Buena Vista historic home complete after two decades of renovation

The previously dilapidated Paxton House was built in 1831


Buena Vista’s historic Paxton House has completed a 20-year restroration.

Built in 1831, the structure serves as a living history project, giving visitors a chance to envision life as it was lived two centuries ago.

Lori Wood, a board member of the Paxton House historical society said she’s impressed with their accomplishments of the past two decades.

“For a renovation that a nonprofit community, kind of home-grown group is managing, that’s actually a pretty good amount of time to get it done,” she said.

Renovating the house, which was originally constructed before the Civil War, was a labor of love.

“It is not a practical thing to do,” Wood said. “It’s something you’re doing for a reason.”

For Wood, that reason is saving history. “This is just a big artifact that helps support histories and helps engage you with the stories of people who were involved with this structure over the course of years,” she said.

Elisha Paxton commissioned the house in 1827 and is the namesake. The son of an Irish immigrant, Paxton worked his way into wealth and prestige in the local community.

But part of the work of those involved with this project is, in Wood’s mind, retrieving and telling the other histories linked to this place, those that have largely been buried.

“We have a lot more to do in terms of the stories related to Native Americans that encamped or even had more permanent settlements in this area before the Europeans were here, and the enslaved people that lived here, they are part of the story too,” she said. “We have a lot more research to do and a lot more programs to do to tell those stories.”

The house is bigger than the Paxton family, she said.

“It’s about history, it’s about individual stories and it’s about connections,” Wood said.

Washington and Lee University students have been among the countless volunteers in the Paxton House restoration.

Between 1999 and 2000, university students conducted an archeological dig on the grounds. They discovered pre-European artifacts, such as stone tools and arrowheads.

These artifacts are on display inside the house.

The renovation was a large undertaking, and presented challenges for those dedicated to preserving the Paxton House.

“You have to pick and choose what original aspects of a structure you can keep, and what you need to do to save it in general,” Wood said.

Unfortunately, the completion of the project coincided with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, which has restricted the house’s ability to support visitors.

“This year was going to be the first year that we would have regular hours when the house was open for visitors to come and take tours,” Wood said. “We unfortunately had to cancel those regular monthly hours.”

They have also had to cancel several events, including a Labor Day event and a planned Christmas holiday reception.

Despite the setbacks, Wood continues to view the house as an important aspect of the Buena Vista community. While many of the historical structures in the area are still intact, Paxton House is the only one of its kind that is open to the public.

“It’s a great hub for this community,” Wood said. “It’s always been a backdrop to Buena Vista. So people know about it, and I think it really enriches the community to have this here”.

William Fitzgerald, Buena Vista’s mayor, agreed.

“Like everyone in Buena Vista, I think it’s a nice addition to our city” he said. “The people who have been doing this project have worked very hard, and I thank them for their commitment”.

Fitzgerald himself has been involved in the project, crafting several wooden pieces to replace the originals that couldn’t be salvaged. Most fireplace mantels in the house are original, but some had to be recreated.

The community has been vital in saving this historic structure. While the house is owned by the city of Buena Vista, the local government had neither the resources or the focus to dedicate to the house.

“This all wouldn’t have happened except for one person talking to other people and saying ‘we really should save this house,’” Wood said.

For Wood, that person was Virginia Hess, who passed away earlier this year. Hess was one of the first people to imagine a renovated Paxton House around twenty years ago.

A for the future of the Paxton House, Wood envisions drawing the local community further into the project. “My dream is that this place gets used a lot more on a daily basis” she says. “It will not survive if it is not used regularly.”

She said this use could take many forms.

“There could be local civic groups that want to meet here regularly,” Wood said. “We just have to use our imagination to get this going.”