Restoring 100 Year Old Floors in East Georgia: Gatey, Ghosts and the Gourmet Cook

Restoring 100 Year Old Floors in East Georgia: Gatey, Ghosts and the Gourmet Cook

restoring 100 year old hardwood floors image


Those who know me understand that I have a bit of a problem. I’m something of an odd duck. I love to work on old floors. I don’t really care to work on new floors unless I can make them look like old floors. This can be confusing until you understand what makes me tick. Sometimes it just takes a story to do that, so let’s get started.

Doug and Susan Abramson (a.k.a. Gatey and The Gourmet Cook, TGC, respectively; pictured at right) came to me about 30 years ago. They didn’t live in Inman Park but like most people in Atlanta whose homes dated to the 1880s and ‘90’, they had connections there. I had started my wood floor business in Inman Park in 1973, at the front end of what proved to be one of the most successful inner city rebirths to be found anywhere in this country. It was chock full of some of the zaniest people you will ever see who differed in many respects but had one common passion – old homes. For me, being around a group of people who lived and breathed old homes was like a cat living in a fish cannery. I had a blast.

Doug and Susan’s house was on St. Charles in the midtown area of Atlanta and like a lot of old homes in that area had beautiful pine floors that needed some attention. I got them looking pretty good, got to know them and their young family and would run into them from time to time at festivals, friends’ houses and other places. In more recent years I heard them mention a farm in the Washington, Ga. area and just stored that little nugget in my mental Rolodex.

Restoring 100 year old hardwood floors in Washington, Georgia

Last fall, when the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation announced that the Fall Ramble was going to be in Washington, Ga. that little light in my brain went off. I wasn’t the least bit bashful in picking up the phone and inviting myself to their farm and they graciously accepted my invitation. (This is a part of my personality my mom never understood or condoned. She was far too genteel.) I had heard too many good things about this town in east Georgia not to go. General Sherman may have bypassed it but I sure wasn’t. Small town USA does not get any better than Washington, Ga.

The Trust Ramble was great. My time on the farm was better. Gatey had given up his life as a corporate attorney and I am willing to bet his connection to the land and his 1948 Farmall tractor was probably more rewarding than any litigation he had ever encountered. For Susan, the house and grounds provided her with the perfect palette to display her eclectic collection of folk art and objects collected over the years.

It’s known as the Old Hill Place and was owned by Wylie Pope Hill and his wife Jane. The main house is actually two houses that were combined. The first structure was built from materials brought there in about 1845 and the second half from a house moved there in 1855. One outbuilding is an old living quarters for some of the 65 slaves who worked the plantation when cotton was king. Another building was under renovation and Gatey and TGC referred to it as the White Cottage. It seems that the small structure was built by the Hill family around 1880 or so. It enabled them to move their sons out into a structure with no running water or plumbing. Before your mind starts conjuring up some dysfunctional family situations with the young men, I think I should point out that the main house didn’t have running water or bathrooms either.

Doug and Susan had added on a small kitchen and bath area and had milled up all the wood used in the interior of the new addition from wood on the property. But what got me as excited as one of the Keeno twins from Antiques Road Show finding a signed Stickley sideboard in an attic were the wood floors. They were original and had never been sanded, scraped or finished. For me, it just doesn’t get any better than that. I knew what the potential was for this surface and when Doug casually asked me for advice, I casually replied that I would like a crack at restoring them. Old houses are all about stories and I damn sure wanted a chapter in this one.

Restoring 100 Year Old Hardwood Floors: Another Historic Restoration

The 100 year old hardwood floors looked shabby to say the least. Remnants of floor cloths, mastics, tacks, some heavy discoloration from God knows what and enough dirt to start a small garden had to be carefully removed. And there wasn’t going to be any sanding at all, just my version of “tough love” for old wood.

We started the work in early March and for the most part, used the same approach I used on two projects in rural Virginia – James and Dolly Madison’s Montpelier and Caserta II on the Eastern shore. I knew that beneath all that “stuff” were some breathtaking wood floors.

In this shot, you are starting to see the fruits of our labors. The left half is untouched while the right half has experienced some of that tough love I mentioned earlier. It is always a surprise as to what comes out of the wood. You know that dirt will but we also removed some surface stains that I had serious doubts about. What was left were some “shadows” created by oils and stains, some scorch marks and a plethora of nails used to hold down floor cloths and runners.

Once we had everything off that would come off, we applied a utilitarian oil to the floor. It is European and is part of a new family of wood floor finishes that are making their way into our market. They are fairly easy to apply and even easier to maintain. The product used was clear and no color was added. What you see is the color of a 120+ year old floor that is receiving finish for the very first time. Note in the next shot to that it is of the same area in the first photo above – minus the large discoloration.

While the work was going on, my assistant, Eduardo and I were not only housed by Doug and Susan but wined and dined as well. I have been involved with a lot of projects but the hospitality bestowed on us set a new standard. Anyone who has ever sat at Doug and Susan’s table enjoyed the very best of all worlds. I can’t think of any refrigerator I would rather raid than one that Susan has stocked with her leftovers . . . assuming there are some leftovers.

Oh yes, the ghost, I almost forgot. I was given the guestroom of honor; the one where the ghost has been sighted. As legend has it, on September 10, 1864, Wylie Hill went out to investigate what he thought were prowlers. As he was climbing over a fence, his gun discharged and he bled to death from a leg wound. What made it even more unfortunate is that he was the only one who supposedly knew where some gold had been buried that he received in payment for goods sold to the Confederacy. Needless to say, Doug and Susan ask all who sleep in that room that if the ghost does appear, remain calm and ask him one question – “where’s the gold?” Since I didn’t see Wylie’s ghost, I never got a chance to ask the question. And I am dubious if I do see him that I will have the presence of mind (or even a voice!) to remember to ask.

Let me leave you with some reasons I love old, distressed wood floors. It just doesn’t get any better than this for me. Enjoy!

Click here to see more images from this project.