April 14, 2024 Blog

The rehabilitation of a nineteenth-century home in Harpers Ferry has been recognized with an Excellence in Preservation Award by the Harpers Ferry – Bolivar Historic Town Foundation. The annual award in 2024 highlights the work of Jay Premack and Erin Hurley for their contribution to maintaining and enhancing the architectural, historical, and cultural heritage of our community. Their preservation work on the exterior of the house at 490 Fillmore Street has ensured its longevity, while interior updates guarantee twenty-first-century comfort.

Premack purchased the house in November 2012 while working as a photojournalist in Washington, DC. Years before he had become acquainted with the charms of Harpers Ferry and was later inspired to look for a home there so he could leave the city. When the real estate agent showed him this house, he liked the location but was also intrigued by its history. Advertised as the Spy House, it served for a while as the home of Nazi spy Simon Koedel, before he was convicted in 1945. Koedel was charged with collecting military information from 1939-1941 in New York harbor and transmitting it to the German Consulate.

Premack and Hurley’s two-story house has a much older history as well. Listed on the Harpers Ferry Historic District inventory of contributing structures as being built in 1890, evidence indicates an even earlier date. Lavinia Lovett, wife of Hill Top House founder Thomas S. Lovett purchased the home in 1886, and they probably lived there until the Hill Top House Hotel construction was completed in 1890. At that time, Lavinia sold the house to her mother-in-law Sarah Lovett, who also owned the adjacent properties. Sarah apparently used the house as a rental. In 1896, Harpers Ferry mayor Thomas W. Beale and his family moved in as renters. Sarah retained the home until her death in 1910, after which her estate sold it.

Shortly after Premack bought the house colder temperatures set in. “When I got the first electric bill that winter, my jaw hit the floor,” he remembers. “The house was extremely drafty and leaky,” which was confirmed by an energy audit reporting depressing results.

Premack began chipping away at necessary repairs and improvements the house, like re-insulating the attic, updating plumbing and electrical systems, and addressing water issues in the basement. Other changes were more about aesthetics. He pulled up old carpet, and refinished a bedroom floor that was covered in orange latex paint working his way to opening up walls on the first level     to allow for a more expansive floorplan. Previous owners had enclosed two stories of exterior porches to serve as bathrooms, which the home was built without. Leveling the sloping floors revealed minor structural issues which were addressed.

Early on during the COVID-19 pandemic, Premack and his soon-to-be wife Erin discovered water coming through an upstairs window frame during a driving rainstorm. That became the catalyst     for the full-scale exterior renovation and restoration that Premack had been considering for some time. The energy efficient project called for newly milled siding and exterior trim details, many of which were reproduced to match the original profiles. Behind the Dutch lap siding is a second layer of insulation which serves as an exterior blanket over the wide pine board sheathing boards that tie together the balloon framed structure. The house is now comfortable by modern standards, yet illustrates the great pains Premack took to respect the historical details that make the house distinctive.

Premack has done as much of the renovation work as he could on his own. “That’s been the most rewarding,” he says. Although he grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts, home of the This Old House home improvement TV show, he had never done construction work to this degree. He says he learned on the job, calling on experts when needed, and apprenticing under two carpenters, Lewis Allen and Chris Johannson. “They are both talented craftsmen,” he said. “I worked side by side with each at different times and learned tremendously from them.”

The Foundation will present its 2024 Excellence in Preservation Award to Jay and Erin at its annual meeting on April 30 at Snallygaster Wine Bar & Café on 1102 W. Washington Street in Bolivar. The public is invited to attend.

Written by Rachel Meyer