by Charles McGuigan
They had just finished up a leisurely dinner and all four of them were nursing cups of coffee. As Leslie Stack sipped from her cup, she turned to look out the window and saw sheets of rain falling. “Where did that come from?” she said to her husband, Frank Rizzo, and their two dinner companions. They all watched as the winds whipped down 4th Street, bending trees planted in wells by the sidewalk. The trees would sway one way and then the other, and the rain was like the veil of a waterfall.
As Frank and Leslie made their way into North Side off Laburnum and up Hermitage Road, there was nothing but blackness. No light anywhere. Coupled with the wind and torrential rain, Leslie immediately thought about another storm that had struck Richmond fifteen years ago, the day after she and her husband moved into Holly Lawn.
“When we hit the A.P. Hill Monument I said, ‘Frank, look, the street is totally flooded,’” says Leslie Stack. “It reminded me so much of Gaston.”
As she narrates the story, her husband, standing next to her at the island in their kitchen here at Holly Lawn, nods along. “It was the darkest I had ever seen this area,” Leslie says. So dark, in fact that the couple missed their own house as they headed north along Hermitage Road. They decided to check on Leslie’s parents who live to the north of their home, and then returned to Bellevue.
When they pulled into their drive, Leslie was the first to see an uprooted holly tree. “We had a magnificent holly right at the front because we’re Holly Lawn, right?” she says. “The tree was down.”
That turned out to be a minor problem. “As we went further around the bend in the drive, all we saw were roots,” she remembers. “We lost multiple trees that night, five altogether, in the front and the back.”
The biggest of them all was a 125-foot red oak with a crown 80 feet across, and a trunk five feet in diameter. “When the winds came, they just lifted it up out of the ground,” says Frank.
They had no idea what damage the tree had done. As was their habit, the couple parked in the backyard and entered through the rear door. “Here’s what was interesting,” Leslie remembers. “When we opened that door, there was no longer the smell of a house, it was smell of the outside. You could smell the rain, and you could hear it pounding inside the front of your home.”
One of the massive limbs of that giant red oak, had sheared away the porch, ripped off a window, punctured a turret and opened up a portion of the roof at the front of the house.
“Frank called the insurance company and I called nine-one-one,” Leslie says. “The firefighters were fabulous. They were concerned about us and our property.” The police arrived at about the same time to secure the property.
“But even after that, we realized that there was no way to secure Holly Lawn,” says Leslie. “So we camped out here for the next three days. We slept in the addition that was completely untouched.” That addition was built back in 1973, and when Frank and Leslie first bought Holly Lawn they had seriously toyed with the idea of removing it. “We’re glad now that we didn’t,” Leslie says.
At 1:30 that morning, Frank called their arborist about the fallen red oak, and left a message. “At five o’clock in the morning he called me,” Frank recalls. “I said, ‘When do you think you can get over?’ And he said, ‘I’m on property now.’” A couple hours later, the equipment and crew arrived, and by 4:30 that afternoon the tree was off the house. “They worked tirelessly,” says Frank.
For the next seven weeks, Frank and Leslie stayed in a hotel, and then for several months rented a duplex on Monument Avenue. They finally returned to Holly Lawn in November where they lived in the addition. “While Mark Franko was doing the restoration work and the selective demolition in the front part of Holly Lawn, the other part of their team was building us a first floor master bed and bath in the addition,” Frank says.
The couple had also hired Glave & Holmes as their architect, and then got approval for the project from the Department of Historic Resources and the Richmond Commission of Architectural Review. “Everybody had to agree,” says Frank.
Many of the materials that were used in the construction of this house, one of the crown jewels of the Hermitage Road Historic District, are simply not available today. So salvaging the building materials was essential. “Leslie was head curator, and salvaged every brick, every piece of slate, every piece of copper,” Frank says.
Time dragged on. They had the architect and an engineer, but they needed just the right contractor to restore the house to its former glory. In March of 2017, nine months after the storm, Leslie and Frank hired Art Restoration Builders of Virginia.
During that restoration project, the couple learned exactly when construction began on Holly Lawn. “We have been able to find in the bones of the house through the reconstruction that they started building it in 1896, and it was finished five years later in 1901,” says Leslie.
The 14,500 square foot house is built entirely of brick, mortar and timber. And some of the timbers used in its construction came from trees not unlike the one that nearly destroyed Holly Lawn.
“The story is that they built a saw mill on the property,” Frank says. “And they cut down the old growth trees on the property and used that wood to build the house. Most of that wood is oak. You take a look at a stud in the wall and it’s three-by-five, rough-sawn oak.”
Even the day after the storm, when both Leslie and Frank could take in the extent of the damage, there was never any question in their minds about the reconstruction of Holly Lawn.
“When we bought the house, we bought part of Richmond,” says Frank. “And when something like this happens, the thought of walking away never occurred to either one of us. That was never a discussion. Okay she needs a facelift, we’ll get it done.”
Then Leslie tells me that they see themselves as more than stewards of this renowned Queen Anne-style home. It is as if the house is a living thing, and a member of their clan. “We adore the house,” Leslie says. “But this home is now part of our family. Our six grandchildren have grown up here. The Thanksgivings, the Christmases. This house is alive. It is an extraordinary house to entertain in.”
“If I had a dollar for every car that stopped and stared and looked, I’d be a millionaire,” says Frank. “People bring us pictures and say, ‘That’s me on the bottom step at Christmas 1953.”
“Weddings occurred here when it was home to the Richmond Council of Garden Clubs from 1969 till 1993,” Leslie says. “And its history all becomes like a blur. Like the history of your own life.”
As this year’s Richmond Symphony Designer House, Holly Lawn will be open to the public seven days a week for the next thirty days.
“We want to let the community know that we are going to be the first to show Holly Lawn,” says Susan S. Williams, chair of the 2018 Richmond Symphony Orchestra League Designer House “It’s been hidden behind construction signs and fences for more than two years and people are curious about what’s going on in that house. This will be the only opportunity for them to see it.”
And based on a preview last month when all that could be seen were empty rooms and vacant walls, people are really interested to see this 117-year old gem for themselves. “Our bare bones event was probably four times bigger than any other bare bones event we’ve ever had,” says Susan.
August 2, the night of that “bare bones event”, was when Holly Lawn was finally restored to her former glory, almost 26 months to the day after she was smashed by a giant red oak. “We finished the last punch list that day,” says Frank Rizzo.