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Hot property: Lava Rock House in Fairmont erupts with history, memories and unique style

FAIRMONT — Every good house has at least one good legend attached.

And according to the telling for this one, a certain WVU basketball great known for his impulsive highjinks, may have — after a running start from the flat-roof portion of the Lava Rock House — pulled off a flailing, movie stuntman-styled leap into the deep end of its swimming pool below.

This, he did, while just clearing (of course) the concrete patio, as the story goes.

But that’s getting ahead of the narrative a bit.

First, some history of this iconic home that recently went back on the market, after 55 years and two owners.

The Lava Rock House: If you’re from Fairmont and you pay attention to such things, that’s how you might know this volcanic-encased home that sits on close to two acres in a cul-de-sac tucked off U.S. 250, on that stretch of roadway known as Fairmont Avenue.

Or, maybe you refer to it as “the Carol McWilliams house,” an identifier for the woman who built it in 1968.

Either way, you’d be correct.

Because this house and its principal design feature are both synonymous with the woman who first started gridding it out in her head when she was still growing up.

Drive up today, and there it is, still: a mid-century marvel that might bring to mind the architectural stylings of Frank Lloyd Wright or Robert Venturi, with its low-slung angles, stained glass, organic finishes and custom-designed fixtures.  

“I knew what I wanted to do,” McWilliams said last week, as she talked about her defining design.

“I had this vision, and I knew there wouldn’t be anything else like it in Fairmont or West Virginia, for sure.”

For that matter, there weren’t too many builders in Fairmont, or West Virginia, like McWilliams, a woman running a successful contracting firm in the 1960s, in a field dominated by men.

She grew up in the trade courtesy of her father, Paul Lewis, a celebrated stonemason and homebuilder in town who was really known for his fireplaces and other rough-hewn design touches that turned houses into places that were special — and spatial — at the same time.

Or, in other words, his daughter said, pardoning the cliché, all the things that really do make a house a home.

“Everybody loved his work,” she said. “He had a real reputation.”

Recreations, and riffs, on the building process

McWilliams never schooled or trained as an architect, but early on she showed a flair for drawing and design.

Her work ethic she inherited from her dad, as she often accompanied him to jobs when she was a little girl.

Which was also about the time she became enthralled with all things ancient Egypt.

Especially the dwellings that weren’t pyramids, occupied by the people who weren’t pharaohs or princesses.

She worked hard in her business, and when she finally had the resources to build a house just for her and her daughters, its blueprints were catalogued in her brain.

Her house would be both a composite and a tribute.

Call it a T-Square riff on all the Egyptian architecture she saw depicted in the history books and art books she still pores over.  

“I loved everything about their culture and their designs,” she said.

“I loved their art, the lines, the colors they used.”

It was 1966, and when the first dump trucks full of lava rocks began negotiating U.S. 250 in those pre-interstate days, she knew it was on.

And lest you think she was mixing architectural metaphors — Polynesian meets Egyptian — well, think again.

Of volcanic aesthetics, Mainland feet and Hawaiian mice

When she was discussing the colors Egyptians employed in their ancient homes, she had one in mind for hers, which would be its unifying theme.


In the dichotomy of ancient Egypt, that hue didn’t just mean death.

It was also associated with life and fertility — given the nutrient-rich black silt the Nile always bestowed after seasonal flooding.

The sediment offering of the mighty river allowed the growing of wheat, barley and other staples on a large scale.

Lava rock, she said, would make the perfect aesthetic for the above.  

She would use it for the exterior of the house, and for accents inside, especially for the fireplaces that Mr. Lewis was “volunteered” to do, she said.

McWilliams adored its flat blacks and grays — and the porous surfaces of the stones, she said, would also give texture and dimension to every aspect of the house.

When your dad is a builder, and you grow up to be one, you get to know people.

A few phone calls to Hawaii — no small feat in those rotary dial days — and the lava rock was secured.

That’s how you get volcanic leftovers to places like West Virginia.

The eruptive bounty crossed the Pacific via freighter to California, where it was off-loaded to train cars, which rode the rails to Pittsburgh, where the whole deal was laboriously transferred to dump trucks for the final haul to Fairmont.

Lava rock makes you work for it, McWilliams said, just a little ruefully.

“Early on, I had a bad habit of walking around the site barefoot, and the crushed rock would get between my toes,” she said. “And it was sharp. Oh, it would cut like a razor blade.”

Don’t get her started on the mice.

Whole nests of them, occupying the stones.

“They loved that rock,” she said.

“We kept having to get the house treated.”

Time-traveling in the family room

“It is pretty interesting being in this house now,” C’Anna Keffer said last week, as she stared up at the massive, volcanic rock fireplace in the family room.

That’s because she knows the house courtesy of its second owners.

By 1980, McWilliams had expanded her vision to nearly 4,000 square feet of living space, including a greenhouse and two-level addition.

“My girls were grown and it got to be too much house for me,” McWilliams said.

She put it on the market that year and it was promptly purchased by Dr. Mike Haislip, a Fairmont physician and ear, nose and throat specialist who was looking for a unique place to raise his kids.

He and his wife Betsy had 36 years in the house. She died in 2016. He moved out two years later, for the same reasons McWilliams did in her time there.

Keffer and Maggie Haislip, Mike and Betsy’s daughter, were best friends and did lots of romping at the Lava Rock House as kids.

“When I look in the kitchen, I can still picture them all in there,” Keffer said.

It’s been a full-circle journey in the house for her.

She’s a Realtor at Morgantown-based Compass Realty, the firm that just recently put the house back on the market. It’s her listing.

“This isn’t just another house,” she said.

“It’s special. And you have to celebrate it, because Carol did exactly what she set out to do.”

The house is now under contract, and while Keffer can’t just yet divulge details, she’s happy that it will have another go.

Like many houses of their time, this one had some initial challenges, she said, with dated interiors and some features that needed upgrades.

Still, she said, there was a lot of interest when it hit the market.

A three-day open house in January brought 100 people in.

Architecture enthusiasts across the country messaged her daily when the house went online.

The then-new owners in 1980 did make a few changes, but they were relatively minor ones, Haislip said.

They included switching the appliances in the kitchen to white from their original black and replacing the countertops to brighten up that room.

New toilets went into a couple of the home’s bathrooms, and they were standard-issue white, as opposed to custom ebony ones McWilliams went with — because when you need a toilet, you, well, need a toilet.

“We liked it for what it was,” he said. “It was an interesting place to live in. Lots of great memories.”

Like McWilliams, the Haislips loved entertaining. Colleagues from work would come over for cookouts. Their kids would host sleepovers for their school friends.

Let’s dive, Mountaineer?

It was a party, in fact, that was said to have cemented the house’s legend when McWilliams still lived there.

You know: The one with the aforementioned WVU basketball player and the swimming pool.

Haislip picked up the tale.

“You saw the house, so you know where the flat part of the roof is,” he said.

“I heard that Hot Rod Hundley was there at a party and got up on the roof. He took off running from one end to the other and jumped in the pool. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it’s still a heckuva good story.”

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