October 13, 2016

Bringing "Edna" Back to Life, Part 2: A Final Update from Savannah

  • By: Katherine Flynn

photo by: Giselle Rahn

Giselle Rahn and her husband Matt hosted their wedding at "Edna" in September.

When we last spoke with former National Trust staffer Giselle Rahn in January, it was to get a progress update on her restoration of “Edna,” a circa-1910 house in Savannah, Georgia. After purchasing the house in July of 2015, she and her then-fiancé Matt undertook the Sisyphean task of restoring it, affectionately naming it after the former owner’s mother.

Adding to the restoration challenges, the couple is currently living in Palo Alto while Matt pursues a law degree at Stanford. The construction team finished work on the house just four days before Rahn and Matt were scheduled to host their wedding there in September. The newly married couple is currently looking for tenants who will appreciate Edna’s character and respect its historic integrity. Read on for more from Rahn about the process’s challenges and rewards.

What was it like to have your wedding in the house?

The best thing ever. It was so meaningful because we’ve been talking about the house a lot for the last two years; we spent almost all of our free time on the house. Being able to share it with friends and family was immensely gratifying. We took on that house after we’d known each other for two years, and we were able to show it off as something that we’ve accomplished together, as a partnership. It was also very emotional because I just remembered so vividly walking through the house when it was in bad shape. The contrast between then and now is so strong.

It was amazing standing on the front porch hugging 100 people who love us, seeing them walk up. We had a huge dance party at the end of the night, so it was really a housewarming on top of being our wedding. It was wonderful.

How did Hurricane Matthew affect the house and the neighborhood?

Hurricane Matthew was the most powerful storm to impact Georgia in 100 years, and it was terrifying to watch it come up and know that there is absolutely nothing you can do besides turn off the gas and tell the neighbors you’re leaving. If we had been there, we probably would have boarded up the windows of the house, but we couldn’t do that, and everyone else was taking care of their own property and getting out of town.

There was a bit of comfort knowing that that Edna’s foundation had just been redone, and also that we were four feet off the ground. It’s stronger than many other properties, even being 100 years old. I was flooded with relief when I woke up Saturday morning and was able to check the news and see that our neighborhood wasn’t flooded. I feel so lucky that we didn’t get hit that way.

What challenges did you and your husband face in finishing up the restoration?

There were several. We were doing it from a distance, which we had not intended to do for as long as we did. We thought it would just be a couple of months, but our contractor then abandoned us. So we were really, really lucky that my mom was there, that she could be on call to the GC [general contractor], to the craftsmen when things went wrong, and when things went right. When our GC abandoned us, it put us in a difficult position because nobody wants to take on the work of someone else, particularly when it’s plumbing and electrical.

The thing that was really easy about all of this was doing right by the house. Personally, I was very sad that we had to paint over our beautiful, beautiful heart of pine trim, but the trim had been treated so badly over the years, and there were so many layers [of paint] on it. It would have been one thing if it was smooth trim, but all of the trim in the house was what they call “fluted casing.” So, there were eight little rows that people would have had to hand-scrape. Maybe that’ll be a labor for my children in the future. [Laughs] I say that jokingly.

What did the final months of the restoration involve?

It was checking a lot of details. For example, the painting was one of the last things done, and we walked through the house maybe four times. Our GC would say “Okay, it’s done,” and then we would do a walk-through and say, “Well, it’s not done,” and give him a list. So it was a lot of repetitive detail-oriented attention, and it would mean things like running my hands, or my mom running her hands, up and down the door to see if it was sharp on the edges because of how the paint might have dried, and going through and checking to make sure that all of the new mortise locksets, which were old-fashioned but were new because none of [the originals] could be reclaimed for our house, to make sure that the knob functioned properly. When the floors got refinished, that was, I think, the real tipping point of the house feeling and looking finished. It was amazing.

What has the neighborhood reaction to the restoration been like?

This has been a real joy: people stop and stare at the house all the time. They stop and say, “I used to take piano lessons here,” they stop and tell stories about when the other family lived there, they stop and say, “I’ve been watching this house for 20 years, I’m so happy with what you’ve done.” It’s incredibly wonderful to hear them saying what a difference us putting the time and the energy and the investment into this house is making in their daily lives. A bike commuter said he’d been riding by it for two years and he was just so happy to see what we’d done with it. And that’s really remarkable.

Katherine Flynn is an assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places.

@kateallthetime

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