RUNNING PARALLEL TO WALTON WAY, Henry Street, with its wide margins and central landscaped median, partakes of the cooling westerly breezes blowing across Augusta’s sand hills and hosts residences untroubled by the heavy traffic characteristic of Walton Way, Central Avenue, Monte Sano, Milledge Road and other thoroughfares. Streetlights and dogwoods supply picturesque atmosphere in the historic neighborhood included in the 80-block Summerville district listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1980.
Henrietta, as Margaret Williams has dubbed her pink prairie-style American foursquare, stands at the top of a lot that rises away from the curb. Two massive pines and a proper magnolia provide privacy while lending passers-by a glimpse. A green lawn, anchored by a dogwood and camellia bushes, rolls up to concrete front steps painted black. Granite stone slabs create a curving path from the driveway to the front of the house, taking visitors past a selection of Williams’s topiary animals stuffed with sphagnum moss and planted with grapevine.
Built around 1920 on the tail end of the Summerville home construction boon resulting from the 1916 fire that raged through downtown Augusta, it’s one of three sister houses on Henry Street with the same architectural design. Dr. William Jennings, a tireless public health advocate and two-time mayor of Augusta, resided in the home first. After his death in 1964, the 2,700-square-foot house changed ownership over the years, finally coming into Williams’s possession in April 2013.
Williams, who didn’t move in to the house until September 2014, has reinvigorated, re-energized, refreshed and renovated nine old homes, including this one. When she sees a sagging structure coughing up window units, peeling paint and hiding in overgrown landscape, she sees possibility. “You can tell someone used to live here,” she says of the character of old homes. Neither sloping floors nor swaying chimneys, leaky roofs nor drafty windows deter her. In fact, she says, “I don’t want it if you have already renovated it.” The challenge of preserving its lived-in quality, restoring its structure and designing the décor ignites a fire in her. “It’s a puzzle you’re putting back together. It’s kind of an art to put something back together,” she says of the work.
AFTER BUYING and renovating her first home at age 22, she caught the bug for restoring Augusta’s old homes, having tackled houses on landmark streets like Walton Way and McDowell. Even if it’s crumbling to the ground, if it has the right features—pocket doors, fancy doorknobs, interesting stairways, quirky windows, little nooks—Williams will give it its due. She enthusiastically says, “I am in love with houses, old houses. When they’re neglected, I like fixing them and bringing them back to life.”
She first spotted Henrietta on her way to church one Sunday morning. The price fit her budget. The location, within walking distance of her brother in one direction and her mother in the other, fit her heart. Filled with the warmth and vibrancy of all its previous residents, it was the perfect next project and home for her, daughter Isabelle and son Jake.
A new roof went on first. Fascia boards on the eaves around the entire roofline were replaced. Overgrowth was cleared away from the exterior so that stucco could be repaired. The front of the house was jacked up to nearly level again. It was rewired and re-plumbed and refitted with central heat and air. When a bathtub came crashing through the kitchen ceiling, Williams made the decision to tear out all the plaster ceilings and replace them with sheetrock. Then she had the plaster walls in every room skimmed.
THOUGH SHE TRIED to save them, the chimney and fireplace in the upstairs master
bedroom had to be disassembled brick by brick, as well as the old flue in the kitchen below. Not letting anything go to waste, however, she used the antique brick to construct a wall in the kitchen, which she enlarged by removing a pantry and expanding to fill the footprint of the screened porch. She selected mahogany French doors to open from the kitchen onto the new rear patio, where she hung an elegant Maitland Smith chandelier.
One of the qualities making Summerville so intriguing is the multitude of architectural styles—Neoclassical, Tudor, Italian Renaissance, Colonial Revival, Craftsman and others—that mingle together, from the opulent to the practical, in such a small radius. Each structure reflects not only the tastes of the original owner, but also the trends of the decade in which it was built.
As a reaction to Victorian ornate embellishment, the American foursquare style of architecture fought for simplicity. Congruent with that intent, this home’s crown molding was minimal. Making the house her own, Williams added more molding. She also plans to replace the nondescript doorknobs with a decorative alternative. “I don’t go by any rules,” she says. “Whatever strikes me.” She won’t be boxed in by the box shaped house.
Fireplace surrounds and mantles were also understated, with the surrounds and hearths constructed from quarry tile and utilitarian mantles mounted above. Needing to add more wow in the living room, Williams located an antique mantle with ornamental detailing at a shop in Marietta and wrestled it into her truck. It unfortunately blew out on the interstate during the return to Augusta. Risking limb and life, she retrieved it and again wrangled it into the truck with the assistance of another motorist to tie it down. She and it survived the trip, though she considered throwing it out after the trouble it caused her. Once her blood pressure returned to normal, Summerville Restoration refinished the piece and installed it. The addition of marble to the face of the fireplace and to the hearth combine with the dark wood of the mantle to become a focal point against the goldenrod walls.
MARGARET SELECTED each chandelier and sconce that lights the rooms. The tiered crystal chandelier dating to the 1800s over the dining room table was purchased at the same Denmark, S.C. antique shop as the bed she bought for her son when he was two. In the powder room, a dainty fixture with crystals like water droplets hangs overhead. Cut crystal balls dangle delicately and reflect light from the wall sconces brightening the stairs and the second floor bathrooms. In essence, she’s used the plain palette of this prairie style foursquare as a canvas for her ideas.
“I work purely on inspiration,” she says. “I will go to Atlanta to buy a piece of fringe. That’s how meticulous I am with decorating.” At the same time, she incorporates furniture, window treatments, framed prints (she’s fond of ones featuring waterfowl and game birds) and collectibles she’s owned for years. The skirt on the pedestal sink and the valence over the window in the powder room were sewn from curtains recycled from a former project. A set of books she found abandoned in the Walton Way home she renovated years ago is displayed in the heavy china cabinet in the living room. The broad masculine lines of the piece protect the fragile bindings and pages along with Williams’s great-grandmother’s china. It, the books and the china move with her from renovation to renovation.
While drawn to dark furnishings that become a substantial presence in a room, such as the china cabinet and buffet in the dining room, the petticoat table in the butler pantry and the sideboard in the kitchen, she also has a penchant for items that sparkle and shine. The sheen of silk draperies and curtains harmonizes with the reflected light in the panes of the French doors and the abundant windows. Brass pots and pans accumulated over the years nearly obscure the pot rack above the 10 foot, granite-topped, kitchen island. Brass candlesticks, fire screen and andirons dress the living room fireplace. An antique copper candy kettle holds towels next to the soaking tub in the master bath, where a mirrored jewelry chest shares the space. Smooth marble floors and glass shower walls heighten the shine. Even the stainless steel kitchen appliances join the melody of sleek surfaces throughout the house.
But Williams’s style isn’t straightforward. Large print wallpapers by Thibaut are found in the foyer, the butler pantry, the kitchen and the master bathroom. The walls of the dining room and master bedroom are the dark brown of melted fudge, contradicting, yet not conflicting with, the flash and bling of other design elements. And the modern drum-shaped vessel sinks in the upstairs bathrooms skew the traditional interior toward surprise, leaving one’s expectations open to accepting a laundry room door, reclaimed from elsewhere in the house, partially stripped and not refinished. Its layers of exposed paint testify to the time it’s spent among the home’s inhabitants.
THE SLEEPING PORCH where two walls are lined with windows, has been transformed into what Margaret calls the “chick den.” She and her daughter lounge to watch TV on the cheery chenille sofa. Flower medallions adorn valences done up in zebra print accented by a leopard print border and pom-pom fringe. The room-sized Oriental rug keeps concert with the rest of the house while also keeping with the comfort of the den.
According to Williams, every house holds a treasure. She looks for a prize in each old home she takes on. The Walton Way house offered up the books. This Henry Street house surrendered a St. Francis statue hidden in the overgrown shrubs and a small star-shaped fish pond buried beneath foliage that had overtaken the front porch. Immediately enamored with the pond, she cleaned it out and resurfaced the porch surrounding it with antique bricks. Though the fish pond will have to stay evermore, the statue will go with her when she moves on to another house in need of her dedication. She’s tired now, though, from the business and the mental energy and elbow grease she’s put into Henrietta, but she says, “In a few years I’ll get real itchy and I’ll be looking again.”
She says, “You have to live in a home. They fall apart if you don’t. They’re like people. They get lonely.” That’s the kind of house she’ll be looking for, the lonely bones with potential to be pretty in pink.
This article appears in the May 2015 issue of Augusta Magazine.