Sunday, August 23, 2009
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Fort Chiswell mansion becomes granddaddy of all renovations

Chris Disibbio owns the Fort Chiswell Mansion, which he is renovating.

Chris Disibbio owns the Fort Chiswell Mansion, which he is renovating.

One of the bedrooms of Chris Disibbio's home, the Fort Chiswell Mansion.

One of the bedrooms of Chris Disibbio's home, the Fort Chiswell Mansion.

This 8-foot-wide fireplace served as the main cooking area for the residents of the Fort Chiswell Mansion.

This 8-foot-wide fireplace served as the main cooking area for the residents of the Fort Chiswell Mansion.

Joseph Cloyd McGavock (left) and his brother, Steven, built the mansion in 1839.

Joseph Cloyd McGavock (left) and his brother, Steven, built the mansion in 1839.

Joseph Cloyd McGavock (left) and his brother, Steven, built the mansion in 1839.

Joseph Cloyd McGavock (left) and his brother, Steven, built the mansion in 1839.

When Chris Disibbio's renovations of his Fort Chiswell Mansion are complete, he will live on the third floor (pictured) and use the rest of the house for other — yet-to-be-determined — uses.

ERIC BRADY The Roanoke Times

When Chris Disibbio's renovations of his Fort Chiswell Mansion are complete, he will live on the third floor (pictured) and use the rest of the house for other — yet-to-be-determined — uses.

The Fort Chiswell Mansion sits on a hillside above the area near the Fort Chiswell exit where Interstates 81 and 77 in Wythe County converge.

ERIC BRADY The Roanoke Times

The Fort Chiswell Mansion sits on a hillside above the area near the Fort Chiswell exit where Interstates 81 and 77 in Wythe County converge.

FORT CHISWELL -- Even as a boy, Chris Disibbio was enthralled with the mansion. He'd see it on family trips from their home in Bluefield, W.Va., to Claytor Lake, standing like a brick fortress on a bluff above the busy highway.

He wondered what kind of people lived in such a place.

Now, as the owner of the Fort Chiswell Mansion some 30 years later, he thinks he knows.

"They're crazy!" Disibbio said as he took a break from a renovation project that will soon stretch into its eighth year.

Disibbio, 42, bought the 170-year-old mansion at an auction in 2002. He got a great deal for a place that's listed on both the National Register of Historic Places and Virginia Landmarks Register. He paid $215,000 for the house and 5 acres of land.

Since then, he's poured thousands of dollars into restoring the old home to its former glory. With three stories, 21 rooms and nearly 10,000 square feet, the mansion has been a familiar, majestic landmark since the days when more than 200,000 settlers drove their wagons west along the old Wilderness Road to the Cumberland Gap during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Now, 50,000 vehicles a day pass the old mansion along a stretch where Interstates 81 and 77 and U.S. 11 and 52 all converge.

Who is this guy?

Disibbio is a self-trained jack-of-many-trades. He's a chef who ran the Bluefield restaurant Key Ingredients for nearly a decade, an amateur carpenter, a former champion bodybuilder and a businessman who owned a couple of gas stations and other property. When he's not fixing up historic mansions, he spends part of the year in the sand and surf of Southern California.

He won't say how many thousands -- tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands? -- he's spent renovating the Fort Chiswell Mansion, but acknowledges that he's put just about everything he has into the place.

"They say don't put all your eggs into one basket," Disibbio said. "I won't say all, but I got a bunch of eggs in this basket."

He's restoring it so that he can turn it into ... well, he's not quite sure what. First, it was going to be a restaurant. Now, perhaps a culinary school specializing in local food. Or maybe a place to hold festivals promoting local farmers and artisans.

In fact, he's racing to complete a host of renovations before October, when he plans to hold his first festival (which doesn't have a name yet, but will have something to do with local foods. He hopes to have local musical entertainment, too, although he hasn't lined up any yet).

"He's hard to nail down," said Teresa McCoy, who is the event coordinator for Disibbio's work-in-progress festival.

"He's very creative. He's the type of person who has it all played out in his mind and has already moved on to the next thing. You have to make him do a rewind and sit down long enough and extract everything you need so you can do what needs to be done. He has a lot of contacts, and he has a wonderful reputation, so it's all a matter of just taking care of all the details."

McCoy said that the festival will take place on the mansion property on Oct. 17. She hopes to have all of the organic food vendors on board soon.

History updated

When renovations are complete, the Fort Chiswell Mansion will be more open to the public than it has ever been in its 170-year history. During the October festival, Disibbio plans to open the mansion for tours. What people will see will be spectacular.

Two refurbished columns mark the main entrance, which faces the highways. The rear of the house, which looks out at rolling fields and grazing cattle, features a new back porch supported by hand-turned wooden posts.

Attached to the mansion's east wing is a large brick kitchen highlighted by an 8-foot-wide fireplace. Beyond the kitchen, a brick smokehouse contains three large troughs made of enormous, hand-carved chestnut.

The mansion's interior is even more remarkable than its exterior. All three levels -- including the attic that Disibbio has renovated into living space -- feature large rooms and high ceilings. A fancy staircase rises through all three levels, providing an "open-well" view up and down from each floor. Arched windows on each wing of the third level provide spectacular views of Lick Mountain -- and traffic.

The mansion's National Register of Historic Places nomination form from 1971 describes the house design as "a blending of Roman Revival and Greek Revival forms" and compares a window above the columns "to that which Thomas Jefferson designed for Pavilion IV at the University of Virginia."

Disibbio has replaced most of the utilities and modernized the bathrooms. Most rooms contain antique furniture he bought at auctions. He got good deals on most of the pieces because they are too large or tall to fit into most modern houses. The overall effect is that the house looks old on the outside, but feels new on the inside.

"This place is a privilege to own," he said. "People say, with all the upkeep why would you want to do that? But I'm doing what I like to do. And when I get the results I want, it's just going to be exciting."

A mansion in the wilderness

Fort Chiswell really was a fort, built on the edge of the western frontier in 1756 by Col. John Chiswell and William Byrd III. The fort was built to protect nearby lead mines around the time of the French and Indian War.

In 1771, a Scotsman named James McGavock moved down the Great Valley Road from Rockbridge County and bought the fort property. Fort Chiswell became a main stopping point along the wagon road. McGavock's grandsons, Steven and Cloyd McGavock, inherited the property in 1838 and quickly went to work building the mansion across the road from Fort Chiswell.

The 1971 nomination form quotes from a contract in which the brothers hired two men to make "300,000 sand brick of best quality to build the proposed building in a handsome workman like style -- $2.75 per thousand -- and themselves to lay same in handsome style with round joints and handsome arches turning over all outside doors and windows. Work to be completed by middle July 1840."

Construction began in 1839 and was probably finished on schedule. The mansion was the centerpiece of a sprawling 50,000-acre plantation bordered by the New River, a place where slaves worked the fields and tended to livestock. The slave quarters were torn down years ago on property that Disibbio does not own.

The mansion remained in the McGavock family until it was sold at auction in 1918.

From that time, two other owners lived in the house before Disibbio bought it in 2002.

"There was no family left in the community" to inherit the house, Wythe County historian Mary Kegley said. "Most of the McGavock descendents are gone."

The mansion has always been a private residence, so few local residents or historians have gotten a peek inside. Kegley visited the house several times, the last time right before the 2002 auction.

By then, the house was owned by Arvella Brown, an elderly lady who had tried to get historical organizations to help preserve it, without much luck. The mansion was auctioned after her death.

A laborer by nature

Disibbio has kept nearly a dozen workers busy with renovations, from carpenters to drywall hangers. He has done much of the work himself, which shows in his daily attire of white T-shirt and torn button-fly jeans that are so worn out he even uses them for a notepad to jot down a caller's telephone number -- while he's wearing them.

He said he has always been a laborer.

"I worked for my grandfather as a kid," he said, noting that his grandfather ran Sarver Candy Company in Bluefield. Disibbio learned to cook from his grandmother.

In addition to the renovation, he has many other irons in the fire. He is developing property along I-81 near Claytor Lake. He hopes to reopen his Bluefield restaurant. He said he has paid for most of the mansion renovations by selling other businesses, property and taking on odd jobs.

Meanwhile, at the mansion, the work goes on.

"There's so much stuff to be done," Disibbio said. "But I can't quit doing it."

On the Net: fortchiswellmansion.com Call: (276) 613-0829

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