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Travel Back in Time at the Thornton Walker House

Travel Back in Time at the Thornton Walker House

Written by Beth Rasin | Photos by Caroline Gray

On the first night that Lisa Ryan and her husband Jay Ryan spent in the historic Thornton Walker House in Unison, they heard clanking and pinging. After a few moments of careful listening — and maybe just a moment of pulling the covers up tighter — Jay realized they were hearing hot water running through the baseboard heaters. They laughed off any thoughts of Revolutionary or Civil War ghosts, but when a house is close to three centuries old, its walls hold countless stories. 

In the Thornton Walker House, built circa 1740, those stories might have taken place in the dining room, which was the field hospital during the 1862 Battle of Unison. The family room served as the town’s general store and post office in the 1800s, when Walker owned it, adding the brick section to the original log frame. Then, after a series of owners who cared for and updated it, in 2021, Jay Ryan would present the home to his wife, Lisa, as a Christmas present.

“We were looking for something that had history, that had evolved over the years, that had been loved,” Lisa Ryan shares.

The house reminded her of homes she’d admired in the English countryside, when she used to make regular trips to France and England. Unison, she decided, was as close as she would come to owning a home in the same kind of quaint country village.

“I had looked at quite a few homes, and so many needed so much work,” she remembers. “This one just needed to be brought back to life, but the bones were so good — the chinking, fireplace, old wood floors, original glass, rimrocks, all the gardens. It just felt like it had been lived in and had a story to tell.”

They gutted the bathrooms, renovated the kitchen, and brought in modern appliances, creating comfort while still showcasing the historical highlights.

“In the décor, we wanted it to look like it had grown with the house over time,” she says, adding that she gave a nod to equines but not hunting scenes. (Although she’s become an avid rider at the age of 63 and hopes to learn to foxhunt.)

Much of the experience of the home, she notes, is in its outdoor space and gardens, thanks in large part to the former owner who was a horticulturist, and the longtime property gardener, Angelberto Covarrubias.

“All the trees in the yard are specific species of trees, and there are just thousands of peonies,” Ryan describes. “I’m an avid gardener, and to see all the flowers and perennials and peonies and trees blooming … was an added bonus and confirmation that this was where we were meant to be.”

The side courtyard functions as an outdoor living space when the Ryans visit once a month from their home in Dallas. “We’re always on that side patio having lunch, dinner, appetizers. All the neighbors walk by or go by on golf carts or bikes or horses, and they stop and end up on our side patio. That’s the type of community it is: a gathering place.”

Ryan has worked to ensure that the details are historically accurate, “staying in the real time of the house, not putting something in there that doesn’t work or fit with the fabric of the home,” she explains.

She’s about to remove the exterior siding and replace it with reproduced original siding. When Walker bought the home in the 1800s, chinking was a sign of poverty so he imported German shiplap, which is original on the upper part of the house. “On the new addition, the brick side of the house, there are taller ceilings, which was a sign of wealth back then,” Ryan notes.

Some of her favorite details include the handrail, which is hand-carved and dovetailed, and the original locks, with bars and brackets. The unique collectibles they’ve found — buttons, pieces of pipe, and other Civil War artifacts — are also on display, many of which were unearthed in a storm two years ago.

With all the elements in place, the home is now available for exclusive short-term rental. Ryan hopes her work to preserve the home’s heritage will enable guests to appreciate the importance of preserving Unison and Middleburg. “I want them to understand and appreciate history; they are standing on a battlefield,” she says.

The first day she owned the home, before it was even furnished, Ryan stopped and acknowledged the lives that had been lost in the battles there and promised she’d value that history.

“When people come to our home and community, there’s a sense of the simple life there used to be.” She continues, “They come and connect, and it’s an experience you don’t get every day outside this part of the country. I hope they really value the simplicity and walk away with a greater understanding of the history of the property and the village.”

The Thornton Walker House has been a labor of love. As Ryan says, “That house, if it could only tell me stories and share, I’d love to know. It does have a personality, but to me it stands strong, bold, and courageous, and has withstood the test of time. That’s how I see that house, and yet at the same time it’s very inviting, safe, and simple.”

And, Ryan adds, no ghosts. ML

Visit to learn more about the property and rental opportunities.

Published in the June 2024 issue of Middleburg Life.

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