In 2001, Valerie Lucas and her husband, Ron, had just settled into the new house they’d built in a Botetourt County suburb when, on a whim, they bought another one — a 164-year-old Federal-style home on 70 acres of land, perched on a hill overlooking Fincastle.
The circa 1837 house formally known as “Prospect Hill” was named for the panoramic views of the town and surrounding mountains one can see from every window. Informally, though, it’s known as “Gray’s Folly.” Its builder, John Gray, who was once the county sheriff, apparently had to endure some twitting from his neighbors for putting his house in such an exposed, windy spot.
The wind can be an issue sometimes, Lucas said. A few particularly strong gusts this spring tore down some guttering and carried off a decorative lantern mounted inside the front portico. But the cool summer breezes more than make up for the occasional damage, she said, and on clear days, the elevation allows for views of the Peaks of Otter and Purgatory Mountain.
“I don’t ever have to use the AC,” she said.
People are also reading…
The National Register of Historic Places in 1979 added the house to its list. Lucas signed an historic preservation easement, which stipulates that the property may not be subdivided, nor can the house be significantly altered, inside or out. As part of that agreement, Lucas said, she is asked to open the house to the public at least once every five years. So in 2020, when the Roanoke Valley Garden Club and the Mill Mountain Garden Club of Roanoke decided to hold their annual Historic Garden Week in Roanoke tour in Fincastle, she was happy to volunteer, and then disappointed when the event was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This year, she’ll finally have her chance.
In September 2001, the two were on the site when the property was being auctioned off. The land was divided into two parcels, and Ron, who owned a construction company, had planned to bid just on the undeveloped one. They were told that they might have a better chance if they bid on both properties. Valerie agreed to the plan, then excused herself for a few minutes. When she came back, the house was theirs.
“All we wanted was 50 acres,” Lucas said, but she realized the project would be good for Ron, who had a restless nature and always wanted to be doing something.
“I did it to calm him down,” she said, laughing.
At first, the plan was to restore the structure and then sell it. Lucas wasn’t exactly in love with the place, anyway, and refused to go down into the basement, which was full of old skins left behind by the snakes that lived down there.
Ron was very much in charge of the restoration, and chose most of the fixtures and decor himself. “He’d always wanted a house with a name,” Lucas said.
The property needed a lot of work, and she helped out with cleaning, sanding and other chores. The more she worked on the house, Lucas said, the more she liked it. Eight months later, the couple moved in.
Ron Lucas died in 2013, but Valerie has stayed on.
“It’s where we were meant to be,” she said. “It’s home. It’s like this house took me in its arms and hugged me.”
Prospect Hill is sided with what is likely the original tongue-and-groove clapboard, and is said to be one of only two I-Form Federal-style houses in Virginia. I-Form houses, which have a central hallway flanked by one room on each side, both upstairs and down, are designed to provide natural cooling by allowing air to flow through the wide front and back doors, which are aligned with each other. This type of house is fairly common on the east coast, but most have more subdued Georgian-style facades, rather than the more dramatic Federal-style pediments.
A set of limestone steps that matches the foundation leads to Prospect Hill’s entrance. The gable-roofed pediment is two stories high, is supported by Tuscan columns, and has a balcony opening onto the upper floor. Sidelights and a large, decorative fanlight surround the paneled door. Smaller versions frame the upstairs balcony door, and the back door is as ornate as the front.
A previous owner added a one-story clapboard kitchen wing on the main structure’s left side — kitchens were usually outside the house in the era when the home was built — and a one-story brick bedroom wing on the right. Today, the house has six rooms, all with working fireplaces. The three bedrooms each have bathrooms and closets.
The entryway features the original wide-plank floors, which haven’t been treated with polyurethane. Lucas hand waxes and buffs them instead. The main staircase is practical, rather than grand, but the outer stringers are adorned with hand-carved scrollwork, which the Lucases painted white. Decorative curved chair rail mimics the bannister on the other side. A large curio cabinet containing family memorabilia stands on one side of the hall, and a marble-topped table on the other.
The room to the left is the dining room. An enormous candelabra-style brass chandelier hangs over the dining table, and a smaller table is tucked into a corner. Beyond the swinging door is the kitchen addition, which was originally accessed through a hallway that connected the kitchen to the butler’s pantry. The Lucases tore the partition walls down, creating one large, sunny room with access to the back yard. It features black granite countertops, ceiling-height cherry cabinets, and burnt orange subway tiles.
The lower right-hand room is the living room/library, where extensive built-in shelves were added during the 1930s. The lower cupboard doors have been outlined with decorative stenciling. The mantel in this room was salvaged from a downtown Fincastle drugstore that was being renovated, Lucas said. It is intricately carved and in perfect condition.
“It’s amazing that it’s never been painted,” Lucas said.
Off the dining room is the downstairs bedroom, which, like the kitchen, has direct access to the patio out back. It features a burled maple dresser and garden views from the bed.
The upstairs hall serves as Lucas’s den, where she hangs out with her one-year-old Australian sheepdog-poodle mix pups, Lexi and Stella. The view from the balcony is above the tree line and is even more spectacular than from the first floor. The area is comfortably furnished with casual pieces and leopard-patterned floor coverings. Lucas said she has made no effort to decorate the house like a museum.
“It’s eclectic,” she said. “It’s home.”
The other two rooms are bedrooms. The south-facing room is decorated in warm yellows, and the guest room has bedding monogrammed with the initials “PH.”
When he first saw the bedspread, Lucas said, her husband thought they stood for Patrick Henry High School in Roanoke, and she had to explain to him that they were for “Prospect Hill.”
As much as they loved the house, the Lucases loved the yard just as much. As a child, Lucas said, she helped her mother with gardening, and she is an active member of Fincastle’s Big Spring Garden Club.
From 1984 to 2008, she said, she worked as a rural mail carrier, driving up and down 12 O’Clock Knob Road in Roanoke County. Among the best parts of the job, she said, was looking out for wildflowers in the spring and talking about plants with the people on her route.
“Ron and I loved to garden,” she said. “He could visualize what he wanted. After that, it just evolved” as she experimented with various plants and layouts.
When they bought the place, Lucas said, the only cleared spot was the front lawn, which the driveway passed through as it went directly to the front door. In back, thickly wooded vegetation crowded close to the house.
The Lucases re-routed the driveway to the side and created another expansive lawn in the back, leaving only the ancient oaks, maples and catalpa trees standing. Each bay of the house has its own sitting area, with comfortable chairs and tables, and a swing on the back porch. Ron Lucas tore down the old nondescript porch roof and replaced it with a pedimented portico that mimics the one in front, complete with the decorative dentil molding, resulting in a rear entrance that is almost as impressive as the main one.
Beds of giant tulips, peonies and other perennials frame the back porch, while other plantings wrap around the house and meander through the front yard, dotted with statuary, containers and inviting pathways. Down the hill, a deer-proof fence hides a vegetable garden.
The showpiece, though, is the formal garden in the back yard. It’s delineated by concrete railings and decorated with concrete benches and tables that came from the home of Roy L. Webber, a former Roanoke mayor and well-known florist who used to attend church with Lucas. An old millstone centers the garden.
When Ron died, the elements he intended to use for it were stacked nearby and the beds weren’t laid out, Lucas said, so she did the job herself.
“It was my legacy to him,” she said. As for the rest of garden: “It’s a lot of work, but I’ll never be done.”
Lucas said she hopes that during the tour, guests will bring their lunches and wander the grounds at their leisure.