The work at 919 Caroline St. was undertaken, literally, from the ground up. It started with rehabbing the main-level storefront that’s held myriad businesses—currently Curitiba Art Café—and continued with the transformation of the decrepit upper two floors into a luxury two-bedroom apartment.
Local businessman, philanthropist and former city councilman Joe Wilson owns the building. He lives a few doors away and owns much of the east side of the 900 block of Caroline Street.
“I’m really proud of how it turned out,” Wilson said during a tour of 919 Caroline earlier this week. “Downtown Fredericksburg is coming along well, with work being done by people like Tommy Mitchell, Mike Adams. The city is doing a good job to encourage investment.”
The building at 919 Caroline St. has long served as a business on the ground level with residential quarters upstairs, often occupied by the same business-owning family. It is a good example of a downtown building and lot whose history help tell the story of Fredericksburg itself.
With Curitiba Art Café, at 919A, up and running under lease to local architect and businessman Frank Robinson and his wife, Ana, Wilson’s priority became the reclamation project involving the upper two floors. The apartment has a separate address, 919B, and private entrance door alongside Curitiba.
Wilson is offering the 1,800-square-foot apartment for sale or rent through Wilson Realty, his real estate business. The asking sales price is $585,000, while as a rental it is offered at $2,400 a month.
The project was shared by two local contractors, Ronnie Stanley of Tight & Right Remodeling for the interior work, and Jay Holloway of Habalis Construction for the exterior.
“Every step was a challenge,” Stanley said in an interview at the site. “We had to jack up and level the floors because everything was 2 or 3 inches out of line. Once it was structurally sound, we could get on with the rest of it.”
Floor boards that needed to be removed were numbered so they could be put back exactly as they were; old horse-hair plaster had to be removed from the second- and third-floor walls to expose the old brick, which was then cleaned up. The brick walls help the interior retain its 19th-century charm.
“I’m a perfectionist,” Stanley said. “But when you’re dealing with a 200-year-old building, you can’t be too much of a perfectionist. Some of it got pretty tedious.”
At every opportunity, materials were salvaged onsite and reused. That includes window frames, baseboards, stairs and banisters. Two original fireplace mantels were salvaged; two others were fashioned by Stanley from old floor joists. The crown molding is new and contributes to the classic look. Though the copper-colored pressed tin ceiling created by American Tin Ceilings in Florida is new, portions of the original remaining border were salvaged and skillfully replicated with new metal in a matching pattern to complete the work.
The original heart pine floors were lightly sanded and refinished. They look absolutely beautiful, retaining the distressed look of old nail holes and insect markings. Thanks to his career in the extermination business and his local ownership of PermaTreat Pest and Termite Control, Wilson is able to identify an insect by the marks it left in wood long ago.
The apartment’s main level, which is the building’s second level, has a living area at the front with a kitchen/dining area behind it, both with their own fireplaces. The kitchen has a large, mottled beige granite-topped island and granite counters. Cabinets are a rich, medium-finish cherry.
Along the main hallway that is also the stairway landing, space is cleverly used for a powder room.
At the rear of this level is access to a resurfaced rooftop deck that Habalis installed and will be ideal for grilling and entertaining.
On the apartment’s upper level are two bedrooms, each with its own original fireplace, including the master suite and a secondary bedroom. The master has its own bathroom with ceramic and mosaic tile, while a separate hall bathroom serves the secondary bedroom.
Like the hallway below it, space is also efficiently used up here with a laundry closet that holds stacked, full-size laundry machines as well as a tankless water heater.
Altogether, Wilson said he put between $350,000 and $400,000 into the apartment’s renovations.
THE TEST OF TIME
According to historical information about 919 Caroline compiled by researcher William J. Shorter for a Historic Fredericksburg Foundation Inc. marker report, at least one building existed on the lot as early as the mid- to late 18th century. Caroline Street, or Main Street as it was called originally, was one of the earliest streets developed in the young city.
Major fires in 1792 and 1807 destroyed buildings along the main street, including 919 and its neighbors along the east side of the 900 block. By 1811, a new building was built at 919 with separate slave quarters behind it. In 1862, that building was largely destroyed by the Union bombardment from Chatham during the Battle of Fredericksburg, though the two-story slave quarters behind it somehow survived.
As part of the city’s post-war reconstruction in 1870, yet another building was built at 919 Caroline—the one that remains there today. That helps explain the Italianate architecture, denoted by the ornate soffit brackets and dentil molding, which was popular in the Eastern U.S. in the latter half of the 19th century. The jack arches over the six symmetrical windows are fairly common, but the two curved rows of bricks at different depths are distinctive.
The 1870 building was built for Mary and Catherine Thom, who had bought the property from their father, Reuben Thom. The sisters are recognized on the building’s HFFI marker.
CURITIBA ART CAFÉ
The restoration of the ground level storefront is a story in itself. Over the years, the space had been occupied by a confectionery shop, a millinery (women’s hats), a post office, a neighboring furniture store that briefly expanded into it (Ninde’s) and a Western Auto store that was there from 1937 to 1977, according to the HFFI report. After that, a beauty supply, a curtain store, an outdoor recreation store, Christmas in Fredericksburg and the Salem Shops were located there. Today, it is Curitiba Art Café.
After leasing the space from Wilson, Frank and Ana Robinson brought in contractor Stanley and proceeded to remove the drywall that covered the brick walls and used salvaged materials to create their inviting coffee shop. The floor boards were pulled up to get at the old plumbing, and then replaced. The electrical system was updated.
A major discovery was made behind a solid wall: The hidden, virtually forgotten two-story slave quarters that held a huge cooking fireplace and ladder through the ceiling to the second story sleeping room. The Robinsons reclaimed and restored the space, adding a modern staircase that turned the structure into seating and gathering space for the café.
A door jamb that was hidden behind the removed wall shows char believed to have been there since the fiery Civil War bombardment that the structure endured.
“This is one of the hardest projects to pull off,” said Frank Robinson, whose work as an architect in Fredericksburg has presented such challenges before. “You’re taking an old structure and bringing it into a new century, and keeping the feel of what was here before.”