January 25, 2016

Bringing "Edna" Back to Life: An Update from Savannah

  • By: Katharine Keane
Before photo of Edna

photo by: Giselle Rahn

A "before" shot of Edna, the pet name for Giselle Rahn's house.

After photo of Edna with yellow paint and Giselles two dogs sitting on the deck.

photo by: Courtesy of Giselle Rahn

Edna as of December 2015.

The last time we heard from former National Trust staffer Giselle Rahn, she had just purchased her turn-of-the-20th-century home—lovingly named Edna after the former owner’s mother—in Savannah, Georgia.

We recently caught up with Rahn, who anticipates the renovation to be completed in March—just in time to serve as the venue of her and fiancé Matt Ball’s wedding reception in the fall. Keep reading to find out more about her historic home restoration.

Why did you choose to purchase an older home?

We bought an older home partially because of where we were living which was the historic district of Savannah. We thought the neighborhood was wonderful and also the kind of neighborhood that needs people to buy the houses there, rather that building new houses or doing infill, so our choices were limited partially. We wanted to make an impact, and my fiancé Matt really wanted to do something with his savings from being deployed. He wanted to make a difference, and I certainly had fantasies about fixing up a house, but I didn’t think I would be doing this before I was thirty.

How did you find your house?

We found it because we went driving up and down every block in the neighborhood we wanted to buy in. We went up and down every single block noting down the houses that were either abandoned or looked like nobody was living there or looked like someone might be living there but they certainly weren’t taking care of it, so maybe they’d be interested in selling it.

We started contacting homeowners, tracking down their phone numbers; on more than one occasion we dropped a note off at somebody’s house. One of those ended up being the house that we [bought]. It was Kier Ellison’s; he owned the property, and we found it and basically we were courting him for about four months to get him to sell it to us. He had failing health, his daughter was really helping him through the whole process; she is the one who convinced him to sell to us I think because she recognized that it was time for them to sell.

They had been holding onto it for twenty years and nothing had happened to it, and [she also recognized] we were not there to flip it and make a profit, that we seemed to care about the community and we weren’t truly outsiders,even if we weren’t from Savannah. So I think putting in the personal time with the owners was one of the main reasons we were able to buy from the Ellisons.

What has been the biggest challenge restoring an older home?

The biggest challenge is the unknown. You can do all of the budgeting, both in money and time, that you want but if the house needs twenty more piers than you thought it needed upon inspection, then it needs twenty more piers. You can’t not put piers in.

We needed twenty more piers than we thought we needed; we even had a structural engineer come in and look at the place before we bought it and he said "Yup, looks pretty good, you should buy the house." We’re certainly glad we bought the house and if we’d known the structural needs we probably still would have bought the house. But it was a surprise, and once something in the project is delayed it just pushes everything out.

It’s a common joke but also its true in construction and restoration: "You need twice as long and twice as much money." It’s taking an informed leap of faith because you know it will work out eventually, but you don’t know exactly how it’s going to work out.

What elements of the house were you able to restore or preserve?

So this was a lot of fun, seeing how much we could restore. Our contractor calls himself an old-school guy, so much so that he blacks out rooms and then goes over the plaster with a black light to find cracks—he is meticulous to that level of detail. Having him as our adviser on what was worth preserving and what really needed to be replaced gave us a point of trust to start from.

I also feel lucky because I had worked with the National Trust and I already had this sense of "we need to preserve the fabric," so external appearance was really important. The balusters on the front railing were really important. We had one section of the front porch left when we bought the house, it was barely holding on—I think there were maybe three nails holding it in place to these columns that were basically rotting anyway—and the first day that we had the house we took it off and put it inside. We didn’t want someone to walk off with it because they are solid wood and there certainly are scavengers that will go up to a house and will take materials off of it.

They look strong and short, and one of my favorite things is that the house will have replicas of those on the front to match the original section which preserves the way it looks. Because we were able to keep that, that means that the front porch isn’t technically up to modern code. But because we have the originals, we were able to argue for it, which is the perfect height so that when you’re sitting down, the porch railing isn’t in your eyes, which is a personal pet peeve of mine for modern code porches.

There’s a lot of trim in the house and it’s almost all on the first floor because that would have been a public space and we kept all of the trim. We replaced the missing rosettes (we had those made to match), and we also had bead board that was the trim on the doors we had that replicated where it was missing.

There haven’t been a lot of sacrifices that we’ve had to make because we’ve just tried to keep everything for the downstairs.

The stairs under renovation.

photo by: Courtesy of Giselle Rahn

The stairs under construction.

White balusters wait to be installed.

photo by: Courtesy of Giselle Rahn

White balusters ready for installation on the front porch.

What would you say is your role with Edna?

I feel like a steward of the house because it lasted for one hundred years before it came into our lives and with the rehabilitation, [and] I hope it lasts for more than one hundred more because it’ll be cared for for a big chunk of time going forward. We are not at the center of the issue. It’s not about making the house work for us; this house is wonderful and we are lucky to be able to live there.

So it’s about focus. For stewardship, I think that the object or the place you are a steward of is what you revolve around. And if you’re an owner, then your things or your objects or your home revolve around you. That’s great if you want to build a custom home, but I think that makes you the owner, not the steward.

What has been the most rewarding part of this project?

Since we bought Edna, both houses on either side of us have gone up for sale. On one side, the owner didn’t care about the house at all; he was having plumbing issues so he just cut the plumbing from underneath the house and it filled up with four feet of sewage underneath and then FEMA took over and that house went on the market. And who wants to buy a house that’s had four feet of sewage in it, give me a break, right? And within a week of it going up, it had multiple offers on it and there’s no way that that would have happened if it still had an abandoned house that looked like the porch was going to fall over, that had trees growing on the roof, next door. I am sure it would have sold eventually, but I doubt it would have been that immediate.

Because we're in a neighborhood where people have lived for a long time, people come by not infrequently and say that they used to take music lessons in the house and they were so happy to see something happening with it, or they lived down the block for twenty years and thought it was going to go up in flames and how happy they are to see the work being done.

If you buy a historic home, of course it’s a wonderful place for you and your family to be, but it’s not just you coming home to that house. It's everyone who lives on that street or that block effectively comes home to your house and their house and their neighbors’ houses; it’s what you see every day and it impacts your feeling about the place.

Local Preservationists: A Project of Stewardship in Savannah

Most stories about renovating an old house have to do with crumbling plaster and rotting sills. But when Giselle Rahn and her boyfriend took on the restoration of a 110-year-old house in Savannah, they soon recognized that they also faced complex issues involving social and economic status and racial disparity.

Katharine Keane is a former editorial assistant at Preservation Magazine. She enjoys getting lost in new cities, reading the plaques at museums, and discovering the next great restaurant.

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