Originally created 08/08/99

Washington monument

James Woodall moved from Atlanta to Washington, Ga., three years ago, seeking a quieter, simpler life.

But when he bought and renovated a downtown retail building, he hitched a ride on a time machine that would blast him back 184 years.

Located on the east side of Washington's historic downtown square, the two-story structure built in 1815 is the oldest brick retail building in Wilkes County.

Mr. Woodall uses the bottom floor for his antique business, The Plunder Room, but the second floor has been transformed into a sophisticated townhome reflective of his love of antiques and period decor.

"I'm real pleased with it, it's come a long way," said Mr. Woodall, who moved in in June. "What I tried to do with the building was take it back to the mid-1800s, anywhere from the 1830s to the 1860s. My furniture is in that range, too -- early to mid-19th century."

His home is one of five stops in an upcoming tour, The Upper Rooms, which will feature second floor dwellings in Washington's downtown commercial district. The tour, sponsored by the Washington Downtown Development Authority, will be from 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Sept. 25.

Mr. Woodall purchased the building in January 1998 and spent almost eight months restoring the second floor. During the renovation, he lived in a tiny room in the back of his shop, showering with a garden hose.

Built by Augustus Gibson, the building was first a general merchandise store. Through the years, it has also been used as a law office and a boarding house. Before Mr. Woodall purchased it, it was Story's Department Store, a family-owned men's clothing shop.

While the street level had been maintained for trade, the second floor had been vacant 50 years. With nothing there but walls, Mr. Woodall had 1,600 square feet of imagination to work with.

"It was a garbage dump -- literally," said Mr. Woodall, 40. "When I got it, it had a major roof problem. The rain was pouring in. I had to replace the roof. The walls were also in bad shape. There was no electricity, no plumbing, no kitchen, no bathroom, the floors had to be re-done, the windows were rotted out and I had to have custom windows made. There was evidence that there was a porch on the front, so I added a balcony."

The downtown district is on the National Historical Register, but Mr. Woodall's renovation was not restricted by rigid preservation guidelines.

Mr. Woodall studied 19th century architecture before beginning the project. He was cautious to maintain basic elements of that period, but he also built his home with modern comforts -- a carefully concealed laundry room and closets -- which would not have been included then.

"It's very comfortable," Mr. Woodall said. "If I had done it as a purist, it would have been more like a museum and I couldn't have lived in it. It would have been horrible.

"I respect people who try to be purist, but I think it's OK to incorporate comfort into it, too. If my building had been intact, it would have been one thing. But I didn't have any good bones to go by -- no period mantels or other architectural elements. If I had, I would have felt obligated to keep those. I had to try to reconstruct the space by what I know would have been in buildings during that time period."

Mr. Woodall also had to install a bathroom and kitchen in his home.

"I fashioned those from the 1920s because I figure that's when they would have added an inside bathroom or inside kitchen," Mr. Woodall said. "At one time, the property did have a kitchen building out back, but that's long gone."

Mr. Woodall was not afraid to mix and match to achieve the right balance for modern living. He's blended the formality of his Federal period furniture with period pine primitive furniture from Wilkes, Taliaferro and Hancock counties.

Striking focal points on the walls are period portraits. While most are old, Mr. Woodall had a local artist paint a portrait of Andrew Semmes, the second owner of the building, who purchased it in 1821.

Massive floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in the hall and in the living room provide storage and display Mr. Woodall's collections of books, family photographs and antique trinkets.

When he first bought the building, the fireplace mantels were from the Victorian period. He replaced those with mantels displaying the classic tailored lines of the Greek Revival and Federal periods of the 1800s. The mantel in the living room is from Mr. Semmes' house.

Mr. Woodall also employed the decorative elements of that period, painting the interior walls with whitewash, trimmed in colors such as ochre -- a buttery yellow, federal Persian blue and moss green.

In most of the home, the heart pine floors have been sanded and finished to a satin sheen. But in the entrance hall, Mr. Woodall painted the floor in a black and white checked pattern, a decorative technique used in that period. He also painted the baseboards black, a striking contrast to the ochre-colored trim.

The hall divides the living area from the two bedrooms, each with low four-poster mahogany beds. The bed in the guest room is from Clarke County and dates to the 1820s. The beds are dressed in white embroidered linens, topped with woven coverlets.

In the dining room, an 80-inch mahogany-and-cherry Federal period dining table holds a tiered crystal compote with fresh fruit. The table is flanked by an imposing mahogany Empire sideboard from the 1850s. The room's formality is softened by a primitive buttermilk blue pine server.

Shelves also line a dining room wall, with raised panels created from recycled 1920s doors that were found in the building. The shelves display an array of china, crystal and silver, including Mr. Woodall's prized old Paris porcelain -- dishes and tea pots made in France in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Off the dining room is a small kitchen. Its open cabinets hold a hodgepodge of antique kitchen ware, but its modern industrial stainless steel appliances are functional.

Mr. Woodall wants to build a porch off the back for entertaining. In his quiet times, he enjoys sitting on the balcony, which overlooks the top of a large oak tree in the public square.

"It's quiet. You don't hear anything," Mr. Woodall said. "It's total solitude."

The addition of the balcony has drawn criticism from some residents who believe it was not original to the building, he said. But when he replaced the triple-hung floor-to-ceiling windows, he could see evidence of wear along the bottom of the window casing.

"I could see where the casing was worn," Mr. Woodall said. "They didn't just step out into thin air."

He still maintains his home in Atlanta but vows he'll never return.

"It was two years of culture shock, but I'm over it now," Mr. Woodall said. "I plan to stay here forever."

Melissa Hall can be reached at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 113 or melhall@augustachronicle.com.


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