Historic Renovation: Labor of Love

Scott Wilson Architect LLC reconstructs late-1800s home and adds living space to provide contemporary convenience for weekend retreats.

authors Kyle Clapham | January 11, 2019

After buying a large tract of land, previous clients of architect Scott Wilson called him to discuss their newest project. They had purchased 80 acres as an investment and intended to raze the late-1800s residence on the property, along with a few other structures. The longer they looked at the house, however, the more they started to see something in the historic home that beckoned them.

“They called me up and asked me to come out and take a look at it, and see what I thought,” says Wilson, chief manager of Scott Wilson Architect LLC, in Franklin, Tennessee. “[And] I got very excited. There were some really interesting features to this house. The homeowners and I could stand up in the fireplace—and that’s not something we see very often in our part of the country.”

The floors, walls and ceilings of the dilapidated structure all would require extensive restoration, though, and the roof and windows needed to be replaced. Wilson stood by as the owners debated whether to salvage the house or demolish the entire building. Once they decided to refurbish the home, Wilson began working on a way to balance its original elements with an apposite addition.

Main objective

Photo: Amber Holder

Although the clients sought a suitable vacation house, they wanted the dwelling to function like a primary residence. The project started as an investment property, so the idea of eventually selling a lot or the whole area remained in the back of their minds. Incorporating modern amenities such as a laundry room, screened porch and closets would benefit them no matter what happened next.

“The challenge became how do we keep the character and integrity of what’s there—the history of the house—but add on to it and update it in a way that’s sensitive to its history,” says Wilson, who relished the opportunity to restore a truly rare structure. “[It had to] allow us to use it today and not feel like we’re giving up any of the creature comforts we’ve all become accustomed to.”

Photo: Amber Holder

He elected to keep the kitchen in place but overhaul the galley with wider entrances and present-day appliances, including a stove nestled in the original stone fireplace. On the other side of the existing chimney, Wilson retained a small family room. He figured the dining space, between the kitchen and living room, had been a “dogtrot” that owners enclosed at some point in its evolution.

“One of the typical ways a cabin will develop in the South is somebody will build one log cabin; they start to work the land, and that’s the place where they’ll live. Then they’ll build a second log cabin, and they’ll have a covered roof between the two that will be the ‘dogtrot’ porch or an open area,” Wilson explains. “It’s where the dogs would sleep—that’s how it got its name. Eventually as they build more, they would enclose that porch area and then do other additions to the house.”

Photo: Amber Holder

After conserving the core of the home, he created a formal entrance and gathering area that leads visitors straight into the old family room. To balance the new front porch, Wilson added a master suite on the side opposite of the original living room. Now when people pass on the street in front of the house, they can see a recessed entryway between the living room and the new master suite.

Chief addendum

Because the structure lies outside any historic district, the owners were not required to submit the design plans to a local commission or association for review. They did invite the county historian out to the home, however, to walk him through the building and solicit his perspective. The man, who has a wealth of architectural information, became enamored with the fireplace, Wilson adds.

Photo: Amber Holder

Another unique element proved to be the spiral staircase in the original living room that leads up to a space on the second level. The narrow steps could not be built today using current standards, but workers were able to preserve them successfully. Contractors also removed all the wallpaper applied by a previous owner within the existing family room to expose its authentic wood walls.

“With any historic preservation project, that’s always the most important goal: You want to try to repair and restore the existing roof, siding, structure, foundation—things like that—[but] it’s not always possible,” Wilson explains. “Part of the challenge is making those decisions. What things can we save, and what things are just not practical or wise to save? You try to strike that balance.

Photo: Amber Holder

“You want that original building to read through the addition,” he continues. “You also want the addition to be sensitive and look like it belongs there. Then the challenge becomes: How do you make it look different, yet still complement what they intended to do with the original structure?”

Wilson attached a sizable screened porch to the family room as well as the new gathering area to include some outdoor living space. On the back of the house, he added enough square footage for a bedroom, play area, pantry, laundry room and two full baths. The space upstairs, which offers a lot of character by showing the original roof rafters, became more of a bunk room, Wilson notes.

Photo: Amber Holder

“By staying within the mass—underneath the roof structure of the original house—we were able to honor the original design and character. That was a real perk to the attic space [as far as] what we could do with it and how it was going to be used,” he says. “We discussed going higher [and] putting dormers on it, but ultimately we [opted] to impact the roofline the least amount possible.”

Key development

Wilson comes across a historic project from time to time, but few involve buildings as old and as intact as this home. On a recent job, for example, workers removed plaster from the walls only to reveal an extensive termite infestation. They were able to rebuild the house exactly as it had been despite having to tear down the entire structure, which stresses just how special this project turned out.

“We might [go] 5 to 10 years between projects before we find something [in which] the original structure is unaltered like this one,” Wilson adds. “Usually, by the time we get to a home that’s this old, it’s been remodeled and altered several times, and the original structure is really hard to uncover and find—if it’s indeed still there. Quite often when we find it, it’s not in [good] shape.”

Photo: Amber Holder

He and his wife drove by the rural house one weekend afternoon recently and noticed the owners were there, so the Wilsons stopped in to say hello. “We probably spent two hours with them, just walking through everything and hearing them talk to us about how they used each space and how they enjoyed it,” he says. “That particular weekend we stopped by, their [family had a big group of people] staying over there. They were all hanging out, and there was plenty of room for everyone. Everything worked out well for them, and it accommodated them.”

The owners have even leased the home on various weekends through VRBO, a vacation rental site similar to Airbnb. “Obviously, they keep it some weekends for themselves,” Wilson notes. “It’s been so popular [though] that they’ve been having trouble finding weekends that they can get out and use it for themselves. It’s been a hit on many different levels.”

Photo: Amber Holder

The project also inspired the clients to utilize the property more than they would have otherwise. For example, they cleaned up a pond and transformed an old dairy bar into a picturesque storage building. “And then they started acquiring smaller log cabins that are older, that people are just wanting to dismantle and sell,” Wilson says. “They just completed one of those on the property.

“Because they had so much fun [and] such a good experience with that first building, they’re continuing to add onto the property [with] other structures and develop it even more,” he adds. “It’s turned from an investment into a labor of love.” QR

Voice your opinion!

This site requires you to login or register to post a comment.