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Home of the Marshall Plan gets its own restoration

While most of the recent NATO extravaganza in Washington was bound by security to downtown's marbled hallways, a handful of European dignitaries quietly trekked 30 miles west of town to a rundown old Virginia mansion.

Their mission: paying tribute to the man credited with laying the foundation of modern European stability at a crumbling place known as Dodona Manor.

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By most accounts, statesman George C. Marshall, architect of the restoration plan bearing his name, did his best thinking here before the paint began chipping and shutters sagging.

For General Marshall, the house was a haven from the war raging across the globe. He refined his plan while looking down from his second floor bedroom on rose and tomato gardens. The tomatoes he took to the historic summit at Potsdam.

As NATO marks its 50th anniversary this year, restoration efforts - costing up to $3 million - will begin this month on Marshall's home. When completed, the old manse will be restored to its former glory - or at least one version of it.

Originally built in the 1700s by a relative of George Washington, the mansion was bought by Marshall in the 1940s for $20,000. He lived in it off and on until the 1950s.

While restoration experts will strip it down to its bare Colonial bones, they'll restore it back to 1947 - the era when people swing danced to Glenn Miller and began driving big-finned cars.

"Restoring it to the 1940s or '50s, rather than hoking it up ... shows how we, and he, lived [then]," explains Richard Wilson, an architectural historian at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. "The idea is seeing the place and visually making the connection to the person and the era."

That means finding pale Venetian blinds and period wallpaper as well as other furnishings common to the day. When the work is finished, visitors will see the same pink-tiled bathrooms and flooring that guests back then would have seen.

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"Into the '40s, for example, on the floors you are looking at linoleum," says Hank Handler of Oak Grove Restoration Company, a firm that specializes in period architectural restoration.

The search has begun for hard-to-find items like the original wallpaper and fixtures. Mr. Handler's 25 craftsmen on staff either re-create, or help search out rare or no-longer-available materials.

Detail matters

It's replacing the "invisible" hard-to-find details, says Handler, that makes or breaks the quality of a project like Dodona.

In 25 years of scrounging for replacement windows, specialty glass, and period lighting fixtures, Handler has developed a network of sources. Lately, the Internet has been an asset.

"It takes what I call digging in," Handler says at his Gaithersburg, Md., shop with a cacophony of phones ringing in the background.

For Dodona, he'll get hand-blown cylinder glass exactly like the original from a source in Germany, a high quality paint from a Dutch company in business for three centuries, and old-growth lumber for the unique, 4-inch-thick window sills.

For items like doorknobs or trim insets for 1950s era lighting fixtures, which are no longer manufactured, Handler will use a local artisan to replicate the pieces.

"We found a craftsman, right in Leesburg, at Equestrian Forge. He actually started out doing horse stuff," Handler explains.

Despite his stature as a war hero and statesman, Marshall the public servant was not a man of means. The overhaul will focus on accuracy but will also reflect his relatively spare furnishings.

"This place was so simple. They insisted on living in such a simple manner," explains historian William Seale, who is spearheading the restoration. "A lot of research and interpretation has been done."

Through interviews and extensive search of journals and old letters, Mr. Seale learned for example that, when entertaining, Marshall had furniture brought up on Army trucks from Ft. Myers in Virginia.

The furniture Marshall did own will be moved back into the home after years of storage in a nearby barn. Soon to return are a chrome-covered kitchen table, chairs, and a plush sofa like one you might remember from your grandparents' house.

During its heyday, Dodona -and its well-tended gardens -was well known. French President Charles de Gaulle, Madame Chiang Kai-shek, and President Harry Truman all visited here. A high stockade fence was erected in 1954 for privacy from the gawking onlookers.

The only painting Winston Churchill completed during the war was given to Marshall and hung here. A copy of the work will be made and hung in its original spot.

Included in the restoration work will be a few "improvements" that will help preserve the house while making it more comfortable for guests. Air conditioning is one example. "You have to shoehorn that stuff in," Handler says, keeping it invisible.

A four-star gardener

The Colonial mansion accented by a red tin roof still has a sense of quiet dignity. Inside, wide wooden planks groan underfoot in many of the 26 rooms.

It sits atop a high point on rolling hills through the historic Civil War area of Leesburg. Grandfather white oaks and poplar trees shade the several-acre plot where the four-star general and his second wife, Katherine, spent long Sunday afternoons gardening - and making decisions that changed the course of history.

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