Ed Keepers’ home in Sabraton is a showcase of history and holiday splendor.
Walking into ed keepers’ home on Listravia Avenue in Sabraton is like walking into a museum. The first floor and much of the second are decorated to make you feel as though you’ve traveled back to the mid-19th century, when the house was built. Classical Christmas music plays in the background and there’s a slight smell of cinnamon. On every wall and in every corner are the relics of legends—from Abraham Lincoln and George Washington to Clara Barton and Charles Dickens. Beside a coat rack sits a worn black umbrella. “That umbrella was used at Lincoln’s funeral by the mayor of Bristol’s wife,” Ed says. “I used to live in Bristol and someone said, ‘You have to have this.’ It’s so weird. It’s like I was predestined to get all of this stuff.”
Ed has been collecting all his life and has lived in the house in Sabraton for 10 years. He spends his days doing interior design at Classic Furniture and evenings working on one of the myriad projects around the house—ripping up carpet or restoring doors and built-ins. The two-story Federal-style home with Classical Revival details is one of Morgantown’s oldest, built in 1852 according to some documents, though it’s believed a smaller house must have been on the land when Philip Harner bought it in 1850. “There are many important people who lived here,” Ed says.
In 1885 Philip and Sarah Harner sold the house and 100-plus acres to their son, William T. Harner, who 17 years later sold the property to George Sturgiss (later a U.S. Congressman) on the condition that he and his family live in the house until November—when the house he was building next door was complete. Experts disagree as to whether Sturgiss lived in the house, as his wife Sabra, who Sabraton is named after, died in 1903. Ed says Sturgiss ran a law office from the house and certainly had many meetings there that probably included a good bit of entertaining. Sturgiss also used the Harner and adjoining farms as the base for Sturgiss City, now Sabraton.
Long a history and preservation buff, Ed knew he had to have the home when a friend brought its sale to his attention. The house had sat vacant for years and was split into apartments and office space at one time. Ed bought both the grand house and the green cottage behind it. Both are on the National Register of Historic Places. “This house was prominent. It was known for its entertaining,” says Ed, standing in the left room off of the entryway—a room decorated for Christmas as it would have been in the 1860s. Ed starts decorating for Christmas every year in October. At one time, the area was a Russian and Ukrainian enclave. In January, Ed pays homage to that heritage by hosting a Twelfth Night party. He puts each garland and centerpiece together by hand—twig by twig. “This is how they did it. Nothing comes out of a box,” he says. “It takes a long time, but it’s really worth it.” Ed is careful to decorate his home as if it were the 1850s or 1860s. “I hang garlands from the ceiling,” Ed says. “I was inspired by a woodcut from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.”
The decor isn’t the only attraction during Ed’s Twelfth Night party. Lisa Phillips, previous owner of Sam and Betty’s Restaurant, catered the event with an array of regional foods. The midnight dessert buffet, featuring her infamous crème brûlée, has become a tradition.
Over the years Ed has put a lot of work into the house. He restored all of the American chestnut floors by hand and had to do a lot of painting—inside and out. “When I bought this place the paint was curling off,” he says. Inside, almost everything was painted white. He put the ceiling back the way it was and returned the walls to their former colors. “I’ve got the second floor to finish and then the house is done,” he says.
In the dining room, Ed reveals one of the finished floors and tells the story of the Allerton Blue Willow china—fragments of which he’s found when digging on the property. “This room is where you’d really be entertained,” he says. Allerton was an English company from the mid-19th century. “I find all kinds of fragments and I always save them because they are just too cool,” he says, turning one small blue and white piece over in his hand.
Perhaps his favorite piece in the dining room, though, is an 1850s clock used in the film Lincoln. Ed waxes poetic whenever he talks about the Civil War-era hero. He loves to tell the story of the Christmas season in 1863 when, according to legend, a congressman from the Restored Government of Virginia, Jacob B. Blair, showed up at the White House and knocked on the door, but it was locked. Blair is said to have climbed through the window to find the president there in his nightshirt and slippers. “He said, ‘Merry Christmas,’ and handed him the legislation that would create the new state of West Virginia,” Ed says.
In general, Ed says many people don’t realize how prominent the old house on Listravia would have been in the 1850s and ’60s, positioned as it was in what was then western Virginia. “This really was the house of decision. You can imagine the heated arguments,” he says. “These were the shakers and movers of their time.”
Ed says it’s important to bring the house back to its former glory. “I see myself as the caretaker of this property. It is important to this town. I want future generations to enjoy this house because there’s so little of our history left in Morgantown.”
written by Laura Wilcox Rote | photographed by Carla Witt Ford