Save the carved door stops; toss the pigeon dung.
Restoring derelict houses requires detective work and housecleaning skills. After a century or so of neglect and remuddling, beautifully built houses and cottages can become unrecognizable and appear irredeemable.
Mills Lane IV saw through the agglomerated, boarded up mishmash on the southeast corner of Columbia Square at Habersham and York streets and saw three Federal-style gems waiting to be cut back and polished to their original shine.
Frederick Ball, a builder from New Jersey, constructed the two-and-a-half story wood frame corner house circa 1805 – 1810 for his residence at 136 Habersham St. and the small double house at 138 and 140 Habersham for rental properties next door. He died 10 years later from yellow fever. During the next two centuries, the houses were serially neglected, abused, chopped up, and distended. Half of the double house at 138 was split into three apartments.
These were the first houses Mills IV restored with his mother, Anne Lane, after his father, Mills B. Lane, Jr. died. In 1989 Mills and architect Harvie Jones, from Huntsville, Ala., started corresponding about the houses.
Mills IV wrote to Jones: “The exterior of the two houses should be restored with the utmost care, sparing no reasonable expense. The interior, however, should be handled in the simplest and most economical style, but respectful of the original architecture and modern comfort.
“It is my hope that we can do an excellent job but conserving money, so that my mother will have a good experience with this project and so she will have the means and desire to do other similar projects with you, Gerry (Cowart) and the team of craftsmen you will gather.”
Jones created a two-inch-thick notebook that outlines the astounding attention to detail of Mills IV and Jones working with Cowart Architects, Ralph Anderson and Jim Turner at Turner Construction, and a myriad of craftsmen with expertise in plaster, masonry, carpentry; and engineers to handle electrical, plumbing and mechanical systems.
They used 19th century carpentry and finishing techniques where practicable.
At one point they reproduced 20 sets of plans to keep everyone up to date. Jones credited Bernie Thuersam of Gerald Cowart’s office for finding original items during measuring and drawing.
The notes outline the challenges of the endeavor.
“The project is quite complex due to the hundreds of differing conditions and 1810 details not familiar to today’s craftsmen. Executions will require careful study of the existing conditions and the drawings. … Each craftsman and supplier needs to be aware of the objective of the project, which is to preserve every piece of 1810 work practicable, and to accurately replicate or repair in good material only those items that require it.
“For example, a slightly ‘checked’ or warped piece of original clapboard should be retained, not only because it is original and of historic importance but because the wood is more durable than any new wood (probably including heart redwood). All these decisions require individual judgement, care, and cost evaluation.”
They looked on the grounds for evidence of former separate kitchen buildings, but no evidence was recorded.
More than a dozen pages outline how to remove and save parts big and small in the houses. They outlined when and how to save plaster and original pine flooring underneath mid-20th century additions.
“Do not remove the iron lamp-hook on the bottom of the upper newel” or the built-in attic access ladder, which probably are original. “Do not remove the two carved doorstops.”
Remove pigeon dung from the attic “in a safe manner per EPA and local requirements.”
“Remove the Victorian iron coal-grate and the later masonry infill to expose the original firebox masonry … if remnants of a brick hearth remain … record its pattern and save it in place if practicable.”
All workers were asked to look for clues for original placements: “small scraps of dropped mouldings, paint traces on siding. Small items can be very important. This was not ‘production work’. ”
“Rotary-saw marks indicate Victorian framing. Straight saw-marks across the framing members at about ¼ inch apart indicate Federal (original). Framing members about 3 inches thick indicates original, whereas Victorian framing would be about 1 7/8 inch thick.”
The original window configuration of the corner house had more windows, typically six per room, than any other downtown house. They gave Ball, his wife and their nine children good views into Columbia Square.
At some point many windows were boarded up and some in addition to doors had been relocated. Jones makes reference to the 1853 “Vincent Map” of Savannah, and the 1891 “Birds’ Eye View.” The latter indicates the north house north wall windows were already closed. During restoration the original window locations were reopened.
In a March 12, 1990 Savannah Evening Press article, Beth Reiter, historic preservation officer for the Metropolitan Planning Commission, pointed out two unusual “12-over-12 windows” in the small house. The windows that have 12 panes of glass on the top and 12 on the bottom, she said, are thought to be unlike any others in Savannah.
There are pictures of beams of wood joined and chiseled with Roman numerals in an early 19th century pre-fabricated building pattern.
The north wall of the north house was leaning four inches. They ordered needed repairs but warned to not “plumb-up the house unless it is found to be easy to do, for this typically has many repercussions at plaster, doors, sashes, trim joints etc.”
They measured each firebox and chimney shape so they could be taken apart brick by-brick and rebuilt with the same degree of out-of-plumb and square as existing. “It would look bad to plumb and square the chimney when nothing else is plumb.” They removed and rebuilt by hand a 1,000 cubic foot chimney almost 50 feet tall.
“Even with lots of measuring, detailing and care, we can be sure the fireboxes, mantels, chair rails, etc. will never go back just as they are, and a degree of history will be lost.”
None of the porches, front or back, were original and Mills wanted to distinguish the Ball house from the cottages next door. Columns were investigated and rejected.
Since Mills was in New York and Baltimore working on his architecture book series during parts of the restorations, Jones spent time with Anne Lane discussing color and details. “We agreed the north house color needs to be slightly ‘grayed’ and perhaps darkened to differentiate it from the recently painted house across the street. …. Mrs. Lane is interested in changing the double house columns to more strongly differentiate them from the north house. … A possible solution … would be to use columns similar to those at c. 1828 Belle Mont near Tuscumbia [Alabama].” Six colors of paint were eventually incorporated on the big house and another seven on the small houses.
For porticos they originally looked at the Steele-White house (1824) at 130-132 Lincoln Street for the corner house and at the 1813 Oliver Sturges house at 27 Abercorn for the double house, always with modifications. For the north house verandah they looked at other federal style buildings including the c. 1790 Stephen Miller house at 204 State Street (now demolished). For the double house verandahs they looked at the Thomas Bennett Jr. House in Charleston.
Mills IV wrote to Jones on Sept 25, 1989: “I would suggest you consider slender Tuscan columns spanned by a shallow arch: I will show you some Charleston examples from 1810-1820, an appropriate parallel since this house in Savannah boasts Adamesque details, unusual for Savannah but common in Charleston.” Four Adam-style mantelpieces survived in the corner house.
Jones wrote back: “This is a more elaborate verandah than this house probably ever had, but since we have no evidence of any sort, we can consider this element as remodeling rather than restoration.”
In order not to confuse future historians and save costs, these designs use properly scaled but readily available mouldings and colonettes.
Mills always reserved the right to change his mind.
On Aug. 13, 1990 Jones wrote to Turner: “Inasmuch as the plan of the double house has been radically altered at a time when the detailing was 85% completed (Nov. ’89) there may be some item not caught on the drawings that pertain to the previous plan that will be void. I would appreciate your careful study of the drawings to help uncover any questions.”
Jones wrote to Mills at the Peabody Court Hotel in Baltimore asking about the kind of brick or stone that would cover the sidewalk drains. Again he mentioned that re-paving and landscaping caused streets and yards to rise about 6-12 inches a century. “The ground floor at 136 Habersham probably was originally one step above the walk.”
Jones and Lane talked about the livestock guards, the original burglar bars that were added to keep the livestock from intruding on the ground level of the corner house. Lane preferred wooden ones rather than iron to keep out man and beast. He described the slats as quirks that make the building sing and hadn’t heard of anyone breaking through them. Betty Ann Lichner, Mills’ office assistant, mentioned that Mills insisted that the lattice work be handmade of thicker wood than the prefabricated product.
Carpenters built new free-standing wardrobes. A Jones & Herrin 1991 press release stated the reason: “Since 1810 bedrooms typically had no closets, appropriate wardrobes were provided for clothing storage (to ‘ward the robes’) in the manner of the early 19th century, rather than disfiguring the rooms with chopped-in closets.”
Bathrooms were tucked under stairs or in stairwells where possible to further preserve original rooms.
The cottage at 140 Habersham has substantial original fittings including mantels and surround marble, wainscoting and an archway leading from the front hall into a rear room that was turned into the kitchen. The mantels at 138 Habersham were gone as were many other features, but the floor plan was restored to mirror 140. Since 140 had apparently been less tampered with, Lane and Jones decided to restore it more authentically. They also took the original clapboards left on the north side of 138 to replace missing boards at 140.
The restoration of the three houses received a 1991 Preservation Award from Historic Savannah Foundation. Since then, the cottage at 138 Habersham has undergone substantial interior and exterior changes by several owners. The back porches have been altered and enclosed with glass. Except for its front façade, it no longer resembles Mills Lane IV’s restoration of 1990-91, nor does it retain its meticulously restored 19-century floor plan. As a result of the many changes to 138, 140 is now under protective covenants through The Beehive Foundation.
Rexanna Keller Lester is working on a book about Mills Bee Lane IV and his preservation legacy.
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