The biggest single-family property in Charlottesville, and the longtime home of the family that gave the city’s Fifeville neighborhood its name, is on the market for the first time since 1847.
Built by Thomas Jefferson’s carpenter and long inhabited by the Fife family, including a husband and wife who each served as the Charlottesville mayor, the Oak Lawn estate can be had for $4.2 million.
“There’s just nothing like it,” Realtor Ross Stevens told The Daily Progress. “It’s an opportunity to preserve and protect an important Charlottesville landmark.”
While the price might seem high for a house with just two bedrooms and two bathrooms, there is a lot of land: 5.2 acres.
“Holy cow, that’s huge,” remarked historian Coy Barefoot. “I would be shocked if it stayed in its pretty, park-like setting.”
With Charlottesville City Council lately spending about $10 million annually on various affordable housing initiatives, Barefoot said he suspects that a zoning change could bring dozens of apartments and several retail slots to the property, located at the corner of Ninth Street and Cherry Avenue, less than a quarter-mile from University of Virginia Medical Center.
“I’m sort of surprised it’s not priced higher given the likely rezoning value,” said Barefoot. “I bet it would be so easy to get that rezoned.”
The property is listed on both the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places. While those are merely honorary designations, Stevens pointed out that the entire tract has been designated an “individually protected property” under the city’s historic preservation ordinance. That means that any major exterior alteration requires permission from the city’s Board of Architectural Review.
However, one recent BAR disapproval was overruled on appeal last month by City Council. And at least one other appeal – a controversial thumbs-down to a church’s plea for solar panels – appears headed to the council. Stevens said that a sensitive development will likely find favor.
“It does have opportunity if someone does want to develop part of it,” said Stevens, who suggested that town houses along Cherry Avenue and Ninth Street might win BAR approval.
Stevens said there’s no definite buyer yet.
“The market will dictate that,” answered Stevens. “I’m hoping a preservation-minded person.”
There’s a lot of history to preserve. The house was built of brick around 1822 for a merchant named Nimrod Branham when the property measured over 300 acres. The builder was James Dinsmore, who rebuilt Monticello, built three of UVa’s Lawn Pavilions and fashioned much of the interior woodwork at James Madison’s Montpelier in Orange County.
Historic documents show that Dinsmore came to Charlottesville in 1798 at the urging of Jefferson. The two had met in Philadelphia, and Jefferson needed the Scotch-Irish immigrant for a total rebuild of Monticello.
“A more faithful, sober, discrete, honest and respectable man I have never known,” Jefferson wrote of Dinsmore in an 1815 letter.
Dinsmore spent over a decade overseeing construction at Monticello and later became a real estate developer in Charlottesville, owning a tract called Orange Dale, now commemorated with a street with a streamlined version of that name. Dinsmore also developed houses on West Main Street, one of which now bears his name as an inn.
Inside Oak Lawn are features that might seem familiar to Monticello visitors: high ceilings, decorative plaster and a pair of tight staircases to the second floor. There are five fireplaces and original pine floors. In the walk-up attic, one can see the original hand-hewn beams held together with pegs.
“These are 16-inch walls of solid brick,” said Stevens, rapping at the edge of a window frame. “And the interior walls are solid brick.”
At Monticello, Dinsmore trained an enslaved man named John Hemings in carpentry, then called “joinery.” Hemings got so good at wood-crafting that he eventually built chairs, tables and repaired carriages for the Founding Father and third president. Half-brother to Sally Hemings, Jefferson’s enslaved lover and half-sister of his late wife, John Hemings was one of just five people freed in Jefferson’s will.
In 1847, a preacher and real estate developer named James Fife purchased Oak Lawn. The property remained in Fife family hands, most recently occupied by a married couple, Francis Fife and Nancy O’Brien. During the 20th century, each served on Charlottesville City Council, both serving as mayor during their respective tenures.
O’Brien has recently moved to a retirement community; Fife died in 2015 at the age of 95.
“He had fond memories of riding his horse bareback throughout the areas now known as Fifeville, Johnson Village and Fry Springs,” reads Fife’s obituary. “He raised chickens on what was then a 350-acre farm along with milking neighbors’ cows.”
Barefoot said that he recently saw an article in a 1964 edition of The Daily Progress showing that part of Oak Lawn was taken via eminent domain to create Buford Middle School and other projects. Some of the facilities now standing on former Oak Lawn land include Forest Hills Park, the Smith Aquatic & Fitness Center, a Boys & Girls Club and a center for the U.S. Army Reserves.
“It’s staggering to think of how that property dominated that part of town,” said Barefoot.
On a walk across Oak Lawn’s grounds, a visitor can see four Tuscan columns adorning the front portico, a classic signifier, Stevens said, of Jeffersonian Palladianism. A massive oak towers over the house, and a pair of dinner table-size stumps are nearby. A line of trees separates the property from busy Cherry Avenue, so chirping birds and laughs from students from nearby Buford Middle School seem louder than the occasional car horn.
“Nobody really knows about this place,” said Stevens. “It’s kind of been well hidden, a little private domain here in the middle of the city.”
Stevens said that he used to coach boys’ lacrosse next door at Buford.
“At some point it was a sort of a rite of passage for Buford students to walk through here on a dare,” said Stevens, who credits the Fife family for their stewardship and forbearance.
“It’s never had a gate, which I think says a lot,” said Stevens. “We sell so many farms in Albemarle County, and the first thing they do is throw up a gate.”
Oak Lawn hits the market on Monday.