This is an exceptionally fun blog post for me to share because it’s about a farmhouse that I love in a deep way words don’t really do justice: my grandparents’ farmhouse in the Shenandoah Valley, the Dell. This is it, folks: THE farmhouse that shaped my love for old farmhouses, for moving to the country without much idea what we’re doing, for raising a big family, for gardening… for basically shaping my whole life.
“The Dell,” as my grandparents affectionately dubbed the farm when they purchased the place as newlyweds in 1936, dates back to before 1760 according to old property deeds.
The house itself was built circa 1790 of locally fired Flemish Bond brick (with walls nearly two feet thick). It sits astride the Southwestern side of a Civil War battlefield fought in 1862.
By the time my grandparents purchased it, it was overrun with pigs and chickens inside and a front porch had been added that wasn’t original to the house. There was also a second front door in place of one of the front windows that got added after the house was built. My grandparents tore down the front porch, restored the second front door back to its window status, and whitewashed the brick right away.
As my grandfather famously told my grandmother (well, famously in our family anyway), she had a choice to make when they moved in: either plumbing or electricity. Which would you choose?
My grandparents devoted their lives to this place. They raised my dad and my three aunts there, and hosted all of us grandkids after that.
They worked on it every single day, and now that I’m a mother of four myself I wish more than anything to ask them questions about how they balanced it all. There is so much work that goes into the maintenance/ upkeep of a historic home, let alone making any improvements… and in our experience, that itself is a full-time job!
My grandparents passed away years ago and the agonizing decision to sell the Dell was made a few years after that. An incredible person with experience restoring old sailboats and a passion for Civil War history bought the Dell after promising our family to do his best to keep it as original as possible.
At first, Alec was alone at the Dell. He worked day and night on this place and when I say there isn’t a more perfect owner for the Dell, I mean it. He understands so much about old houses that David and I are just starting to grasp. One of the most important tenets of being a historic home owner is the understanding that you don’t really “own” the home; you are simply preserving it and taking good care of it until the next owners come along one day.
When Alec bought the place, it had been empty for a while and it was in need of some serious work. He told me he decided to take a holistic view to the renovation process and start with the big project: replacing the entire house’s plumbing system (yes, that was what my grandmother chose first when they bought the place in 1936, but they did eventually have both plumbing and electricity!).
Alec took a longterm approach and recognized any work done before plumbing could need to be redone.
After Alec had been at the Dell a few years working hard to restore the house and land, he met a woman who I’ve witnessed firsthand makes him light up when she walks in the room: Alex. She told me the story of how they met and came to be a couple, and it’s one of those love stories where you know the ending as soon as it starts: they were simply meant to be.
The pandemic moved things along as they decided to form a bubble by Alex moving from Maryland to Virginia to be with Alec at the Dell, and she’s devoted nearly as much love to the place through her gardening and eye for design as Alec has through the sweat that comes with the heavy lifting.
Alec and Alex are the kind of people you would love to just hear more about, both individually and together. Their various passions, interests and outlooks combine fluidly to make something simply fun to be around.
The Dell was featured in historic home tours when my grandparents owned it and here’s something my grandfather wrote for one of those tours:
“Although seemingly primitive in character, the Dell is actually more reflective of the larger, stylish houses of the early 19th century compared to the smaller wooden houses most commonly found at that time. By 1800, the central-passage plan with one room to each side had entered into the local builders’ vocabulary and here included an original one-story L. With few alterations, the Dell retains many of its original features including all Flemish bond construction, a molded brick cornice and decorative jack arches on the exterior. Inside the beaded board partitions, exposed beaded ceiling joists and boards, enclosed stairwell, and chair railing all survive. The delicate Feral mantels are very typical of this period.”
When you first enter the Dell, you come into the central hall my grandfather described:
On one side is the most gorgeous sitting room perhaps ever.
As old houses tend to ask of the rooms inside them, this sitting room has morphed in purpose over the years. It was a dining room when I was born and eventually became our family’s living room with a couch right where one is today.
I have memories of tracing my fingers along the ridges in the woodwork of these breathtaking mantels all throughout the house, memorizing the smoothness and the etched lines.
An enormous fireplace occupies the central position of the room we referred to as the Den, which Alec painted a jubilant red reminiscent of a foxtail. He’s converted it to a wood stove, which makes a lot of sense; it was such a massive fireplace we used to be able to stand inside it as kids and apparently it gave off an insane amount of heat.
In the same room as the big fireplace is a little hidden closet with iron forged door hinges. I remember my grandparents keeping a record player and records in there. Just to the side of the closet is the entryway into the kitchen, which my grandparents added:
Alec replaced the appliances, the floor, and the countertops, but he’s left the cabinets just as my grandmother chose them– even with the little blue and white country knobs.
Across the den from the kitchen is the sunroom where Alex keeps her plants. This room is not insulated and is basically a greenhouse.
I snapped a quick picture of the molded brick cornice my grandfather wrote about found both in the sunroom and the kitchen:
(Side note: I love the way the walls, trim and doors of the sunroom and hallway downstairs are all sage green except for where there’s brick. It’s so calming and highlights the trim work. And how cute are these door locks, like this one below?!)
Moving up the stairs to the second floor, we find one of the enclosed stairways my grandfather mentioned.
One of my favorite places in the world is this center hallway upstairs. My grandmother used to have plants in the same place. I think plants just belong there.
To the left when you walk upstairs is one of my aunt’s old bedrooms that Alec worked on renovating first. It’s now a beautiful bedroom:
My dad’s old bedroom is on the other side of this room and Alec is mid-project in this one:
He’s doing the plaster work himself, which I can only imagine is a very tedious process.
Another enclosed staircase goes up to the third floor, or attic, which is also mid-project. I just love how the wood from the stairs bows so obviously. And I also love these wood floors, despite the number of splinters they gave me from running on them barefoot (against my grandmother’s warnings).
But perhaps the best part of being at the Dell– the best part of experiencing the serenity it brings– is when you walk down the stairs going to the front door, and you see the view.
Trust me when I say there’s simply nothing like it. The mountains change by the hour depending on the weather and it really feels different each time you look at them. This is the view I’ve pictured so many times when I need to focus on calming myself down… when a nurse jabs with me a needle, when I’ve been in labor with my sweet babies, when I’ve been scared out of my mind as a foster parent… this is it.
Anyway, to show some of the more charming outbuildings on the property– here’s the (very) old smokehouse that my grandparents moved to the back of the house. My dad lived in it in high school.
My grandmother used it as a gardening shed and gardened on all four sides around it. Alec and Alex are slowly bringing the gardens back to life.
And oh, the barn. The original barn was burned down in the Civil War (the farm tangential to the Dell has one of the few barns in the Shenandoah Valley that the Union did not burn, which is super cool!). My grandfather and my dad farmed cattle on this land and used that barn more than I’m sure I’ll ever appreciate. It needs work, and Alec loves the barn and is determined to tackle it one day.
So, so many happy memories were made in every nook and cranny of this farmhouse and that’s just with my family’s presence. This place is magic. I love that Alec and Alex can feel it too. Most evenings they trek up to the pond behind the house and watch the sunset from a wooden bench while they sip a cocktail together and take in the view.
Watching Alec and Alex making their own happy memories here is a beautiful expression of history repeating itself. It was such an honor to get to visit the Dell and see how its renovation has come along. I’m grateful to have had the chance to get to know Alec and Alex and understand just how perfectly suited they are to be there! I know my grandparents are undoubtedly thrilled with the care being shown to our family’s most beloved farmhouse. Massanutten in the distance
I’ve loved this place for all my life and I’m so happy I got to share it with y’all here on the blog.