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Refurbished historic home's welcome mat is out

Marcia Riley was leading a school tour of the Federal-style brick home next to a modern shopping mall in downtown Norfolk when a child demanded to know, "If this is an old house, why is it so clean?"

Much of the Moses Myers House, built in the 1790s by the first permanent Jewish residents of this port city, now gleams like new because of an ongoing, $1.5-million project to restore it to its condition during the early 19th century.

The home reopened to the public in November after the first part of a three-phase renovation was completed.

The project is a scholarly assessment of "one of the great historic houses of Virginia," said Gary E. Baker, curator of decorative arts and houses for the Chrysler Museum of Art, which operates the house for the city.

Built in the 1790s, the house is one of the few early urban homes in Virginia with most of the furnishings _ 70 percent _ from its first occupants. It's also believed to be the only museum home in the country that interprets a Jewish family from the Federal period, roughly 1790-1830.

"We have all the (family) letters, so we can put the people in the house," Baker said.

The house contains American, English and French furniture, glass, silver and ceramics. There are portraits painted by artists such as Gilbert Stuart, who painted George Washington and other notables of the Federal period, and Thomas Sully, whose subjects included politicians and members of high society.

The furniture and artwork stand out more now that the restoration has eliminated some of the often dark _ and not authentic to the house _ colors slapped on the walls during a previous paint job.

"Unfortunate choices were made in the era of the unexplained popularity of the leisure suit," Baker said of the greens and mustards. They have been replaced by historically accurate white and pale blue-greens that brighten spaces and reveal the tiniest details on a stunning neoclassical ceiling in the front passage.

"I feel like we got a brand-new space," said Riley, manager of the house, which gets just 6,000 to 8,000 visitors a year, many of them schoolchildren. Riley hopes the renovation will attract more people.

Five generations of the Myers family lived in the two-and-a-half story, 10-room home.

Moses Myers, a merchant who spoke a half-dozen languages, moved to Norfolk from New York in 1787 and five years later bought a large lot on what was then the edge of town. The exact year the house was built isn't clear, Baker said, but fire insurance records show it was standing by 1797.

Myers' import-export business helped re-establish Norfolk's port, which had been hurt by Britain's naval blockade during the American Revolution, said Harriet Collins, the home's lead interpreter.

Myers became president of the city's council. He also served as local consul to the Netherlands and Denmark and mercantile agent to the French Republic.

He and his wife, Eliza, had 12 children, with nine surviving to adulthood.

In 1931, the Myers family sold the house to a private foundation that operated it as a museum. Twenty years later, realizing the house needed restoration, the group sold it to the city.

Baker, a stickler for historical accuracy, disapproves of some donated furnishings that don't match the Federal period. Such items are being moved elsewhere.

"What we're trying to do is freeze a moment in time, rather than have a pastiche of periods," Baker said.

To prepare for this restoration, exhaustive research and paint studies were done to make the house look like it did in 1820, the year a room-by-room inventory of the furnishings was completed when the family declared bankruptcy.

The museum has raised $250,000 in donations toward the total cost of the project, Baker said.

The biggest revelation in the restoration has been the quality of the details in the ceiling in the downstairs front hall _ details such as plaster ribbons, tassels, pearls and feather fans that had been obscured by decades of whitewash and paint.

"The lovely little tassels looked like marshmallows on a stick," Collins said. "The beading looked like it was a little bit of bumpy plaster up there."

The ceiling, as well as the walls and woodwork in the hall, had been painted in dark greens. Once the ceiling was given a thorough cleaning, it and the walls were painted a pleasing white and the woodwork a light blue-green.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: There are flights from Tampa Bay to Norfolk on several airlines.

MOSES MYERS HOUSE: The house is at 331 Bank St. It is open Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission for adults, $5; seniors and children 12 and older, $3; free for children under 12.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Go to www.norfolkcvb.com; call (757) 333-6283.

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