They used to cut flowers in my grandmother’s garden to decorate their tables,” Hutchens recalls. “And then somebody from the restaurant would show up at her front door with little treats, or else they would send over desserts.”
Now, all of these years later, Hutchens and O’Connell are standing side by side on the staircase of the Carter House, which was left perfectly intact during the renovation, exactly as her forebears had built it.
Otherwise “we gave the house a thorough dusting,” O’Connell joked in his remarks, taking the opportunity to introduce the project’s general contractor, Joseph Keyser of Joseph Keyser Construction in Washington, and Annapolis architect Wayne Good, who magnificently drew faux woodblock into the façade of the house.
Also on hand was Peter Post, owner of Peter Post Restoration in Richmond, who carried with him several discoveries his team made when removing the tin roof of the Carter House, including centuries-old remnants of poplar and chestnut, as well as hand wrought nails shaped on a blacksmith’s forge.
Speaking to assembled guests, Post dated the materials to around 1815, which means the house is perhaps older than originally believed. But there was more to announce.
“Also discovered on the roof was this piece of metal,” Post continued, picking up with both hands what he called “one of the rarest shingles in the land” — forged out of wrought iron and of a style originating in Wales, no less.
“It is a fascinating piece of Carter House history,” he said.
Hutchens pointed out that she was “representing all of the cousins” of the Carter family in rechristening the house to its proper name. At which point O’Connell said he could almost see her ancestors coming down the stairs to show their approval.
“You are bringing them to life,” he told her.