In January of 2016, Ellis Robinson of Winnsboro, Louisiana, approached Columbus-Lowndes Habitat for Humanity Director Kathy Arinder with an interesting offer.
Robinson wanted to donate a house to Habitat.
There was nothing unusual about that, of course. In 28 years in Columbus, many of the 40 homes Habitat have dedicated have been refurbished homes.
What was different was the house — a 3,212 square foot house located on a 165-by-145-foot lot on Southside was built perhaps as long ago as 1880.
Usually, houses donated to Habitat are smaller, no bigger than three bedrooms and less than half the size of the house Robinson was offering.
Never one to look a “gift house” in the mouth, Arinder was intrigued — not so much by the house but by the size of the lot.
“My first thought, and the reason I like the idea, was that we could build two, maybe even three houses on the lot,” Arinder said. “So the question then was, what do we do about the house? At first, we thought we would just tear it down. But when our board president, Tony (Dunser), and I walked through the house, he started looking around and he could tell there was a lot of good wood in there that would be worth salvaging and re-selling at our ReSale Store.”
Habitat volunteers have devoted every Saturday since Jan. 9 taking the old house apart. Six fireplaces have been removed, as well as numerous old doors and windows, which are available for purchase at the Habitat ReSale Store on Gardner Boulevard.
Arinder estimates the salvage operation will be finished within a couple of weeks.
“We still have some floor joists to get out and a staircase to get out, as well as taking out the front porch,” Arinder said. “I’m pretty sure the neighbors are ready for us to get finished.”
This old house
Precisely when the house, located at 923 Seventh St. S., was built and the identity of the original owner is a mystery. A tax record states the house was built “circa 1880,” but the paper trail only goes back as far as 1914, when a deed record located at Lowndes County Chancery Court identifies the property owner as Jennie Maude Wilbourne.
The house apparently stayed in the Wilbourne family until 1987 — a property tax record identifies the owner as a Mrs. James C. Wilborne (the documents show the different spelling of the last name). Since 1987, the tax records show four other owners, the last of which was Robinson, who bought the house at auction in April 2013.
“When I bought it, I thought I would fix it up and rent it out,” Robinson said. “But when I came over to look at it, it was a six-hour drive, a little longer than I thought it would be. And the house needed a lot more work that I thought it might. I just work on houses on the weekends, so the distance and the work it was going to take kind of made me lose interest. So, finally, I decided to donate it to Habitat. I figured they would be able to do something good with it since I wasn’t going to.”
When Robinson decided to donate the house, he had to overcome a few mild protests from his wife.
“You could see there was some good stuff in there, even though the house was in bad shape,” Robinson said. “My wife wanted some of the fireplace mantles and the staircase and a couple of really nice doors. But I told her if we were going to donate the house, we needed to leave the good stuff for them.”
The decision to de-construct the house and sell salvageable furnishings and timbers comes at a time when the demand for the materials is particularly high, said Chad Sharzauer.
Sharzauer owns Reclaimed Mines in Jackson, a store that specializes in the sale of materials salvaged from old homes.
“It’s hot,” he said. “Really, the interest in using these old materials began in the 1990s. Shows like ‘This Old House’ and ‘Fixer Upper’ and now, ‘Barn-wood Builders,’ really created a lot of interest. My store is a niche in that market. We don’t focus much on the furnishings. We mainly deal in the construction materials — studs, joists, flooring, beams.”
Sharzauer said those old materials are not only fashionable, but of high quality.
“Depending on the age of the material and its condition, you pay a premium price, usually several times more than you would pay at a building supply place,” Sharzauer said. “It’s not just because it’s a trend, either. You’re talking about real craftsmanship: The stuff in those old houses wasn’t spit out by the thousands in some mill in China. It’s high quality.”
Some of the materials may be impossible to find in today’s modern market, he said.
“What the houses were made of depends, really on what area of the state they’re in,” Sharzauer said. “Houses built in towns close to the Mississippi River have some really big pieces of cypress, as much as 20 inches wide, and it’s not just in high-end houses. You can find beautiful cypress on old shacks.”
In Columbus, he said, many houses of that era were built of loblolly or longleaf pine.
“The longleaf pine is really in demand now because that species is endangered,” he said. “It’s not on the market.”
Arinder said she isn’t sure what kind of pine Habitat is recovering from the house.
“But I do know, there are some really great pieces of wood,” she said. “Some of the timbers are 15 to 20 feet long and in really great condition. You just don’t find timbers as long as straight as that.”
Do it again?
Although she’ll admit to some reservations, Arinder said Habitat’s first house de-construction has been an unqualified success.
“We have our eye on a couple more old houses,” she said. “Really, it’s been a wonderful experience and a great learning experience. It’s just so interesting to see how houses were built and the quality of the work. And one of the things that I really like is that we’re bringing out so much great stuff. We just want to get the word out and let people know we have it because normally these kind of materials are hard to find locally.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is email@example.com.
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