WASHINGTON -- Terri Rosenthal decided to save an old house after she lost hers. Her family's three-story Victorian was gone in moments, burned to ashes last year in a fire so hot it shattered a cast-iron claw-foot tub and melted the siding of homes across the street.
She and her husband, Craig, had bought the home in Pennsylvania 25 years ago when her sister's young family needed a place to live. Various family members had lived in it over the years, but no one was home at the time of the fire.
Recently, a neighbor pleaded guilty to arson and other charges. "Thankfully, no one died," said Dan Kiss, an assistant district attorney in Blair County, Pa.
But Rosenthal's family heirlooms, such as her grandmother's books from Russia, a hand-carved antique bed and a silk Persian rug, were destroyed. "There was nothing left," she said. "It was a cinder."
Instead of building something new to replace the house, she wanted to save something old.
The fire came after she had lived in Loudoun County, Va., for 30 years, watching it go from sleepy countryside to booming exurb of Washington, D.C., losing some of its weathered old barns and homes along the way to clear space for new subdivisions and mansions.
She wanted to send a message -- that history is worth saving, and it doesn't take new construction to get a fresh start.
So she's in the midst of a multiyear project, dismantling an 18th-century house in Massachusetts piece by careful piece, packing the house into a tractor-trailer and moving it to the Rosenthals' contemporary home in Purcellville, Va. There, they will rebuild the old building like a giant jigsaw puzzle of hand-hewn timber and antique bricks.
Along the way, the Rosenthals have found all sorts of serendipitous surprises tucked into dark corners, from an elegant antique silver fork to rare and beautiful blue bottles, to scraps of linen and shears that reminded Terri of her own clothing-design company.
They were surprised to find that the house had been taken apart and moved once before, and amazed that one of the families that had lived there shared ancestors with the Rosenthals.
"There are all these weird little coincidences, tie-backs," Terri Rosenthal said. "It's almost like it was meant to happen. Kismet."
Preservationists debate how best to save historic homes. Since many get torn down because they are stuck in the midst of increasingly valuable commercial land, the idea of moving them is seen either as a brilliant solution or a mistake that wrenches them out of their original landscapes and communities. It's not easy to do, and it's not cheap -- it can cost $100,000 or more to dismantle and ship a museum-quality building. The Rosenthals are hoping to convince others that it's not as daunting as it sounds; they think they can take apart and rebuild the Everett-Stanley House, named for previous owners, for less than the cost of a new home.
They paid $1 for the house and an estimated $40,000 to get it to Virginia. They don't yet know what it will cost to rebuild.
Some preservationists in Virginia winced at the idea of an 18th-century New England structure being attached to a contemporary house in Virginia to create a large home for four generations of a family, as the Rosenthals plan to do.
But the Everett-Stanley House was doomed: It sat smack in the way of a planned parking lot at a car dealership and has been holding up development for months. According to Ann Chapdelaine, chairman of the North Attleborough Historical Commission in Massachusetts, the company that owns the land started to tear down the house without a permit. The historical commission slapped an 18-month stay on that action in hopes that the dealership would find a way to save the house.
For months, there was a sign outside: FREE HOUSE.
It wasn't until the Rosenthals came along that anyone was willing to go to the expense to take it away.
The house was built along the old Boston Post Road.
"George Washington marched his troops on that road heading toward Boston," Terri Rosenthal said. "There's a rich history there; the people who lived there served in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the War of 1812."
The house has an enormous center chimney with six fireplaces and a bake oven; an attached ell has another fireplace and oven. The big chimney radiated heat throughout the house. (The Rosenthals' work crews used it to broadcast classic rock to every room).
That was what made Terri Rosenthal fall in love with the house. "You walk in there, you look past all the mess and the tar paper on the outside of the house and you see the beauty of what it could be."
This spring, the work crews started taking it apart.
They measured and numbered everything with metal tags and a fat black marker. Then, working backward from the original construction, they took down the plaster and lath to get to the original post-and-beam construction. They pulled all the nails out with claw hammers and farrier's tongs; the nails alone weigh hundreds of pounds.
Chapdelaine said she was amazed when they peeled off the layers. "They took the plaster off and the lath underneath … it's made from trees, curved … it's a work of art. I actually laid on the floor and took pictures of the ceiling, they were so gorgeous."
Terri Rosenthal went several times to North Attleborough to oversee the work and to help, cleaning handmade bricks, researching the history and taking photographs and filming. Her 30-year-old son is going to make a documentary about the project.
Most of the house has been packed into a 53-foot box trailer, which will rest on the Rosenthals' land while they plan how best to rebuild.
This summer, a year after the fire, the last of the house in Massachusetts came down. Now the Rosenthals will bring it home.