The Kenmure House

by Janine Latus
photography by Rich-Joseph Facun

     As the men on the great clipper ships sailed past Lamberts Point and up the Elizabeth they saw it, elegant and grand, the Greek Revival home of William Lamb, his home a declaration to the world that both the Lamb family and the fine city of Norfolk prospered. He named it Kenmure. Today, time, the elements, and shifting social and political currents have taken their toll on the fine house in historic Freemason, to the point that it has taken enormous effort and investment by two sets of historically minded owners to bring it close to its original grandeur.

     The house had been built in 1845, when James Polk was president and Florida and Texas were in the process of becoming states. Owner William Lamb was a banker, shipper and merchant, then mayor of Norfolk from 1858 until 1862. That was when Confederate soldiers abandoned the city, torching the Gosport Navy Yard and leaving Lamb to surrender the city to Union soldiers. Sometime during the chaos, Lamb ran upstairs to his children’s nursery, dug up the hearth and buried the city’s historic silver mace – the symbol of power handed from mayor to mayor since 1754, when it had been given to Norfolk by Royal Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie. The Lambs were imprisoned at Fort Monroe; and Union troops occupied the house and dug up the basement floor, hunting for the silver.

     They failed.

     Kenmure had begun as a 40-foot square that rose two stories above an English basement. The walls, made of brick and timbers floated over from the shipyard, were 2 feet thick at the base and 18 inches at the top. The kitchen was an outbuilding, so the house remained cool, even in the hottest of Virginia summers. The massive front door was 3 inches thick, the lion-head knocker the size of a basketball. There were 15 fireplaces, two front parlors and a ballroom, 20 feet wide by 40 feet long.

     A decade later, Lamb built a wood addition onto the back and a third floor onto the main house, topped with a cupola, its mortise and tenon construction much older than the house and thus likely floated down from New England on a barge. The cupola’s windows were high and small, so Lamb climbed a ladder to watch for his ships to return to harbor.

     “The Kenmure grounds occupied half a block bounded by the Elizabeth River, Bute and Botetourt Streets,” wrote the Lambs’ son, William Wilson Lamb, in 1909. “It was a typical southern home of these antebellum days, where besides the ‘white folks’ there was a colony of family servants from the pickaninnys just able to crawl to the old gray-headed mammy who nursed ‘old massa.’ It was an ideal home for a boy: sail and row boats on the shore for sailing and fishing, horses in the stable for riding and driving, peaches, pears, cherries, figs, pomegranates, raspberries, currants in the garden, and roses, pink lilacs, snow balls, hollyhock and all the dear old-time flowers with which to treat his girl and boy friends – with a lovely lawn, bordered with crepe myrtles, bayberry and calycanthus between the mansion house and the river, upon which to romp and wrestle and to enjoy those outdoor games which the children of the founders of Norfolk town in 1682 brought from the motherland.”

     William Wilson Lamb was himself a Civil War hero and onetime mayor of the city who spent so much time building Norfolk’s cotton and rail industries that his own fortune faded. He sold off pieces of the family’s land to people who built fine Georgian and Italianate architecture more ornate than Kenmure’s. The nearest neighbor was within arm’s reach of the side porch; the water view was blocked on both east and north. In 1894 he sold the house itself for $6,300, about $157,000 today. Three years later it was sold again, this time for $14,000, then again in 1906 for $2,500. The harbor became less busy and the neighborhood less fashionable, until it became a hangout for “bums and drunks,” wrote architect Frederick Herman, who owned the house much later. By 1918 Kenmure was a boarding house. During most of the ’20s it stood vacant. In the ’30s it was cut into five apartments, the grand doorway of the ballroom bricked in, the servants’ stairs in the back hidden. In the ’50s police raided the house and found crap tables and a roulette wheel. In the ’70s police again battered in a door to bust up what the newspaper called a “Las Vegas-style crap game.”

     As tenants left, original pieces of the house – light fixtures, mantels, balusters – left with them.

On April Fools’ Day 1976, Fred Herman and his wife, Lucy, a retired teacher, bought Kenmure sight unseen. According to a history left by Fred, the walls were stuffed with lines for gas lighting, bell wires and ordinary lamp cord for electricity, some of it running through water, some of it still live. There were copper pennies in lieu of fuses in breaker boxes.

     “We had lead, copper, galvanized iron, wrought iron, cast iron pipes, and
fittings all intermingled in a great and glorious confusion,” he wrote, “all either leaking or on the verge of leaking, or constricted by deposits so as to be almost closed shut.”
On the up side, the 10-inch doorknocker was still there, the original pillars and glass still flanked the original door, and the gorgeous staircases and dramatic, almost Egyptian-looking molding downstairs were mostly intact.

     The Hermans reopened the parlors, lowered the floor of the English basement 18 inches, rerouted the front porch stairs to gain access to a basement door, and pulled out a bookcase to discover the original pocket doors that had divided the ballroom.

     The Hermans had new mantels built from an architectural pattern book from the 1850s, spindles for the stairway turned by hand, and doors custom-made. They added a raised floor in the cupola so they could see out without using a ladder, and they rerouted the main staircase so it no longer swooped down to the front hall but rather ended at a side porch door so they could run Fred’s architectural firm on the bottom floor and keep the second floor as their home.
It wasn’t easy.

     “In the course of events you will more than once find your wife in tears and hysterics, yourself on the verge of apoplexy, and with thoughts of bankruptcy running through your mind.” Fred wrote. “If you don’t have a sense of humor, the best advice is don’t tackle things of this sort.”
Indeed, while the concrete was still wet in the basement one of them wrote, “Lucy and Fred Herman restored Kenmure 1975-1980. Why?”

     The Hermans turned the upstairs into a showpiece, each wall covered in art. Lucy used the Lambs’ nursery as a studio for private music lessons. According to a newspaper article, after one student finished playing a piece on the flute, Lucy, the student and the student’s mother heard that same song being played upstairs. But the rest of the house was empty. Lucy felt the presence of a ghost several times. One time, the house filled suddenly with the unexplained scent of lavender talcum powder.

     Others felt something, too. Once during the most recent rehabilitation a stranger stopped by and told of living in the third floor apartment in the ’50s, his bed tucked up in the cupola, and how one of the downstairs tenants held a séance at which the medium sensed seven spirits in the house.

      Fred Herman died in 2002. A few years later Lucy put Kenmure on the market, sitting on the stairs to say goodbye to her ghost before she left. For more than a year the house stood vacant and deteriorating once again.

Meanwhile, just up the street, Stephen and Vanessa Sigmon lived in a tiny apartment. They both love history and thought rehabilitating the place would be fun. They bought it in 2006, then spent the next year figuring out how to navigate the historic registry rules while making it livable. Paige Pollard, principal of the Commonwealth Preservation Group, and Clay Dills, of Dills Architects, helped them figure out what could and couldn’t be done under the house’s historic easement.

     “The coolest part for me was to open the wall up and look inside,” says Dills. “Most of it was just brick, but they would lay wood into the walls long ways to give them tensile strength. The copper roofs were welded, one giant, smooth continuous thing. There’s a huge underground cistern in the garden in back, and if you go into the attic space in the roof there are timbers and beams as big as small trees. You have to wonder how it got up there, because it’s four stories in the air.”

     Lamb was a shipper, and it was common at the time for the people who built ships to also build houses, sometimes from new wood, sometimes from wood salvaged from ships.

     Over the next three years the Sigmons opened more bricked-in windows, tore out the apartment-era kitchen-bathroom combinations, redid every bathroom, replaced every bit of plumbing – “I was afraid of what I’d be drinking,” Stephen says – had floors leveled and refinished, and scraped 30 layers of paint off every surface.

     “That thing Fred wrote about how your wife’s going to cry and you’re going to want to scream? That happened to us!” he says. “There was nothing easy in this house. Nothing where you wanted to do X and someone came in and it just got done. There was always some other issue and it led to a bigger problem.”

     The work cost about 75 percent more than Stephen thought it would, offset somewhat by Virginia’s historic building rehabilitation tax credits, which over time will cut about a quarter off their expenses.

     “That program is great,” he says. “Without it a lot of historic houses in Virginia would go by the wayside.”

     Because of the historic easement, which barred removal of items placed before about 1930, the Sigmons couldn’t get rid of incongruent things like the former apartments’ peep holes and exterior-quality locks on interior doors. But Dills found a way to install central air, tucking it under a stairway and running the traces in the second floor ceiling where none of the original trim remains. He also designed a way to build a Brazilian hardwood deck over the copper roof on the river side so the Sigmons could step out from their bedroom and have a view of the water. There are no closets, so they’ve turned one bedroom into an enormous walk-in. They turned one of the apartment kitchen-baths downstairs into an expansive bathroom, and refurbished what their insurer has told them is an Italian floating staircase in what used to be the servants’ area.

     They got guys on scaffolding 40 feet off the ground to Bondo, sand and paint the windows, and hired a masonry company to repair cracks in the brick and replace much of the mortar. Then they replaced all 40 storm windows, each of which had to be custom-fitted into irregular holes. Likewise, it took true craftsmen to recreate missing pieces of the ground floor’s distinctive trim.

     “Nothing’s plumb, nothing square,” Stephen says. “They kind of eyeballed stuff back then.”

    Among the challenges was returning the stairway to its original curving descent into the marble-floored foyer, a project that involved rebuilding the bottom six or eight stairs and the railing and balusters ripped out during the Hermans’ tenure, each piece of wood hand-matched to the original. The Hermans used the newel post when they rerouted the stairs, so now it has been returned to its rightful place.

     “Before we could tear out anything we had to prove it wasn’t original,” Vanessa says.

     Luckily, the Hermans had saved a stack of photos and newspaper articles, many of which the Sigmons plan to display in one of the front parlors. The rest of the downstairs will be an office for Stephen.

     The ghost – or ghosts – are gone now, exorcised by a spiritual sweeping of the house by Stephen’s brother or, as Vanessa says, by the bright paint job, in light blues and grays and whites.

     What remains is a tremendous love for the house.

     “It takes a very particular kind of person to buy and renovate and do a house like that,” Dills says, “and Steve and that house were a match made in heaven.”

     As Stephen says, “I feel like it’s a little bit of a person, like it has a personality. Would I do it again? No. But am I happy now? Yeah.”