Owners John and Robyn Castles have teamed up with Fredericksburg contractor Jay Holloway to breathe new life into the guesthouse at Santee, the historic former plantation in Caroline County that has been owned by just two families for nearly 360 years.
Today, the original guest house structure itself is much the same as when it was built in 1808. But now a new addition and the integration of cutting-edge technology such as the latest generation of nearly invisible photovoltaic solar panels has introduced the 19th century to the 21st century.
There’s a lot more to the restoration, but let’s set the stage first. Of the many remarkable aspects about Santee, the former plantation in the Corbin area, here are just a few:
- It was part of a 6,600-acre land grant called Flintshire that was awarded in 1660. For the next 275 years, until 1935, it remained in the same family line. What happened in the intervening 10 years is unclear, but since 1945, it has been owned by the Castle family, starting with Eugene, then by his son, John, and now by John’s son, also John, who with his wife Robyn is continuing the restoration work begun by his grandfather.
The original Flintshire land grant became three estates, first Santee, and then Claremont and Flintshire as acreage was gifted to family members.
- During the Civil War years, Santee was owned by Samuel Gordon. He had married into the family by making Patsy Fitzhugh, daughter of the then-owner, his bride. Her father, Battaile Fitzhugh, had made a condition of the marriage that Patsy remain at Santee, so Santee was was passed to Gordon.
After the Battle of Fredericksburg in mid-December 1862, Gordon dined with Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson, who was using nearby Moss Neck as an encampment for his troops and wanted free use of Santee’s trees for firewood for his men. During a toast, Gordon managed to win Jackson’s promise that a particular “park” or grove of beloved trees would be spared from destruction during the harsh winter of 1863. Many of the mature trees in that grove remain standing today.
- Another of the family names in the Santee chain of ownership is Holloway. Contractor Jay Holloway’s father, Joe Holloway, continues to own and live on the Flintshire portion of the property. His son Jay, a graduate of the University of Mary Washington’s Center for Historic Preservation and owner of Habalis Construction, led the just-completed Santee guesthouse restoration.
John Castles explains that Holloway’s involvement is no coincidence: “One interesting thing to note is the family line of the original owners before my family. The Holloways were part of that line—Jay Holloway’s family,” Castles wrote in an email. “So beyond the fact that we admired Jay’s attention to detail, high quality work, and being a stickler for keeping things historically correct, it just made sense to my wife and I that who better to take on this challenge than someone whose family is linked to its history?”
Historical information for this story was borrowed from a short history of Santee compiled and researched by Joyce C. Legasse of Fredericksburg, who first visited Santee as a child. Santee is listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places.
The Santee guesthouse—or “The Little House,” as the Castles call it—was built in 1807 as a combination laundry and kitchen dependency of The Big House,” or main house. The cook’s or other servants’ quarters were the two upstairs rooms.
The guesthouse had been used as a residence by earlier generations of the Castles family because it made a more manageable home than The Big House. A swimming pool was added out back along the way, and a new marble tile deck was recently laid.
The Castles have used the newly restored home as a getaway, but now anticipate offering it up as an Airbnb.
The main entry opens to a small foyer with a completely new kitchen on the right and a living area—with what was the original, huge cooking fireplace as its focal point—on the left. The new front door is solid Spanish cedar, chosen for its termite and rot resistance. Hardware used for the door and elsewhere is unlacquered brass, which Holloway finds most authentic to the period.
The new kitchen is a great example of blending old with new, while maintaining a historic feel. The flooring is white oak and the cabinetry is pine. Appliances such as the refrigerator, dishwasher and stacked washer/dryer combo are concealed behind cabinet fronts.
The counters and island are topped with gray, veined soapstone from the Alberene quarry in Nelson County, and there’s a sparkling white farm sink with brass fixtures. Tucked out of sight in the island is a drawer-type microwave oven. Delft tiles from the Netherlands are used for the backsplash.
“I tried to keep a blue and white theme, with some orange,” Robyn Castles said, with a nod to University of Virginia colors.
Next to the kitchen is what was the original kitchen, kept in a dependency away from the main house due to the fire danger. The huge, white-painted brick cooking fireplace has its original wrought iron pot crane, a bracket that would swing a pot over or away from the fire.
On the second story are two bedrooms. The master suite has a new and enlarged bathroom with a Carrara marble vanity and in-floor heat.
The new addition was attached to the original kitchen portion of the house. Based on the “ghost lines” on what initially was an exterior brick wall, this was the third addition. The immediately prior addition became dilapidated and was removed.
The new addition, which has red oak flooring and a half-bath, is referred to as “The Shop” because previous additions served that purpose. It has a restored workbench that lends a touch of yesteryear. Richard Crickenberger, the veteran area brick mason, worked his magic on the former exterior wall, creating a faux arched doorway for symmetry with the arched doorway from the cooking kitchen.
The addition’s side walls are windows that welcome in natural light. The window frames are specially engineered to add structural strength and are anchored in the footers. Structural insulated panels, or SIPs, were used beneath the roof, along with engineered wood beams and mortise-and-tenon joint construction.
“Even with the glass, this room is as tight as you’re going to get,” Holloway said.
Old met new in other ways during the restoration. Space-consuming ductwork used for central heating and air conditioning was exchanged for less obtrusive, in-wall Mitsubishi mini-splits that now provide heating and cooling. A tankless water heater now provides hot water rather than a large tank-style unit.
The 39 solar panels that were attached to the new standing-seam metal roof will generate more electricity than the guest house will need much of the time. Through a net meter, surplus power will be sent back into the grid via Rappahannock Electric Cooperative, thus reducing the Castles’ power bills even more.
Crickenberger was also involved in repairing and repointing the original brick on the exterior of the guesthouse, so it looks sturdy as well as old. Rods hidden within the structure are threaded into stars on the exterior brick walls to prevent bowing.
“We were able to do all this while leaving most of the interior walls intact,” said Holloway. “You really don’t want to do a full gut unless you have to.”