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When Bedford Lutheran Church bought property on Burks Hill Road to build a church, members saw themselves as buying land that happened to have a house on it, according to the Rev. Stephen Schulz, the church’s pastor.
After learning more about the badly dilapidated old house, they had a major change of opinion. They discovered not only that the house was structurally solid, but that they had a historic home.
The house was built in the 1840s by Judge Edward Callohill Burks, who named it “Woodford.” At that time, it was part of a 500-acre farm and the home would have given him a panoramic view of his fields and the town of Bedford. Today, it still presents visitors with a spectacular view of the Peaks of Otter, with Sharp Top frosted with snow and gleaming in the morning sunlight one day last week.
Judge Burks served as president of the Virginia Bar Association and in 1895 founded and became editor of The Virginia Law Journal.
His son, Martin Burks, who also became a judge, received the degree of L.L.D from Roanoke College, a Lutheran College organized in 1853, and located in Salem. Schulz thinks it interesting, in light of that, that the house is now the parish house of a Lutheran church.
Schulz said that he has learned that, during the War Between the States, women and children from Bedford went to the house and took refuge there when General David Hunter came through Bedford during his retreat from Lynchburg. He was told that, although federal troops came to the house, they didn’t hurt anyone. They did, however, steal all the food in the house.
The house had stood empty for 17 years when Bedford Lutheran purchased it. Water had never been turned off, but no pipes had burst in the basement. The basement walls consist of 17-inch thick masonry and this insulated it to the point that it never dropped below freezing inside.
Schulz said that the house has an English-style basement. This means that it isn’t totally underground. It has direct access to outside, and windows allow in light from the outside.
It also has a moat that surrounds it on three sides. What this does is direct rain water runoff to the rear of the house and down a drain. Schulz said that they aren’t absolutely positive about where the water goes, but they believe it goes into a cistern. They have an idea where this cistern may be.
Most of the renovation work, 90 percent of it, has been volunteer labor done by church members. Some big jobs, and work such as electrical, that should be done by licensed professionals, has been contracted. They’ve been assisted by a visit that Travis McDonald, the architectural historian at Poplar Forest, made. McDonald was able to identify what in the house was original and what wasn't. They know, for example, that the banisters on stairways are original. In fact, they are identical to the style of those at Avenel. McDonald was also able to tell them that the paint on the inside of closet doors is original. The church has sticky notes up warning people to not even think about painting over this.
Those closets, by the way, are unique. Each of the rooms in the house has a pair of closets that cover one entire wall. Each closet is closed by a wide double door. Schulz said that McDonald was able to identify which room had been the dining room by one of the room’s closets.
McDonald also gave them a piece of advice — don’t strip off the wall paper. He told them that the original plaster is underneath that wallpaper and if they try to paint that “they’ll be painting forever,” according to the Rev. Schulz. To avoid that, they are looking at options to cover that tattered wallpaper.
The house has six large rooms, two on each level, including the basement. Wide tall windows allow wind to blow through in the summer. The four rooms on the main floor and top floor connect to a short hall that runs from front to back. In the original design, both ends of this hall, on both floors, had an outside door, which allowed air to flow through. For heating in cold weather, each room had a fireplace.
Renovation included replacing the front porch, which had rotted beyond the point of repair. The church had this rebuilt like the porch they found. A mid-20th century addition, which was also in poor condition was also torn off — replaced with a porch like the one they found in the front. Back in the 19th century, it was possible to walk out on the roof of either porch. Schulz said that they haven’t decided if they will make that option possible at a later point.
Using the fire places is another option that they will decide on at a later time.
“We know we’ll have to reline the chimneys if we do,” the Rev. Schulz said.
At present, they are focusing on the interior. The original moldings are in place around the windows and some 170-year-old glass panes are there as well. The floors are heart of pine and the Rev. Schulz said that they plan to buff, rather than refinish those. At least that’s what they’ll do on the ground floor. Somebody in the past partially painted the floor in one of the upstairs rooms.
Of course, they are also going to build a church building. Shculz said that they have three options as to where they can locate the church on the property. They are putting careful thought into that. Meanwhile, they worship at the Bower Center, using what was the sanctuary of St. John’s Episcopal Church 100 years ago. The building is the original St. John’s and the Rev. Schulz said that the 1840s vintage sanctuary has wonderful acoustics. He doesn’t even need a microphone when he preaches.