Historic Front Street building getting full restoration

From the front of the former Presbyterian Church in downtown Lovingston, Libby Whitley Fulton is able to point out the second story window of her old office, in one of the houses across the street. From that window, Fulton said she watched the church building fall into disrepair.

“Somebody should get a hold of it and do something about it,” she would say.

Now Fulton is the somebody doing something: she’s the building’s new owner and is restoring it to more closely match how it looked when it was first built in 1888. She plans to house her new office and display collections inside.

The former business owner and D.C. lobbyist said in a recent phone interview she and her husband sold their company másLabor a year ago. The employment agency and consulting firm served H-2A and H-2B immigrant workers and was headquartered at the old Central Virginia Electric Cooperative building further north on Front Street.

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Fulton said she’d been feeling lost without an office, started looking for a new space in Lovingston, and noticed there hadn’t been any activity at the church for about a year.

Fulton shared photos of the church when she first bought it: the front of the building had a neat, all-white coat of paint, but it sharply contrasted with the peeling paint, rusting roof and vines climbing up the north side.

The lot looks quite a bit different these days. Fulton is working with Faber’s Arrowhead Valley Building Company and the team has made significant progress.

On July 28, workers had extended the entrance vestibule, formerly a bell tower, upward. The triangle decoration that fits into the peak of the arched roof has been removed and rests on scaffolding — Fulton said it will be repainted.

Most of the church’s arched gothic windows are filled with plywood and many of the large and sturdy window frames are propped inside, awaiting refinishing and re-glazing. But even with most of the windows blocked off, the central room was bright with afternoon sun. Fulton doesn’t anticipate having any problems with lighting.

A cinder block foundation has been added to the back of the church, which Fulton said will be a utility addition with a bathroom. The crew was working on a frame for the addition that day.

The interior is mostly one big room with a high, vaulted ceiling and an interior balcony off the front, which Fulton thinks may have been a choir loft. She didn’t know where to put a bathroom in the existing structure, since adding one would necessitate breaking up the space with very high walls.

“Why chop up this space? I wanted to preserve the integrity of this building,” Fulton said during the tour.

Workers will reuse as much of the exterior siding as possible, and replace what can’t be salvaged. The church will get a new roof and HVAC system and the cinder block foundation will get a brick veneer.

It’s not just a surface makeover though. Like most buildings of its age, the church has structural problems that required major work.

Fulton stepped under the foundation to show off a new solid beam running the length of the building, added to fix a major sag in the floor.

The striking dark wood beams between ceiling rafters needed an upgrade too. Fulton said diagonal beams spanning the open arched ceiling were starting to push out the walls and contractor Luke Furrow feared additional weight from a new roof would add to the problem.

His team has added additional horizontal collar beams for support. The bare wood stands out now, but Fulton thinks once the new beams have been stained they’ll look like they’ve always been there.

This is Fulton’s third time restoring a historical building and she said she enjoys the process.

“But these old buildings are a little deceptive. Because while they look, and probably are, reasonably sound, when you get into a quality restoration … everything from the roof system all the way to the foundation and everything in between — all the plumbing, all the wiring, the insulation — all of those systems have to be redone,” she said.

In the near century-and-a-half since its construction, the church has passed through many owners and served multiple purposes. Its history is well documented in the Nelson Memorial Library Archives.

A September 1993 Nelson County Times article, written when the building had first been renovated for a residence, reported the church was the first building in the county designated by the Building Board of Appeals as “historically significant” in 1989.

According to library records, the church was built by undertaker and builder Lucien Jetson Sheffield and the Nelson County Garden Club bought the property after the church closed in 1942. The Garden Club held meetings there for years and the church housed its collection of books.

In 1972, club members voted to lease it rent-free to Nelson County, and the building served as the county’s first public library until the current Nelson Memorial Library building opened its doors in 1988.

Fulton and her new neighbor Debbie DeMarsh could recall at least three owners since then. DeMarsh remembers what the interior looked like when David and Jano King and their daughter lived in the church: the open space was divided into rooms and the balcony was walled in to create a master bedroom.

“Old houses are wonderful. They kind of speak to me about human striving, where our forbearers came from and what they’ve achieved in the meantime,” Fulton said from outside the church.

DeMarsh lives next door and said her house was built in 1896.

It’s a work in progress but, “she has some good bones,” DeMarsh added.

“I am so, so glad that you bought it,” she said to Fulton.

The only thing Fulton hasn’t decided on is paint, but she thinks the exterior will be more than two colors, and she won’t be shying away from bright shades.

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