Selma Mansion Historic Rebirth: The Passion of Sharon Virts and Scott Miller

Selma Mansion Historic Rebirth: The Passion of Sharon Virts and Scott Miller

The fan club was gathered at the entrance, fervent arrows straining to be loosed.

In a moment, the door would be opened and they finally would meet the rock star.

“I can’t believe I’m actually here,” said one woman in her 30s or 40s.

“This is like a dream,” said another, perhaps toward the higher end of the same age group.

On the other side of the door was their idol. Their obsession. A star they have followed day by day for months or years. Like cyber-stalkers – with permission.

And today, they have more than permission; they have an invitation.

The rock star? It’s not Elvis Presley, or Bruce Springsteen or Eddie Vedder or even Adele.

It’s Selma Mansion.

The historic mansion and its property have a history dating back to the family of founding father George Mason IV. After more than a century of opulence, the structure had fallen into disrepair until being purchased in 2016 by Sharon D. Virts and Scott F. Miller. Together, they launched the Selma Mansion Rebirth, and the 100 fans gathered Sept. 24 were the top “friends” of that rebirth’s Facebook page.

“We have 65,000 followers on Facebook,” Virts said as the last guests were being taxied back to their cars after the tours. “That following, I think, has really propelled our efforts and helped spread the positive word about what we are trying to do here. I think we just decided, Scott and I, that we wanted to thank them for all they do.”

Virts said these Facebook fans are a vital part of her efforts with Selma and historic preservation in general.

“There is something special about saving a bit of the past, making it your own and living in it.

“This was our way of thanking them and maybe inspiring them to start a movement.”

SELMA’S HISTORY

The view from Selma’s front steps is commanding and inspiring of itself. It looks down over the 10,000 acres sold around 1741 by Lord Fairfax to Stevens Thomson Mason – the brother of patriot and Bill of Rights “father” George Mason.

Verts said the origin of the Selma name is uncertain, but the two versions she heard relate back to the Scottish heritage of the Mason family.

“We heard two versions of this,” she said. “We heard it was named Selma because that was the little Scottish town that the Mason family was from and we also heard that it was inspired by a poem by James MacPherson that Ann Thomson Mason read at the end of the 1700s as a Gaelic poem. Selma was referred to in that poem as the ‘highest place’ or ‘a beautiful view.’”

The original structure was built by Armistead Mason, the son of Stevens and Ann Thomson Mason, in the early 1800s. That home was destroyed by fire in 1890 and the property was sold in 1896 to Elijah B. White, who built the current structure between 1900 and 1902.

The home was inhabited until the 1990s, although all but 50 acres of the original estate was sold off to developers. The home fell into disrepair toward the end of the century and by 2009, it was listed on Preservation Virginia’s “Most Endangered Historic Sites” list.

During her opening remarks to the “brunch-and-tour” fan club, Virts gestured off to the north and east.

“I grew up not too terribly far from here, about three that way, in Stumptown,” she said. “My mom, my dad and my brother still live there. We all knew this property. We all knew it was here.”

Virts found success in business and she and Miller remain active in Loudoun County and their community, but she said she never really gave much thought during all that time to Selma.

Then, in January 2016, a friend posted pictures from the “Most Endangered” website and Virts was spurred to action.

I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “It was sickening. I didn’t sleep for about three days and then I called up a real estate person that I know and asked him to find out who owns it and if I can buy it.”

Then, she shared her vision of buying, restoring and moving into Selma with her husband.

“He was like, ‘We’re going to do what? Virts said.”

Miller said he took his wife seriously but wasn’t sure the house could be saved.

“I think my reaction was more, ‘I wonder whether the bones are good enough for this thing to stand. How bad was it?” Miller said. “So, the deal we made was that if the structural engineers said we could renovate it, we would do it.”

REBIRTH IS NOT WITHOUT LABOR PAINS

After convincing the owner to sell, Virts and Miller took ownership in March 2016 and work commenced. By August, the dream was turning into a nightmare.

“That month was pretty bad,” Virts said. “We fired the GC (general contractor) and we were pretty desperate.”

“We weren’t making any progress,” Miller said. “It seemed like we were spending a lot of money and nothing was happening. Then they kept finding things that we hadn’t planned on.”

For example, they had to replace 12 of the 13 existing chimneys.

“They had put the wrong mortar in there at one point so the bricks were decaying to we had to take all the chimneys out but one,” Miller said.

“We had to support the building on three sides so that we could safely replace the mortar and bricks that had turned to sand and ultimately replace the roof & stabilize the walls.”

Virts said every time they fixed one problem, another popped up.

“We started saying, ‘What’s the Selma surprise of the day?’ ‘What’s the Selma surprise of the week?’ There was always some surprise someplace.”

The couple said things started to turn around when they became more hands-on with the project.

“For me, the turning point was when we stopped thinking about it as the Selma project and we started looking at individual projects,” Scott said. “For example, winter is coming — let’s focus on getting the heating finished.

“It’s like they say about how to eat an elephant. That’s what it became – one bite at a time.”

While construction is far from complete, the family – Sharon and Scott have four children between them – moved into Selma in July. That was ahead of initial expectations.

“Sharon thought it would be Christmas of this year,” Scott said. “I thought it would be into ’18. We hit July of this year.”

‘WE ARE NOT FINISHED’

Before the tours, Virts thanked the fans for coming to the event and gave a series of disclaimers about safety and the condition of the manor. She warned people not to stroll down to the carriage house without help from Tom Gladney, Selma’s one-man security staff.

“It’s under construction, and we do have a snake problem down there,” she said.

She reminded her guests that while renovation efforts have come far enough for the family to move in, there still is much work to be done.

“This is an active construction zone,” Virts said. “You are not seeing the real deal.”

While there is a whole edition — featuring a three-car garage and master bedroom suite — yet to be constructed, work also continues within most of the rest of the historic home.

“We are not finished,” she said. “There is not one room in this house that is finished. Not one.

“The Red Room is probably about as close to being done as any,” she starts to say, then begins listing what remains to be done. “We are still missing the corona, and the bed cover had to be sent back and – oh yeah, there’s no lights in the bathroom.”

With fixtures, wall coverings and light fixtures being custom made from Italy and around the world, delays happen.

“There are going to be 31 chandeliers in the main mansion, so if you see the West Virginia hanging bulb, there is going to be a chandelier there,” she jokes.

THE GRAND ENTRANCE

None of Virts’ disclaimers or warnings dulled the enthusiasm as the fan club waited on the front porch. They had been following the progress day-by-day on the Selma Mansion Rebirth Facebook page and knew pretty well room-by-room what is finished and what is not.

Gladney opened the door and let the group into a giant entry area where they circled a large table garnished with a huge spread of fresh flowers. To the left is the pink parlor room and to the right the darker, wood-covered dining room. Straight ahead is the living room, complete with a pianist setting the mood with a classical masterpiece.

Tom paused before exiting the dining room to point out a door – refinished and smooth on one side but visibly aged and slightly disfigured on the other.

“Sharon liked how this side is indented slightly from decades of people pushing against the door to open it,” Gladney said. “So, she forbid anyone from refinishing that side of the door.”

The tour proceeded down hallways and past bathrooms featuring “million dollar toilets” of pink granite crowned with a golden seat cover. The second floor features iconic bedrooms with names things like the Dog Room and the Bunny Room. The third floor features bedrooms for the children and a recreation room that is roughly the size of the main floor of many Northern Virginia townhouses.

Around the back, across the area where the new garage and master suite are being constructed, is the only entrance right now to the smoking room. This is where the home’s original owner – White – had spring water piped in because that was the only water he would use to dilute his whiskey. Virts said the pipeline system is still in place and they plan to utilize that system to have the spring-water tradition continue at Selma.

Despite the warnings, close to 30 people followed Gladney down to the dilapidated carriage house structure that doubled as the White family’s ice house.

Gladney jumped down into the 18-feet deep former ice house as a black snake hit his cue and crawled along the floor. After pointing out that he stands about 6-foot-4, Gladney showed a level about at his chin as the height of discarded cans they had to remove from the lower level of the carriage house.

“We filled and hauled away 51/2 dumpsters full of empty cans,” he said. “Beer cans, pop cans, soup cans, all kinds.”

THE ‘NEW’ NEW

According to Virts, old is the new, new.

That is the approach they are taking with the restoration of Selma, that is the approach they are taking in a larger historic preservation context with the Virts Miller Foundation, and that is the approach she wants to see people take in communities around Virginia and the world.

“We’re losing too many of our old homes and too much of our history is being torn down to make room for cul-de-sac communities,” she said. “I’m fine with those, I mean we lived in one for a while. I’m not one of these people who says we must preserve at the expense of progress. If the community doesn’t have opportunities, the community dies. But we can’t just wipe whatever is there and build something new. You’ll have a community that doesn’t have any history, or culture or identity.”

Miller said that passion and vision are behind their efforts with Selma and with the Virts Miller Foundation.

“History and culture are very important to her and preserving it is paramount,” he said. “I think in her mind, this is her part of preserving history that has been here for 200 years and we have an opportunity, because of our own luck or success, to be able to do that. It’s an obligation we have as a member of the community to help it preserve its culture and history.”

Virts said it’s not just nostalgia – it just as much about a community’s future.

“Without that history or that culture, your community doesn’t have a soul,” she said. “A community needs to ‘get’ where it comes from so they have something to celebrate. Whether it’s good history or bad history, that’s part of what makes you who you are.

“We need to go forward. We need to have opportunity. We need to have economic development and progress, but that doesn’t mean we can’t preserve and hold onto things from the past in a way that makes us healthier because it helps us remember where we came from, learn from it and grow from it.”

THE DINING ROOM DOOR

Selma Mansion Rebirth, and the philosophy of Virts and Miller, may come down to that one swinging door that separates the kitchen from the entry back into the kitchen area.

“They wanted to refinish it and I said ‘no, no, no, no,’” Virts said. “I want to keep it just the way it is.

“On the other side, it’s been finished to match the room. So, you have both sides – the old and the new — right there. I think that’s what we need to learn – how to balance that.

“I just can’t stand to see things torn down. I’ve had trouble when we’ve had to tear down a wall. I stop and say, ‘OK, is this a good thing or is this just us being silly?’ We will talk about it and debate it.”

That stance is most evident in a brick section of the home they call they 1814. They were encouraged by the county and the original general contractor to level it and start from scratch. Sharon and Scott persisted, and what remains is the oldest – and perhaps the most beautiful part of the remaining structure.

The bricks were eroding – 20 percent had to be replaced — and a tree was crashed through one corner of the 1814 when Sharon and Tom took ownership, but now a two-story brick family room with partial mezzanine is vividly contrasted with modern art. This, again, shows the blending of new and old gracefully according to Sharon’s vision.