Through the mid and late 1970s, Mills B. Lane, Jr. and his wife, Anne, continued their renovations down Habersham Street around Whitefield Square and on Price and Gaston streets.
When young real estate agent Dicky Mopper saw that he had a phone message from Lane, Mopper thought friends were playing a joke on him. When he returned the call from his office in the Realty Building at 24 Drayton St., Mopper listened carefully as Lane said he was looking for a new real estate agent. “Come across the street and see me.” When the still dubious Mopper appeared at the Citizens and Southern National Bank on Johnson Square, he was very pleased to hear, “Mr. Lane is waiting on you.”
Lane, Jr. and his wife had bought many dilapidated properties around Whitefield Square, dubbed the Gingerbread Village, and had completed many renovations, but usually not the kind of restorations his son, Mill IV, later meticulously completed. Near Gaston and Price an old warehouse was in bad shape, and Mopper said that the elder Lane had decided in the early 1980s he was done with renovating property and wanted to sell it. Mopper said he brought Lane a full price offer in the $20,000s, a significant amount of money for the times and property conditions.
“I can’t accept this,” Lane said, according to Mopper. While Mopper was scratching his head trying to decide how to tell Lane that he was obliged to accept it since it was a full price offer, Lane was scratching through the figure.
“He writes something,” Mopper said. “It was $10,000 less than the offer. I asked, ‘Mr. Lane, are you sure?’ He had decided the price was too high, and I’m not sure why. It might have been for tax reasons or he knew something about the family,” but a seller cutting the price after receiving a firm higher offer was a shock.
The Lanes purchased more than 60 units in the area and invested about $1.5 million including renovations. In the half century since the Lanes renovated much of the area, some of the properties are still grand, some have been renovated again, and some have fallen into disrepair or been demolished. Most of the houses were built in the last half of the 19th century.
Some seem to have been built on speculation for groups such as the Chatham Real Estate and Investment Company, and several houses were built for one person such as Sarah Sexton. The Lanes renovated one of her houses built in 1890 at 403 E. Gordon St. They purchased it for $26,100 and spent $76,354 on renovation for a total cost of $102,454 in 1975. The house sold in October 2017 for $650,000.
The house with Gothic windows and a turret with portholes at 408 E. Gaston St. was built for Laura Jones in 1892. The Lanes purchased it for $13,500. It became famous as the home of Savannah artist Myrtle Jones. Current property records show a taxable value of $1,224,400.
The double house at 405-407 East Gaston Street with distinctive domes and porch woodwork was built for John H. Entelman in 1892. The Lanes purchased 405 E. Gaston for $6,000 and 407 E. Gaston for $10,600. Unfortunately the row of modest houses in the lane behind the big houses has been demolished.
The house at 313 E. Gordon built for Henry Hermann in 1861 was one of the most expensive the Lanes acquired in 1973 for $36,500.
The Lanes purchased 439 Habersham for $7,896. According to Chatham County property records, it has a current taxable value of $764,300. The house at 433 Habersham was one of the three built for John Entelman on Habersham in 1896 and 1897.
For efficiency in the 1880s and the 1970s, construction and renovation often worked row at a time.
The row of houses from 414-420 E. Gordon St. were built by R. K. Bragdon for Abraham Samuels in 1888. The Lanes bought them for $20,000 and spent $57,349 for the renovation of each unit from 1974-75 for a total of $249,396.
The Sulters built rows on Price Street. Houses from 422-428 Price St. were built for Henry Sulter in 1881 and 430-438 Price St. for Martin Sulter in 1888. The Lanes bought them for $25,000 and spent another $246,017 on renovations through 1974-75.
The Lanes paid $6,846 for underground cables, $1,886 for paving, and $655 for planters. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. The ward maps show the properties marked in blue where the Lane renovations extended.
Several years later Mopper sold the building on Broughton and Price streets to the couple who established the restaurant La Toque, where East End Provisions is today. The owners wanted an alcohol license, Mopper said, but neighbors were opposed. Mopper said he went to war to get them a license, but he didn’t think City Council was likely to approve it. At the hearing, an attorney for the couple handed an alderman a token. The token was for a free beer at the establishment at the location in the early 1900s. The Council agreed alcohol was grandfathered, so the license was approved.
“Mills Lane Jr. called and reamed me,” Mopper said. He told me I was personally responsible for ruining his neighborhood, and he would never forgive me. This was from a man with two wine cellars in his house. About three months later Mopper received a handwritten note from Lane saying that he had gone to La Toque and loved it. He was pleased it was there and wanted to apologize. Mopper said, “I was a young punk and he was head of a large bank. That said something about his character.”
A decade later Mopper received a call from lawyer Wiley Ellis. He said he represented a wealthy client who wanted some property that was not on market. Frank Mathews of Mathews Seafood owned the Frederick Ball Houses on the southeast corner of Columbia Square. Mopper said he worked on the property sale without knowing who the buyer was. It was the beginning of a long working relationship and friendship with Mills IV and his mother.
Rexanna Keller Lester is working on a book about Mills Bee Lane IV and his preservation legacy.
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