For the past 34 years, Jim Kestell has been adding the latest chapter to the long history of the Almond Birch House, one of Falls Church City’s historic homes. He lives there with his wife, where they raised their two children and where he has headquartered his law practice, more than 150 years after Almond Birch, known as “Yankee Birch,” came from Saratoga County, New York and settled in Falls Church on what was then a 20-acre farm. But now that his two children have grown and left the home, and age has made the task of keeping up the property more demanding, Kestell and his wife are hoping to sell the house to someone who can care for it.
When Kestell started his house hunt in the late 70s, he was looking for a home with some character, which led him to consider the historic site at 209 Midvale St.
“I loved it the second I walked in,” Kestell said. “It was very special.”
Kestell almost immediately began putting his own touches on the property, adding a two-car garage and a swimming pool.
“Each owner makes it their own, while keeping in the style of the house,” said Real Estate Agent Sue Jin Song, who is charged with selling the four-bedroom, 2 ½ bathroom home, which has been on the market at $1.3 million since mid May.
Kestell undertook a larger renovation in 2002, installing heating appliances and adding an addition to the back and side of the house that allowed him to expand the bedrooms upstairs and make a new granite and stainless steel kitchen downstairs.
The renovations mean striking a delicate balance between maintaining the home’s historic characteristics and giving way to the need for modern conveniences. With the guidance of the City’s zoning board and historic commission, Kestell has been able to make those changes – like putting in radiant heat beneath new flooring, but keeping the original flooring intact beneath the new wood floors, and expanding the footprint of the house, but leaving architectural elements to show the where the house used to stand.
Still Kestell has gone without to preserve the home, opting not to insulate some of the rooms so as not to “scar the place,” and not to replace the house’s windows with a more energy- and cost-saving alternatives.
But Kestell hasn’t only concerned himself with maintaining the historic qualities of the house. He is also mindful of the property, caring for the decades-old trees that adorn the lawn, and restoring its dilapidated pond into a lily pond. He is also fond of the original hand-dug, stone-lined well at the front of his home, the water from which he uses to tend his plants and yard in the summer.
In his work outside, digging in various spots along the plot of land, he finds clues to what the house used to be: Bricks that used to pave the driveway, old medicine bottles, horseshoes and other relics from times gone by. As the ground is layered with reminders of the history of this place, so too is the house itself, with old cedar roofs hiding beneath the current tin roof, and hand-hewn beams that originally supported the house now obscured by sturdy metal I-beams.
For Kestell, a good deal of inquisitiveness comes with owning such an old home.
“It causes you to be more curious about what the village was like back in the 1800s,” Kestell said. “You want to visualize what your house was like compared to everything around it.”
The history books provide some clues, as the house was the spot of a notable moment in local Civil War history. On June 18, 1863, Almond Birch hosted two Union officers for supper, on their way to deliver war dispatches between generals. The duo was captured by Confederate forces at the gate, giving the Confederate Army its first clue that the Union Army had penetrated so deep into Virginia. Further accounts show how that 20-acre farm, once facing Leesburg Pike, transformed through time. Access to the house changed to Cherry Street in the early 1900s. After World War I, the land was subdivided, and the driveway was moved again to face Leesburg Pike, but would from then be accessed by Midvale Street.
For a more intimate history of the home – the purpose of various rooms, the changes made from the original farmhouse, and the stories of the lives of those who called this place home – Kestell turns to its former owners.
Kestell said that in the time he has lived in the house, all but one of its 20th-century owners have returned – and some repeatedly – to share their memories and photographs of the house, tour the property with family members, and see what had become of the historic place where they once lived.
But now that Kestell is closing his chapter in the history of the Almond Birch house, will he return after he sells the house?
“Without a doubt,” Kestell said.