In 1892, beer brewer Robert Portner built Annaburg Manor as his summer retreat. A Prussian native, Portner moved to Alexandria in 1861 and established several breweries: He even profited from the Civil War by selling beer to soldiers. Portner named his summer abode, which stands just outside the downtown Manassas historic district, after his wife, Anna. The stately, columned home had been in disrepair for years and recently narrowly escaped demolition. Now that the city has bought it, it is working on rehabilitating the property — but it’s still not completely clear what the future will hold.
Once the City of Manassas is finished with the rehabilitation process — it’s focusing on getting rid of mold and fixing the exterior — it will seek the community’s input on what happens next. An architectural study estimated it would cost between $3.9 million and $4.9 million to restore the long-disused estate and stated, “full restoration of the building is likely not economically feasible,” although it’s possible to restore key features.
In 2018, the city purchased the 3.65-acre lot and turned its grounds into a park. Last April, Annaburg won a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. It has a great deal of historic significance: It’s believed to be the first home in the country to be equipped with mechanical air-conditioning. In 1878, Portner created perhaps the first beer “refrigerating machine.” He soon expanded the idea to his summer home, pouring cold water down copper pipes to keep out the heat. “One of his granddaughters said it was meat locker–cold in the summertime,” says Manassas Museum curator Mary Helen Dellinger.
The city master plan describes the structure as a “Classical Revival building with Prussian influence.” Architect Gustav Friebus can claim one other footnote to history: He drafted construction plans for the Washington Monument. The estate originally extended for more than 2,000 acres, including a stone tower that was torn down because it had become a safety hazard (its foundation was uncovered during a recent archaeological dig); a swimming pool; gardens; and a hops farm. Portner imported trees from the Black Forest of his native Germany, as well as from every state (44 at the time). Some of the originals still line the driveway.
Portner died in 1906, and his family used the house less and less. In 1947, descendants sold the deteriorated structure and auctioned off its contents. Manassas Manor Nursing Home took over the mansion in 1961 and added wings, since torn down, on both sides. The building became obsolete and closed in 2005.
During periods of abandonment, vandals smashed windows and pilfered what they could, including the original copper pipes, likely because they sold well as scrap, especially during World War II, Dellinger says. The city is trying to restore the original look as much as possible. Only one door exists on the front, where three initially did. The interior posts and walls aren’t original, as the house underwent extensive renovation during its time as a nursing-home.
As restoration continues, the city says it may try to find partners to assist in the endeavor. Ideas include everything from renting the ground floor for meetings, weddings, and social events, to an art center or museum and using the top floor for offices. Possibilities for the grounds include a garden, restoring the fountain in the circle driveway, and a playground based on tales from Germany. “It is all on the table,” Dellinger says.