If Riverview could talk, the 1846 home along the Rappahannock River at Port Royal might say “thanks” to its last two owners, who put much time, effort and expense into restoring the historic structure, which is listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places.
Current owners Jim and Elizabeth Heimbach came across 923 Water St. in 2004 when they were shopping for an old house restoration project to pursue in retirement. They were living in Washington, D.C., at the time, and their search area stretched from New Castle, Del., to Virginia’s Middle Peninsula.
“When we walked in and could see the river through the back door, that was it,” Elizabeth said of the couple’s first visit to Riverview. “We knew this was the house.”
Now, 15 years later, the Heimbachs have decided that it’s time to turn over the house they have so carefully restored to a new steward. They have listed it with Ben Quann of Century 21 Redwood Realty in Fredericksburg. The asking price is $1.1 million.
Visitors are welcomed by a classic setting, with the handsome white clapboard home with black shutters set back on its lot. An avenue and former carriage circle lined with old boxwoods lead to the front of the house and its two-column portico.
Set on 1.2 acres, the house is listed with four bedrooms and three full bathrooms. There is 4,080 square feet of finished living space on the main and upper levels, plus an unfinished basement of 1,500 square feet that held the home’s original indoor kitchen.
The house was in rough shape, said Jim Heimbach, a former Port Royal town council member who recently completed a term as mayor. But the previous owners, Barry and Pat McGhee, had been working on their own restoration for some time. They had taken on projects necessary to make the house safe and livable, such as the plumbing, wiring and crumbling plaster walls.
Damage the McGhees had found to the home’s exterior and one of the chimneys was attributed to target practice by Union troops in gunboats who were clearing the route for larger vessels to come later as the Battle of Fredericksburg neared in December 1862.
It was hardly Riverview’s only brush with history, which came calling once again in 1865. Having shot President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre in Washington on April 14, John Wilkes Booth and his compatriot were on the run through southern Maryland, crossing the Potomac into Virginia.
By April 23 or 24, they’d reached the Port Conway area of King George County and took what was described by Ralph Emmett Fall in his 1982 book, “Hidden Village—Port Royal, Virginia 1744–1981,” as a horse boat across the Rappahannock to the known landing at Port Royal on the other side.
Fall writes: “Booth crossed the Rappahannock River by horse boat, and because the current was running very strong the boat landed downstream instead of at its usual docking wharf, at the river bank in front of the home of Mr. John Bernard Lightfoot. Two of Lightfoot’s daughters, Miss Harriet and Miss Sally went to meet the passengers on the river bank. [The daughters] were reigning belles and beauties, and they cordially invited the handsome strangers to come to the house and meet their father so that he could offer them aid, for it was obvious that one of them was in pain.”
Whether the Lightfoots provided the men any sustenance or aid is unclear, as they were quickly on their way. The end of the road was near, however, and Booth died in a barn near Bowling Green that was set afire by his Union pursuers to flush him out.
The Heimbachs say their historic pride in the house lies more with previous owner Capt. Sallie Tompkins, who owned it between 1895 and 1905. Tompkins, a nurse who was said to be devoted to cleanliness, ran a Civil War hospital in Richmond that became known for returning more wounded men to service—by far—than any other.
Confederacy President Jefferson Davis rewarded her with the first and possibly only military commission of a woman bestowed by the Confederacy.
“We wanted to keep the core [of the house] authentic,” said Jim Heimbach of the restoration plan.
To make sure it would be done properly, the Heimbachs brought in highly regarded Richmond architect Douglas Harnsberger of Commonwealth Architects, who would design the new replacement wings on the house and assist with the project generally. He had previously done preservation work at Belle Grove, the King George birthplace of President James Madison.
Also brought in was Richmond contractor Thomas Miller and his team of 15 subcontractors with various specialties in historic preservation—“a flock of people skilled at what they do,” as Jim Heimbach put it.
The original portion of the Greek Revival-style house is a standard center-hall, four-over-four design, with each of the eight main rooms measuring 17 feet by 15 feet. As part of the restoration, the Heimbachs had each of the home’s eight fireplaces, which feed into four chimneys, relined and given new fire boxes. They have either soapstone or brick surrounds, as well as their original mantels. Those on the main level have hand-carved, Ionic-columned mantels.
Jim Heimbach said the original house had no wings, and that the single-story wings previously added were poorly constructed and had to be replaced. The new, two-story wings designed by Harnsberger house new bathrooms and a bright, functional modern kitchen. A tankless water heater was added.
The wide door and window moldings and nicely refinished random-width heart pine flooring are original, as are the massive pocket doors that separate the living and dining rooms. Because the main-level floors were bowing, the old wood beams beneath the floors were sistered with steel beams to flatten and better support them.
All rear-facing rooms and a pair of rear porches offer panoramic views of the Rappahannock, Port Conway and the U.S. 301 bridge some distance away. The views are often enhanced by passing boats, as well as visiting eagles, herons and ducks.
The backyard is terraced down to the river bank and has several mature trees. A dock extends into the Rappahannock River. The elevation of the property, and Port Royal as a whole, is high enough that flooding has never been an issue.
The Heimbachs say they will miss the place when they leave, especially sharing the historic house with family and friends, and are proud of the work they’ve done to preserve it.
“We knew we were putting money into it that we wouldn’t get back,” Jim Heimbach said. “It meant that much to us.”