Esther De Wolde admits she hadn’t thought – or even heard – of Mobile, Ala. when she was in the market for a historic Southern home to restore from the stilts up. Born and bred in Abbotsford, B.C., the co-founder and CEO of retractable screen company Phantom Screens had romantic Charleston or Savannah in mind as potential locations for her bucket list project cum vacation home. But when a trusted contractor suggested Mobile might have the exact architecture and environment she was looking for at a fifth of the price, De Wolde reconsidered. “And the rest is history,” she says.
But the search didn’t end there; it was just beginning. She had a list of 10 requirements for her new fixer-upper: It had to be Victorian-age vintage, symmetrical in form, with original wood siding and floors (“at least hidden somewhere I could get to,” she says, under a layer of carpet or vinyl), tall ceilings (they’re nearly 12 foot) and on an oak-lined street (“and [the neighbours] complain about having to rake the oak leaves!” she says, astonished). Her final purchase, built in 1906, ticked most of the boxes and the private seller who showed her the house had a distinct advantage.
“He was smoking the same cigar flavour as my dad, and my dad had just passed away,” she says. “The truth of the matter is he looked like my dad, he smelled like my dad and then when I walked into the house it had nine of the 10 things that I wanted on my list, and I’m like ‘I’m done. How much do you want? Here, take some more.’ ”
The renovation was a learning experience for De Wolde (documented via video installments on her company’s website), from the challenge of faithfully restoring an old home to the distinct differences between Southern and Northern building practices – she ended up adding insulation and marvels at the lack of gutters, considering Mobile’s status as the rainiest city in the United States.
She picked up some local customs and axioms along the way, too. “There’s a saying down south that it’s cheap to put lipstick on a pig.” Whereas restoring a home requires “love and passion, because it takes way longer and more creativity.”
The enclosed back porch was an entirely new addition to the house, and it’s De Wolde’s favourite, “filled with old things,” she says. The fireplace mantel was relocated from a bedroom and a couple spare doors were repurposed for the dining table and bed swing. “That’s probably my pride and joy,” she says of the latter, which is comfortable enough for whiling away the day or dozing through sultry nights. The ceiling is painted Haint Blue, according to Southern custom, so insects, fooled into thinking it’s open skies overhead, won’t build nests. Many of the furnishings are original to the home, with odd items purchased from Kirkland’s, a home decor store based in Tennessee. “They had a lot of great inexpensive pieces that looked old, so they didn’t stick out like a sore thumb.”
But the true history of the home is what remains most important to De Wolde – another of those essential requirements. “I wanted it to be a house that had been in a family at least 50 years so there would be a good collection of stories and so I could maybe even meet the family that lived there.” Through a “whole ridiculous chain of events,” including a local newspaper article (she is a minor celebrity/curiosity in town because of the renovation and her outsider status), she met one of the home’s original occupants, 95-year-old Myrtle May, who now lives in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., De Wolde calls her “Southern mama” and upon the restoration’s completion, flew her out for tea on the back porch.
“So, the house is so much more than just a house. It’s everything – the stories within it and the relationships formed because of it,” De Wolde says.
Get the Look
The Elegant Charleston porch swing by Custom Carolina Hanging Beds, $3,626.66 at Wayfair.
Salvaged wood trestle rectangular extension dining table, $3,795 at Restoration Hardware.
Chelsea lantern by E.F. Chapman, US$1,619 at Circa Lighting.
Casablanca Utopian 52-Inch brushed cocoa ceiling fan, $520 at The Home Depot.
Borrowed Light No. 235 paint, US$110/gallon at Farrow & Ball.
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