Original Elements: The Carriage House & the Virginia Creeper

Virginia Creeper growing over the slate roof of an old garageWith all the changes that have been made to the Meier House in its 100+ year history, we cherish the features that are original to its construction. We do our best to restore and maintain the entire house, but we give special attention to extant original elements. One of those original features is also the largest: the carriage house. Well, that’s what we call it. It’s actually the garage that was built when the house was constructed in 1917. It was built for an automobile so it never really housed a carriage per se. Still, this vine covered little structure begs to be called carriage house, doesn’t it?

Virginia Creeper vines in early fall

For a building that is over a century old, the carriage house is in good condition – save for this poor door. The original stucco and slate roof are intact and both the side door and the lift door are painted with the Cherokee Red that’s likely original to the house. The only big change to the garage is the little addition to the back.

Since this garage was constructed in the nineteen-teens, it was designed for a much smaller automobile. The house’s original owner, Delbert Meier, built a small addition onto the back of the garage to accommodate the length of his modern (and much larger!) 1950’s car. Thanks to the thickness of the vines that cover the garage, you can only see Del’s addition in the winter months, when the vines have shed their big leaves.

When we first bought the house a friend remarked that we should rip the vines off of the carriage house. They may be damaging the garage, that friend suggested. We argued that the vines may actually be holding the carriage house up! Also, how charming are these vines? We use this carriage house as an outdoor room during the summer months. When we prop up the big, heavy door (it takes two of us to lift it!) and sit in this cool, leaf shrouded little space on a hot, summer day, it feels less like a garage and more like an extension of the house.

There’s one other reason that we want to keep the vines on the carriage. They, too, are an original feature. The vines are documented in a photo of the garage dated 1923. Yes, you read that right. These vines – or their plant ancestors (plantcestors?) – date back almost 100 years! Back then, the Virginia creeper vines covered just the rear half of the garage. When we bought the house four years ago, the vines were covering just about every surface of the garage. The lift door on the front of the garage hadn’t been opened in years and vines had grown over it. The only bare surfaces were patches on the roof and the side door.

Virginia creeper on the garage of the Delbert Meier house in 1923

With the help of our brilliant, green-thumbed friend, Martha, we’ve been able to confirm that the carriage house is covered in Virginia Creeper. While it may sound like a handsy southerner or a flasher on the loose on the streets of Richmond, Virginia Creeper is actually a deciduous perennial vine. As a deciduous plant, the foliage turns out a show of color in late summer/early fall. And then the leaves fall off and over the winter months the carriage house looks as though it’s covered in some sort of exoskeleton.

Virginia Creeper vines that has lost its leaves for the winter

Now that we’ve identified the vine, we know a little more about how to care for it. According to our friend Martha, and confirmed on The Spruce, Virginia creeper is not just a hardy plant, it’s downright aggressive. It will climb on anything around it, strangling it and blocking out any light. And if Virginia creeper can’t climb, it’ll stretch out on the earth looking for something to attach itself too. We can confirm this. We’ve cut back the vines in a lot of places and by the next season they’ve all come back again. Fortunately, the dried vines make beautiful wreaths!

 

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This spring, we’re going to be a little more aggressive in our pruning. In fact, we should be more aggressive. We’ve learned from Martha that cutting back some of the old growth will help new, healthier growth come in. We’ve noticed that the vines are looking a little haggard in some places. Pruning is likely to help those patches come back to life. We’ve also learned that Virginia creeper transplants easily. This gives us hope that we can take a few cutting from the carriage house and train the plant to grow on the new garage.

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