Story by Heather Harris of The Rural Virginian
Photography by Rick Martin Photography
It sits high up on the hill, serving as a landmark to passers-by, captivating onlookers with its haunting beauty. Surrounded by a sea of tall grasses and crowned with an octagonal turret, the home would be befitting as the setting of an Alfred Hitchcock movie.
Driving along that route it certainly attracted me.
The history of the Alberene House, also known as the Company House, dates back to 1883 when New York businessmen James H. Serene and Daniel Carroll, along with John Porter, purchased a 1,955 acre tract of land on Route 719 beside Beaver Dam Creek. A deed dated Jan. 31, 1883, states that the property was purchased by the trio for a sum of $30,000.
That same year, the men founded the Albemarle Soapstone Company and, after several legal battles, were able to begin quarrying their recently-purchased property, making use of the massive soapstone beds found on the eastern side of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Around 1890, the business changed its name to the Alberene Soapstone Company, an altered combination of the surname Serene and Albemarle County. The name Alberene was also given to the company town that had formed in the surrounding area. Completely self-sustaining, Alberene had everything that any small town would have—a post office, two-story school, a commissary, and several churches.
In 1899, New York City architect C. Wellesley Smith drew up plans for the house, which was to serve as the home of the company president and his family. Designed in the American Queen Anne style, Smith envisioned the house as a mirror-image copy of Crestwood, an historic home on Old Ivy Road that was demolished in 1990.
Walters and Vandegrift, contractors and builders from Charlottesville, were hired to construct the three-story house after their bid of $5,250 was accepted. The builders used soapstone harvested from the nearby quarry to put on the exterior of the brick-walled first floor. Both the second and third floors, as well as the turret, are made of wood frames covered by natural-finished wooden shingles.
While the home was in its prime, an L-shaped porch spanned the front and left sides, with a smaller porch on the back of the house. The roof of the porch was originally supported by white wooden Doric-style columns.
Soapstone steps greeted residents and guests at the front of the home, who could then enter through one of the two main doors on the first floor. Both main doors—located on the northwest and northeast sides—were set between two tall stained glass windows and featured brass doorknobs.
A vestibule at the front of the home connected to a living room and study, one of which housed the bottom level of the turret. At the back of the home was a large dining room with a bay window, a small pantry, and a kitchen that connected to the back porch.
The rooms on the first floor were decorated with intricate plaster crown molding, ornate stained door frames, and wood paneling below the windows. In the kitchen, the walls were trimmed with slatted wood wainscot. Alberene Soapstone was used to make the sink and stove base in the kitchen, as well as some of the carved fireplace mantels throughout the home.
A switchback staircase in the entrance hall connected to the central halls of the second and third floors, and a straight staircase led to the attic. The second floor had four spacious bedrooms, a row of closets, and a bathroom. On the third floor were another four bedrooms, set up in the same layout as the second floor, yet without a bathroom.
Just after the turn of the twentieth century, the Alberene Soapstone Company merged with their rival company, the Virginia Soapstone Company, giving them control of VSC’s state-of-the-art factory and mill in the Nelson County town of Schuyler. Alberene Soapstone thrived, and by the 1920s, the company owned approximately 6,000 acres and employed more than 2,000 workers. The population of Schuyler was larger than Lovingston, the county seat.
Over the years, the deed to the house and its property was transferred between a number of different companies and associations, including the Alberene Cemetery Association and the Georgia Marble Company, the latter having bought out the Alberene Soapstone Company in 1956.
Although the company experienced some hard times and even a temporary name change, the Alberene Soapstone Company continues to thrive and is the only remaining producer of soapstone in the United States.
Alberene House is now privately owned by the founder of a Celtic mail order catalog, which shares its name with the historic home. The house is not open for tours, but it continues to attract the attention of curious motorists who drive along the winding country road. It is truly one of the overlooked architectural gems of Albemarle County.