Harrison and Joan Wehner shared an affinity for fixing up historic properties, something their three sons didn’t necessarily love as youngsters.
“It was fun for Mom and Dad to go to Colonial Williamsburg for the weekend and look at chimneys and architecture and paint schemes,” said Jon, vintner at Chatham Vineyards along with his wife, Mills. “I never did find it very interesting, but what I did find fascinating was the lifestyle.”
Growing up in Fairfax County on a small farm that included a vineyard, Jon and his older brothers, Harrison Jr., and Ross, spent at least one weekend every month at Chatham Farm. Harrison and Joan bought the property in Machipongo in 1979; the estate included a manor house that dated back to 1818.
It’s a house with a history that is newly listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
William Spencer is credited with building the original two-story Chatham in 1679, a structure that burned to the ground in the 1880s. Major Scarborough Pitts rebuilt the Federal brick home laid in Flemish bond in 1818. At the east end of the house, he added a one-story colonnade, which was part of the earlier two-story house that became a quarters kitchen in the 19th century. In 1857, Pitts’ heirs sold it to Dr. Arthur Wainhouse Downing, who added an office to the west side of the house and resided there until his death in 1901. His second wife, who had life tenancy, remained until her death in 1911. Ernest Scott purchased the property at auction the following year for his family of 13. The Scott heirs sold it in 1972; the Wehners bought it with the intent on restoring it with respect to its history.
The King of Prussia marble fireplaces were still intact. So, too, were the lockboxes from the 1800s. Chandeliers hung from the 12-foot ceilings. Yet, much of it was a mess, inside and out, including foundation cracks that threatened its stability. Fully renovating the home was a huge undertaking, perhaps the primary reason the property remained on the market months before the Wehners bought it.
“Both my mom and dad were committed to restore Chatham, and it turned into a 40-some year project,” Jon says. “We would show up at Chatham late on a Friday. Chatham had no running water. There were birds and snakes in the house, which needed a huge amount of repair. We’d be there all weekend.”
The Wehner brothers stayed busy, stripping paint, clearing brush with a chainsaw, moving from one task to the next. “We hauled out 40 years of trash, bed springs and tires,” Jon says. “There was no end in sight. It was our lifestyle. We would work as a family. That was what we did.”
In lieu of traditional Saturday sleepovers with friends, the Wehner brothers camped out in front of Chatham house with their parents, sleeping in tents and making do with the groceries they bought in advance. It took years before the house became somewhat livable. Once a heater was installed on the first floor, everyone would end the night by gathering around the furnace to stay warm.
“Then we would run upstairs and get in our cold beds and get through the night,” Jon says. “We did that for probably 20 years.”
Mindful of Chatham’s original architecture meant there were no shortcuts during the restoration — a strategy Jon embraces in the 21-acre vineyard the Wehners planted in 1998, seven years before they built the winery that is Chatham Vineyards at Church Creek.
Harrison Wehner’s discovery of an old shingle that was rounded, like a fish scale, convinced him that the original roof on Chatham was a scalloped one. Researching, he learned the shingles all had been hand cut.
“This was good news for him; it wasn’t good news for us,” Jon says. “We rented a bandsaw for the summer of 1982, and my brothers, and I took turns hand cutting these shingles. We’d stack them 5 or 6 feet high. We hand cut tens of thousands of these shingles without any of us losing a finger.”
The Wehners sold their Great Falls farm and moved to Chatham full time in 2001. Joan Wehner, 83, now lives part time at Chatham House with her shadow, Emma, a Boston Terrier. (Harrison Wehner passed in 2013.) Formal gardens surround the house — vegetable, herb and butterfly ones. Exquisite brickwork, all laid by Joan, add to its charm.
“It’s a very peaceful place,” says Jon, who lives in one of the two frame farmhouses that date back to the early 1900s formerly built and occupied by the Scott brothers (the other house is an Airbnb for guests for Chatham Vineyards).
The historical designation was all the work of Joan Wehner, a legacy she was passionate about passing on to her children and grandchildren.
Jon has nothing but fond memories of those early years at Chatham working together with his brothers and parents.
“We don’t really value things unless we put our heart and soul into something. I did that,” he says. “You draw this personal connection, this direct connection, from hard work. My kids now have that same connection to the farm and the land. That connection is what preserves things for generations.”