The Jennings-Baker House, also known as Villa Fortuna, is one of the most affordable National Register properties you’re likely to see. Accordingly, it also needs more work than most National Register properties. It’s not a complete wreck, though, and some of its charm has stood up to the years very well.
The brick exterior is notably elaborate. The National Register nomination calls Villa Fortuna a distinctive and vernacular mix of styles — Gothic Revival, Italianate and more — that were popular in the mid-19th century. The current real estate listing says it’s simply “the perfect blend of unpretentious elegance and a rustic urban farm,” although even an urban farmer might want more than the villa’s half acre.
The house is at 608 Vance Avenue in Reidsville. It was built in 1888. It has three bedrooms; one bathroom, more or less; and 1,548 square feet. It’s priced at $99,900, a bargain-basement $46 per square foot. It’s also a for-sale-by-owner deal.
The villa is near the Old Post Road Historic District, but, like the other houses on its block, it has fallen on hard times. The house was foreclosed upon in 2010 and then sold in 2011 for $25,000.
“The facing came off the back of the second story and squirrels got in and damaged the wiring in the ceiling of the purple bed room,” the listing says (the purple bedroom has to be seen to be appreciated, though the chewed-up wiring is hardly its most notable feature; see the photos below). “All 22 windows need to be replaced.” Or, in keeping with the historic stature of the house, the original windows could be repaired, if there are any left.
According to the 1986 National Register nomination, the first owner and probable builder of the house was William G. Jennings, a brick manufacturer. His trade may have figured prominently in the eclectic design of the house. The nomination cites “the possibility that Jennings may have intended his house as a sort of advertisement for what was then a young enterprise, exhibiting the products of his brick yard and demonstrating the masonry skills of his workers.”
The Reidsville Times carried this ad for the firm in 1887:
JENNINGS & GUNN
Manufacturers and Contractors of all kinds of Brick and Brickwork, and can also furnish
any one with fire proof Brick. Have none but the best of Workmen.
Brick appears to have been relatively new in Reidsville. As of 1986, there were only six pre-1890 brick houses still surviving in the town, and the nomination says it’s unlikely that many more had been built. Five are Italianate. “The Jennings-Baker House is a much more vernacular and personal expression of Victorian tastes, as it combines elements of several styles. The triangular patterned brickwork above windows and doors on the facade have a vaguely Gothic flavor, while the segmental arch openings on the side and rear elevations and in the ell … are typical of masonry construction of the period. The facade’s projecting bays and porch suggest the influence of architecture predominantly found at military institutions, while the corbel table on the facade and the parapeted side elevations of the main block are reminiscent of commercial architecture in the late nineteenth century.”
Brick stands up to the ages better than wood, so, aside from the misfortune at the back of the house, the exterior looks to be in reasonably good shape. Current photos show the interior requires at least some cosmetic work. “For the most part, the interior of the Jennings-Baker House is much more simply finished than the exterior,” the nomination states. “Common throughout the house are plaster walls, pine flooring, simple baseboards, four-panel doors with rim locks and china knobs and relatively plain though molded post and lintel mantels, all standard Victorian finish details.”
Many older houses have an odd, inexplicable feature or two. But few old-house surprises have the stop-you-in-your-tracks quality that you’ll find in the purple bedroom.
Through the years