IVANHOE — When Walter Hartmann first saw the Robinson house that he would come to call home in Ivanhoe, he thought immediately of his native Germany.
“Before then, when I would think of America, I thought of Hollywood,” said Hartmann. “When I saw this house, I said, ‘This is different.’ It reminded me of Germany.”
The former plantation house dated back to 1910 and the Hartmanns had lived there since 1993. The couple, now 86 and 85, realized that the 12-room, seven-fireplace house was, as Hartmann pointed out, “entirely too big,” but they enjoyed the house’s location and history far too much to even consider moving.
Now, all that is left of that house are its three chimneys which remain standing upright among the still-smoldering burnt wreckage.
The house caught fire when lightning struck it in the early hours of Saturday morning and was completely destroyed.
Hartmann and his wife Marion lost everything, but the damage could have been far worse.
He recalled Monday what happened, starting with hearing a noise above his bedroom. The noise woke him and it didn’t take long, he stressed, for him to realize what was happening.
“I wasn’t thinking at all,” said Hartmann, “except I knew that my wife was lying beside me and I had to get us out of the house.”
Hartmann emerged from the burning house with his wife, who is confined to a wheelchair, and let their dog out of its kennel beside the house. Without any shoes, wearing only his pajamas, and without a way to contact anyone, he knew immediately that it would be impossible to salvage anything else.
“When I looked back, it was bad,” he recalled.
While he no longer has his driver’s license, Hartmann had his car and key close by and, as a measure of last resort, he piled his wife and dog into the car and began to work his way towards the highway.
As they reached the road, though, a man on his way to the night-shift saw the fire and called 911.
The Hartmanns were taken to their son Stefan’s house just a few miles down the road, where they remain.
“It’s been a little bit like sleepwalking,” said Hartmann. “You think you have to do something but then you realize that you can’t.”
The couple are determined to remain upbeat. They have already started making plans to clear the wreckage off the land and to begin work on a new, smaller house that would be better suited for them.
But while the fire destroyed all of their possessions, it also took a piece of Ivanhoe history.
The house had been built in 1910 by J.W.S Robinson, who was replacing a house on the same spot built in 1884 but was destroyed by fire in 1909.
The Robinsons used the surrounding land as a plantation and kept the house in the family for nearly 90 years.
Marion Hartmann (formerly Fisler) was born and raised in Ivanhoe and was good friends with Caroline Robinson.
Her brother was roommates with Walter, who had just months earlier moved to America from Germany, at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Va. The two met that Christmas when Walter was a guest at her house.
Walter would return to Ivanhoe that summer after Marion’s father asked him to preach at some churches in the area. He agreed, and by the end of the summer he and Marion had decided to marry.
The marriage would be put on hold, however, when Hartmann was offered a position at a German monastery. What he calls “a trans-Atlantic courtship” continued until Marion finally moved to Germany and they were able to marry.
It was not until decades later that the couple would find their way back to the United States and Ivanhoe around 1980.
In 1993, Caroline Robinson’s mother died and she passed the home on to the Hartmanns.
“They practically gave it to us,” asserted Mrs. Hartmann. “We had a great relationship with the Robinsons. (The house) was so beautiful. We had just had it painted last year. It looked lovely.”
“This house was too big for us,” interjected Walter, “but on the other hand, it was fascinating.”
The Hartmanns do not consider moving to a different location even a remote possibility. They had made the property their own with its own aspects and quirks and, while the house was destroyed, much remains on the land.
Surrounding outposts that house goats and free-range chickens owned by the Hartmanns were unscathed by the fire.
“I still have access to the riverbank,” says Walter with a smile, “so I can still go swimming.”
While they have lost everything, the Hartmanns are intent on working their way through the tragedy. The process will start this week as they begin to clear the lot of whatever remains.
They begin the rebuilding process not as victims of a tragedy, however, but as a couple that will continue to look optimistically towards the future.
“They’re using this as a good excuse for a new beginning,” says their son Stefan.
The Robinson house may be gone, but the Hartmanns are now beggining a new chapter.