Sharon Virts is an expert in getting things done. The Loudoun-based entrepreneur created a booming business while raising four boys. Now, Virts and husband Scott Miller have found the challenge of their lives in restoring a historic mansion in danger of crumbling into oblivion less than two years ago. And they’re rising to the task with joy and determination, bringing new life to Selma.
Two years ago, historic Selma mansion north of Leesburg was a crumbling mess. An absentee owner had abandoned the property to the elements and vandals, and the once-gleaming house was covered in layers of dirt and mold.
After a year and a half of intensive renovations, Selma’s new owners, Sharon Virts and Scott Miller, moved in this summer. And work is still going full-tilt as they pursue their dual goals: preserving a piece of local history and making it their family home. Selma is still a work in progress and buzzing with contractors, but the house has already made a miraculous transformation into a warm and inviting residence.
It started in early 2016 when a friend posted photos of a deteriorating Selma on social media. At the time, Virts and Miller were living in Ashburn, focused on their thriving business. But Virts couldn’t get the images of Selma in shambles out of her head.
“My heart just broke. I couldn’t sleep for three days when I saw it,” she said.
The self-made businesswoman, known for her tenacity and negotiating skills, decided she had to do something. Through contacts in the Loudoun real estate community, Virts reached out to the then-owner and made arrangements to see the property.
In January 2016, just after a major snowstorm hit Loudoun, Virts, Miller and Virts’ teenage son trekked to the mansion. But they turned onto the now-defunct Selma Lane, which no longer accesses the house, got stuck in the snow and had to walk more than a mile to the house, only to find an empty, gloomy building, full of dirt, mold and damage. But Virts said that from the moment she opened the door, she looked right past the blight and could only see the potential.
“It spoke to me,” she said. “Houses have karma. They have a soul. It speaks to you or it doesn’t speak to you…When we’re here, I can feel it.”
Virts and Miller began negotiations with the owner, a Dutch businessman who had returned to Europe and let the house fall into disrepair, and bought the house and its 50-acre lot for $1.2 million in March 2016. Then the real work began.
“In the beginning, I was like, ‘All we need are a few wire brushes and some paint. It’ll be fine,’” Virts said with a laugh. But the project turned into a huge—and expensive— undertaking. After some initial stumbles, the couple assembled a crew of trusted craftsmen and tradespeople, and have put in tons of sweat equity themselves.
Miller, an engineer by training, labeled the first phase of the project “Seal and Secure,” with a focus on protecting the structure from the elements and keeping out trespassers. (During its years of abandonment, the house had attracted ghost hunters and fans of the occult, along more sophisticated vandals on the hunt for valuable fixtures. The couple initially hired around-the-clock security to keep the house safe during early-stage renovation.
Virts and Miller say there have been plenty of challenges along the way in restoring the 1902 colonial revival mansion, built by the son of the noted Civil War commander Elijah V. White. And finding a qualified general contractor was one of the biggest.
“Very few people have worked on a building like this and we stumbled with that for a while.” Miller said. “Finally, we gave up and said we’re going to have to do it ourselves. We’re the only ones who have the commitment, the interest and the passion for it.”
Virts’ son, Luke Mason, who has a background in project management, is overseeing the restoration, with plenty of hands-on participation from the owners.
And for all the challenges, there have been plenty of joys and amazing discoveries, like removing layers of dirt to find stunning inlaid wood flooring, replacing valuable tiles looted from a fireplace with handmade replicas and exposing and restoring brick in the mansion’s former summer kitchen—now the family’s kitchen—in the oldest part of the house.
That brick structure in the back of the house, which predates the main house by almost a century, was in the worst shape of all when the couple bought the property. The brick had been covered with layers of rotting plaster and drywall, and the room was full of wet debris and trash. Experts advised them to tear down and rebuild, but Virts and Miller stuck to their guns, bringing in masons from Williamsburg to help them restore the brick. The space, which is now a warm kitchen and family room with a contemporary heart pine mezzanine, is now Miller’s favorite part of the house.
The project is truly a labor of love for Virts, who grew up just up the road in a modest home in Lucketts, a member of the ubiquitous Virts clan whose members have populated northern and western Loudoun for centuries. She graduated from Loudoun County High School in 1980 and went on to attend the University of Virginia. She launched a consulting company in 1991 at the age of 29 and transformed it into the booming government contracting company, FCI Federal.
Virts met Miller on the job, and Miller took over as president of FCI in 2012. The couple sold the business last summer and turned to philanthropic efforts. Virts created the Sharon D. Virts Foundation last year with a focus on culture, education and healthcare initiatives. Miller has two adult children, and Virts has four sons, including two teens at home at Selma.
The mansion’s third floor has become a cozy haven for the younger generation, with a man-cave known as the Cedar Room and a cozy corner room for Virts’ and Miller’s 4-year-old grandson, Charlie, in the mansion’s former nursery that looks like something straight out of A.A. Milne.
Selma does have plenty of grandeur—the couple has restored the dazzling staircase and landing. But Virts and Miller have also gone for an authentic, warm feel, seeking out period pieces at auction and combining antiques with contemporary art and decor in fun and interesting ways. And with hard work and lots of attention to detail, they’ve been able to achieve a cozy, homey feel in the 18,000-square-foot house.
“What surprised me was the serenity of it when no one’s here,” Miller said. “When we’re just standing here looking down the valley, there’s an amazing amount of serenity here. … Even though it’s a giant place, the rooms are very intimate. You don’t ever feel overwhelmed by the size.”