restoration

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.

Berrien the past

When I got back into town from Florida on September 9th, I was thrilled to read this column by Bill Dawers in the Savannah Morning News: Important unrestored Savannah building finds perfect buyer. It's about the Berrien house, which has sat crumbling on the corner of Broughton and Habersham for years and years and years. Seriously, the last tenant in there was Pete's Shoe Repair on the ground floor and that closed up over two decades ago. The Berriens were a very prominent local family in the 18th and 19th centuries. John Berrien was a great patriot and served under George Washington. Andrew Jackson appointed his son, John Macpherson Berrien, Attorney General. I've seen their gravestones in Colonial Park Cemetery. The house was probably under construction in the 1790s and George Washington himself may have taken a gander at the site while he was in town in 1791. I picture these two southern gentlemen standing placidly next to the foundation and framing, beers in hand à la King of the Hill, and pontificating thusly: "Sure is a nice house you're building there, John."

"Thanks, George."

"Yep," as Washington takes a sip of his beer.

"Yep."

What John Berrien could never know is that 221 years later, the blighted husk of his once glamorous home would be rescued from decay by his own descendent, Andrew Berrien Jones of New York. Andrew Jones is also a scion of the even more locally resplendent Jones family. We should all be impressed as hell by that pedigree, but this isn't Charleston, so probably no one will care. According to Bill Dawers, Jones is an artist and businessman whose family visited Savannah regularly throughout his life. He didn't know about the old homestead, though, until about 10 years ago. I guess all the grandparents and stuff had forgotten they used to own it. So, I imagine the wheels have been turning in Jones' head for the last decade. Has he spent all this time marshaling his resources until he had enough to buy the place? Artists are famous for not having money, so where did he get his? What type of business does he run? Business better be good because it's going to take obscene amounts of money to spiff that place up. I've been telling my tourists for years if they knew any eccentric millionaires who needed a project, they should send them our way and point them toward that house.

I do not have a photo of the house, but you can take a look at this other article from 2008 to get an idea what kind of shape it's in. Scroll down to the bottom and there's even a video walk-through of the place. I have often used the Berrien on my tours to show people what the Historic District used to look like decades ago. For someone who has never been to Savannah or who didn't grow up here, they simply cannot conceive what a wreck the place was throughout most of the 20th century. It's so good-looking now. I'm pretty sure the dilapidated state of that particular house drives it home. The Berrien has been insensitively altered, it's wooden siding stuccoed over (honestly, who does that?), it's ground floor raised, its levels cut up into tenements. For years it has loomed on that corner, looking as if someone cleaned up a crime scene in a splendid home, put everything back in perfect order, then simply left the brutalized corpse lying in the front parlor.

The house is one of few surviving artifacts connected to Savannah's late 18th and early 19th century history. For that, it needs to be saved and fully restored and I am very glad it will be. But the Berrien house is also an artifact and survivor of Savannah's uglier days, it's decades of decline and neglect and crime. Nothing is for free and the restoration of yet another old building sanitizes our history just a little bit more and costs us a tiny amount of truth. Progress doesn't mean anything if you don't know how far you've come. How will I ever be able to show people what made Downtown "the bad part of town" for an entire generation? I'm losing a little connection even to my own personal history. The Historic District was still "the bad part of town" when I was a kid and I know people who are still afraid to go there, especially after dark. I will no longer be able to share that experience with my clients as fully as I've been able to the past few years. For that, I am a little bit sad. But only a little bit.

The perilous life of a local monument

Interesting headline in the Savannah Morning News yesterday: Terror plot targets Forsyth. Forsyth Park, that is and, more specifically, the antique cast iron fountain in the middle of it. A group of 3rd Infantry Division soldiers formed their own anarchist militia, stockpiled thousands of dollars worth of guns and ammo, and decided to overtake Fort Stewart and eventually topple the US government and assassinate the President. I'm sure taking over the world would have been the next logical step after that. And somewhere on that busy itinerary someone wrote this line: Step 3) blow up Forsyth Park fountain. The only response I can muster is "Why?" Why was blowing up this fountain-

Forsyth Park fountain, Savannah, GA

-that vital to the plan? Did one of these guys get arrested for playing in it when he was a teenager? Did one of them fall and conk his head on the fence? What did that fountain ever do to anyone? Was making everyone in Savannah real sad and angry for a while an indispensably important part of the overall scenario? Given the grandiosity of these soldiers' scheme, why would they waste time and resources on such a petty digression?

The Forsyth Park fountain is a local icon and losing it would hurt. Of all the beautiful buildings and churches and squares, this one mid-19th century cast-iron fountain has become the most identifiable landmark in town and the most enduring symbol of Savannah. It is to this city what the Hollywood sign is to Los Angeles. You know where you are as soon as you see it. And losing it would hurt a lot. But it would only hurt the people here. Destroying that fountain doesn't even approach the same caliber of terrorism as crashing planes into the Twin Towers because neither Savannah itself nor anything in it has a national symbolic status. What made the September 11th attacks so painful for the entire country was that Manhattan and every feature of its skyline are American icons. It's a legacy that belongs to all of us. Then, of course, there was the loss of human life. An explosion in the middle of Forsyth Park would not lead to an especially impressive body count. I'm sure fast-moving cast-iron shrapnel would do serious damage to any unfortunate bystanders, but we're only talking about maybe a dozen people here. How could a group of men ambitious enough to jump start an anarchist revolution be distractible enough to set their aim so low? What sort of idiot aspires to be a small-town terrorist?

You'd think the existence of a monument in a mid-sized Southern town would be simple and straightforward: stand still, look pretty. But it's amazing how frequently, just in my lifetime, Savannah's statues and fountains have been the victims either of targeted vandalism or of destructive carelessness. Sometimes it's just people being cute, like when Friday night drunkards scale the John Wesley monument for the hilarious joy of leaving a beer cup in his open right hand. Yep, that's real funny, guys. It'll be even funnier when one of you falls one night and busts your head open. Then there are your I'm-gonna-write-my-name-on-it-with-a-marker-because-I'm-that-cool type of taggers. These are not real graffiti artists who unsheathe their spray cans to colorize the black and white nocturnal world. These are just morons who stagger through Ellis Square and think it's the height of comedy to scribble all over the bronze Johnny Mercer statue. Lucky for us the statue's sculptor, Susie Chisholm, anticipated that and made it easy to clean off. Make no mistake, I don't have much respect for the higher class of graffiti artists either. It's pretty presumptuous to think you have any right to leave your mark all over something that's meant to be shared with everyone or on the wall of a building that someone else has bought and paid for.

For the most part, though, basic stupidity and alcohol have wrought the greatest havoc on the Downtown scene. I've read of drivers fecklessly zooming into Franklin Square and Greene Square. I remember one, and maybe two, instances when inebriated motorists rammed into the armillary sphere that adorns the center of Troup Square. It's taken some serious damage and had to be rebuilt at least once. The mother of all local monument murders, though, has to be the total and complete annihilation of the winged lion fountain in front of the Savannah Cotton Exchange in August of 2008.

I remember getting that phone call: I was in Florida, visiting my grandma, when a friend of mine back home called to tell me about it. I was completely amazed and scoured the newspapers for all the details when I returned to Savannah. I had to go Downtown and take a look myself, of course. Sure enough, that lion was gone. It was a winged lion (not a griffin) that had been installed as a decorative fountain in front of the Cotton Exchange in 1889. Although it was originally nothing more than an expensive lawn ornament ordered from a catalog, by 2008 it had become a local treasure and there wasn't another like it to be found anywhere else in the country. All that was left when I got there were it's terracotta paws, as if the statue was still gripping its base in petrified terror upon seeing the headlights barreling toward it down Drayton Street at 70 miles per hour.

Oh yes, I forgot that detail. Was it terrorists or pyromaniacs or malevolent teenagers who blew up the lion and the antique fence around it? No. It was a drunk woman at 7 in the morning. She charged down Drayton Street, jumped the curb, crashed through the iron railing, demolished the lion, bounced off a lamp post, and slammed to a halt against the outer doors of the Cotton Exchange. She suffered only minimal injuries, though considering how incensed Savannahians were over the damage, she may have wished for death. So, to tally it all up, a beloved statue had been obliterated, a section of 19th century fencing was mangled, and a historic building had absorbed a full-frontal vehicular assault.

Thus we began the long road to recovery. The Cotton Exchange was able to replace the windows that had been broken by flying debris. They also had to replace their doors. The original outer pocket doors were red oak and weighed about 450 lbs. To the credit of their maker, those doors did their job and admirably withstood the impact of that woman's car- the inner doors were completely unharmed. The new doors are Spanish cedar and weigh 300 lbs. The damaged fencing was replaced thanks to a sharp-eyed local who realized the very same cast-iron pattern was at the back of the Philbrick-Eastman House and they could use that to make a replica. The lion, however, appeared to be a lost cause. It had been shattered to pieces, there was no other one like it from which they could cast a new mold, the original mold was long gone..... Then, Providence smiled upon our despondent city and bequeathed us Randy Nelson, restoration artist. This daring (or crazy) man pieced together what he could, used old photographs to recreate what he couldn't, magicked up a new mold, and cast us a fresh lion out of concrete. And so, when you come to Savannah and walk by the Cotton Exchange along Bay Street, remember this story and admire for a moment the pig-headed dedication of the people who would not let their beloved fountain go quietly into that good night.

Had the 3rd ID Idiot Brigade succeeded in their nefarious plot to obliterate our even more cherished fountain in Forsyth Park, I'm sure we would have reacted in much the same way: outrage followed by mulish determination to put everything right back where it belonged. And replacing that fountain would not be nearly as difficult as replacing the lion since there are ones just like it in Cuzco, Peru and in Poughkeepsie, NY. So, you know what? Explode whatever you like, morons! We are rednecks, we have duct tape, and we will fix it!