Peeling Back the Layers (revisiting the Berrien House)

Stumbled upon your blog an enjoyed it. I am the head of Historic Preservation for Berrien House and have been working on the project for almost a decade. Would you like a tour?

Say what? Man, my blog ain’t good for much, but it does send some interesting traffic my way now and again. That was the main text of an email I got out of nowhere on December 31, 2015. So, this guy named David Kelley was referring to my “Berrien the Past” blog from several years ago. If I asked David how he found that post, I don’t remember now what his answer was. I bet he was idly fishing around on Google for “Berrien House” and I snagged his lure. So, hey, I’m not gonna pass up an exclusive (and free of charge) opportunity to scope out the in-progress preservation effort on an 18th century Savannah mansion! We finally managed to schedule a rendezvous for February 5th, 2016. 

Local Revolutionary War hero John Berrien built his house at the corner of Broughton and Habersham Streets sometime in the 1790s. Until recently, it was the last unrestored 18th century mansion in the Historic District. See my original blog post if you want more details. 

This is what it looks like right now:

Pretty spiffy, right? Well, it’s come a long way. Previous owners had altered the house to make it apartments upstairs with retail space on the ground floor, alterations common to many old downtown buildings. There used to be large windows on the bottom that said "Pete's Shoe Repair". The lettering was still visible when restoration began. In fact, a former history professor of mine told me Pete's Shoe Repair closed up and the business vanished while still in possession of a pair of her shoes! The neglected hulk of the Berrien House stood on that corner all my life with its shop empty, its upper windows boarded, its wood siding covered in dull brown stucco. Below is a 1920s photograph of the house as storefront and tenements. It looked like this as far back as I can remember, except more dilapidated:

Here is what it looked like when the current owner bought the place and major exterior work first got underway:

Makes you shiver, doesn't it?

What you see up there is how it looked after crews removed the stucco and took apart the ground floor so they could lower the basement back to its original height. (It had been raised to add the storefront.) Who would willingly entangle themselves with a money pit like that? No one less than a direct descendant of the original owner, that’s who! Andrew Berrien Jones is his name. Again, see my original “Berrien the Past” blog post for more info about him. The guy deserves a medal or something. Even now, this job is far from over.

This was the foyer as of my gratis tour in February, 2016:

 Left: looking toward the back of the house and the rebuilt central staircase. Right: Looking out the front door of the house.

Left: looking toward the back of the house and the rebuilt central staircase. Right: Looking out the front door of the house.

Oh no. That’s like breaking open a Kinder Egg and finding spiders inside. This is a nightmare if your plan is to fix up a house and live in it. Fortunately, Mr. Jones does most of his living in New York. However, it was a dream for me to see this historic building turned inside out.

David and I turned to the right and I had a gander at the parlor.

 When you walk in the front door and look to the right, this is the doorway into the front parlor.

When you walk in the front door and look to the right, this is the doorway into the front parlor.

You can still see original moulding around the top of the wall up there on the left. The blue tape outline on the right is what the woodwork around the door would have looked like in the 18th century. That may be a detail that has to be replicated rather than restored. I don't know if any of that made it to the 21st century.

David showed me the remnants of walls that used to divide the front parlor when the place was broken up into several units. You can see their outline in the wood and the threshold to a door that is no longer there.

 Ghost marks left in the wood floor by a wall and doorway that used to divide the room.

Ghost marks left in the wood floor by a wall and doorway that used to divide the room.

 Old ceiling beams reinforced with new wood.

Old ceiling beams reinforced with new wood.

The picture up above shows the old ceiling beams, now accompanied by modern reinforcements. The City of Savannah required the upgrade in order to make the house compliant with hurricane-resistant building codes. David and I shared a giggle over that. The house has already survived numerous hurricanes (including one of the deadliest ever to strike the US), three major fires, one earthquake, a couple of ice storms, and decades of neglect. But sure, Zoning Board, your oversight has made the structure stable and safe for real this time!

Enjoy a few pictures below of old-timey building techniques and rescued doors and moulding.

 Closeup view of old beams notched together and pegged in place.

Closeup view of old beams notched together and pegged in place.

 Three different views of original door and hardware.

Three different views of original door and hardware.

 Carved wood moulding to be restored/replicated.

Carved wood moulding to be restored/replicated.

Now, I have to talk about wallpaper for a little while, which is only boring if it doesn't involve the restoration of an 18th century mansion. One of the first things David told me after I met him was how surprised he was at his own growing interest and expertise when it comes to historic wallpaper. Now, if you or I crave something new on our walls, we just tootle on down to Home Depot, look at some catalogues maybe, and pick whatever we want. We come home with a few roles and spend a weekend swearing enthusiastically as we wrangle the paper over the drywall. Any time we get bored with our current walls, it's cheap and easy enough to repeat this process. To most modern Americans, their neighbors' wallpaper doesn't convey anything except their neighbors' personal aesthetics. None of this was true for the Americans of yesteryear.

Old-timey folk decorated their houses to show off their wealth more so than any sense of good taste. This often included spending obscene amounts of money on rugs, drapery, wallpaper, etc. What they wanted was all the color and pattern money could buy. Want to see the most eye-poppingly loud and tacky home decorating in America? Do a historic house tour. (Looking at you, Davenport House.) Our forebears even risked their lives for the sake of flashy trends: there was a craze during the Victorian era for an especially vivid shade of green in wallpaper patterns, clothing, whatever. How was this color achieved? By treating the material with arsenic. People slowly poisoned themselves just to show off.

I haven't heard of any poisonous wallpaper in the Berrien House, but David has uncovered some remarkable artifacts. Decorating trends are pretty distinct and old wallpaper can be an invaluable guide to reconstructing a house's past. David has been literally peeling back layers of history, which has helped him discern the house's timeline of construction, additions, and renovations over the years.     

 Examples of several different wallpapers David has uncovered. They date from different time periods.

Examples of several different wallpapers David has uncovered. They date from different time periods.

If I remember correctly, that wallpaper right in the middle is the one that had David most excited. It's original to the house and was hand painted in France. The Davenport House is helping to replicated it.

Pictured below is wallpaper that was in an upstairs room, I think. It's a chintz pattern, almost exactly the same as what George Washington put up in what they call the Chintz Room at Mount Vernon. Different color scheme, but otherwise the same. Makes me wonder if Berrien and Washington (who were buddies) shared samples. Hmmm. I do appreciate the image of two American war heroes, with all the gravitas of being Founding Fathers, poring over wall paper catalogues, trying to decide if chartreuse is timeless or merely a fad.

 Top: chintz paper in the Berrien House. Bottom: Chintz paper at Mount Vernon.

Top: chintz paper in the Berrien House. Bottom: Chintz paper at Mount Vernon.

 Newly uncovered  chinoiserie  patterned wallpaper.

Newly uncovered chinoiserie patterned wallpaper.

What fascinated me more than the wallpaper itself was the technique of applying it. Perfectly smooth, straight drywall wasn't a thing in the 18th century. Did old-timey folk go through the trouble of plastering the walls, then cover up all that hard work? Not really, no. The photos below display two application techniques used in the Berrien House. One logistic to keep in mind is wallpaper back then did not come in long narrow rolls like it does now. It was applied in much smaller pieces, square by square. That sounds like a good idea and I wonder why we don't still do it that way. 

Anyway, what you're looking at on the left is old paper with muslin fabric used as backing. Paperhangers would apply the paper directly onto walls made of wooden boards, not plaster over lath. To make it lay smoothly, they covered that uneven wall surface with this layer of fabric first. It's kind of like doing papier mache. On the right, you see the same principle at use again, but with newspaper as backing instead of muslin. I guess someone decided to cut corners. That choice worked out well for David, though. The date on the newspaper (1796) helped date that part of the house.    

 Left: muslin wallpaper backing Right: newspaper wallpaper backing.

Left: muslin wallpaper backing Right: newspaper wallpaper backing.

Pictured below are diagrams of how the house was altered over the years. The Berrien family lived here until the mid 19th century, so each generation made changes to suit their needs, such as increasing the house's depth and adding sleeping porches to the back.

 Top: a side view of the house showing its original profile and later additions onto the back. Also David's finger. Bottom: a quick sketch on plywood of the house's rear aspect before more additions were made to it in the 19th century.

Top: a side view of the house showing its original profile and later additions onto the back. Also David's finger. Bottom: a quick sketch on plywood of the house's rear aspect before more additions were made to it in the 19th century.

 The slanted beam up top is a holdover from the original first story roof line, before the height at the back of the house was extended.

The slanted beam up top is a holdover from the original first story roof line, before the height at the back of the house was extended.

Major John Berrien's House was built a couple of decades before Savannah's first true mansions (like the Owens-Thomas House) and well before Savannah's golden age as a cotton port. But he did build it just at the time our city began to experience some steady low-key prosperity, free of colonial mismanagement and uninterrupted by war. 1790-1820 was a pretty good few decades and Berrien was among those at the top of the social totem pole. He was also Collector of Customs at the port here for a while, so was obligated to make a good showing for international visitors. The relative grandeur of his home spoke to his own status, but was also a way of impressing upon outsiders the increasingly refined profile of Savannah itself. Whether it was true or not, that's the impression he wanted them to take away. Hence, all the fancy wallpaper. In addition, the grandest rooms (such as the upstairs ballroom) were decorated with lavish wainscoting and moulding, pictured here. David told me something unusual about the moulding: it's carved of wood, not shaped from plaster. People even used to make details like that our of honest-to-god papier mache (heavily lacquered, of course), but not wood because it requires so much work.  

 Top: two different styles of original wainscoting in the upstairs rooms. Bottom left: carved wood moulding around the ceiling of the upstairs ballroom. Bottom right: a closeup of the wooden wainscoting. 

Top: two different styles of original wainscoting in the upstairs rooms. Bottom left: carved wood moulding around the ceiling of the upstairs ballroom. Bottom right: a closeup of the wooden wainscoting. 

All the pretty details are great, but it's also tons of fun to get a look at the inner workings of an old house. As I held that old hand-cast nail you see below, I told David I felt well-prepared to skewer any tiny vampires who might cross my path!

 Left: hand-cast iron nails in old wood. Right: Me holding an original nail.

Left: hand-cast iron nails in old wood. Right: Me holding an original nail.

Mine and David's last stop was to the attic. Servants or slaves undoubtedly lived there at one time. Pictured here is old hand-cut wooden lath beneath crumbled plaster, right above a picture of slightly less old machine-cut lath.

 Exposed plaster and lath in the attic. Top: hand-cut wooden lath. Bottom: newer, machine-cut lath.

Exposed plaster and lath in the attic. Top: hand-cut wooden lath. Bottom: newer, machine-cut lath.

 Three view of the attic, plus some initials carved inside one of the dormers.

Three view of the attic, plus some initials carved inside one of the dormers.

See this floorboard down here? What's with that finger-sized notch on the edge? Eh, it's exactly what it looks like. David had a funny story about when he first began exploring the attic and he poked his finger right there where it looks like it's supposed to go. Sure enough, the board levered up and there was a hidey-hole underneath full of old liquor bottles! Somebody hid their stash up there in the attic! Was it a servant? Someone's errant kid? Did someone need to hide their booze when Prohibition-era police broke up their Flapper party? We shall never know.

 A floorboard in the attic with a suspicious notch....

A floorboard in the attic with a suspicious notch....

To my knowledge, no one has yet given Andrew Berrien Jones a medal, but they did give his house its very own historic marker. I ran into David Kelley and Jones himself in the bar of the 17Hundred90 one evening while conducting my Lightly Sauced tour. David introduced me to Andrew and let me know there was a ceremony and reception planned to celebrate the new marker that Friday. October, Friday the 13th, of all days. Easy to remember, so I managed to attend. There were some changes and new progress, but the house still has a long way to go. I found some informative new diagrams to take pictures of, which you can see below.

 Another drawing depicting the house and various additions and changes made throughout the years.

Another drawing depicting the house and various additions and changes made throughout the years.

 A front ways blueprint.

A front ways blueprint.

 Hors d'oeuvres at the dedication of the new plaque.

Hors d'oeuvres at the dedication of the new plaque.

 The house has a spiffy new historical marker on Habersham Street.

The house has a spiffy new historical marker on Habersham Street.

I hope you enjoyed this virtual tour of historic preservation in action. The Berrien House progresses slowly, but then, so does Savannah.