Americans have long had a love affair with the notion of restoring old houses to what they once were. It’s a process that gets romanticized in many a movie (The Notebook, anyone?) and fuels the entire HGTV empire. Watching these portrayals and then trying to do a renovation is kind of like shopping for workout gear vs. actually working out; the chasm that separates theory from practice is wide and deep.
Looking through listings of old restored houses, I found Carl and Patrice Arflack, a Memphis-based couple who spent years restoring an 1837 log cabin-turned-Greek Revival home. Rather than hiring a construction team, they undertook the entire process by themselves.
In 2005, the couple purchased the property, known as the Richwood Estate, and prepared to renovate it to its original condition. This was the couple’s second major renovation, having officially caught the bug after previously restoring an 1882 Queen Anne Victorian home.
They make a great team: Patrice focuses on adding stylistic and decorative elements to give the home warmth and personality, while Carl enjoys working with his hands and taking on the more technical aspects of construction.
Though the home was originally built in 1837, an 1860 renovation is what gave it its Greek Revival-inspired exterior. Popular in America in the early 19th century, this architectural movement came about after a series of archaeological expeditions led to a renewed interest in Greece. (This was the country that invented democracy, after all, and the fact that during this time Greece was waging its own war for independence from Turkey only further tugged on the heartstrings of American homeowners and architects.)
And while Mr. Arflack, a professional engineer by trade, single-handedly took on virtually all of the construction, he assured me that you do not have to be an expert or have loads of discretionary income to complete a project of this caliber.
In keeping, he's shared his best tips for anyone planning to embark on a historical renovation of their own:
“I think the biggest misconception most people have is that all houses are built alike, new or old," Arflack explained, and of course that's not true. In fact, "understanding how a house was originally built" is what he sees as the first step towards a sound restoration. In the case of Richwood, the original construction was in a style known as dog-trot, built with virgin cypress wood. The 1860 renovation might have overhauled the exterior facade and foyer, but its original bones were still intact.
Many homes of the era of the Richwood Estate have a distinct hand-made quality to them, which is a big part of their charm. But as the Arflacks note, these elements don’t have the level of precision or regularity we’ve come to expect out of modern, machine-made materials. "Don't expect everything to be perfect," he says, because with much older houses "the original materials and tools used were probably largely what they had to work with on site.”
For Richwood, the couple researched basic construction types of log homes and the Greek Revival style, but fortunately the original structure proved resilient—so their renovation didn't have to be extensive.
Planning and prioritizing, Carl says, is what enabled the couple to complete a thorough restoration on a modest budget—even though the house hadn't been tended to much since its 1860 update: “You need to list projects by priority: must be done versus want to do," he explained, "with the must-do items completed first.” The pair planned to pay as they went along, and ended up only needing a few thousand dollars per year per project (namely, the kitchen and bathrooms).
“We didn't try to do everything at once,” Carl says. While this kind of loose timeline might not be possible for every homeowner, it's definitely the easiest way to minimize costs if you're doing the construction yourself.
Rather than just "accepting what someone [else] has imagined and implemented" for your home, Carl says tackling a renovation yourself will be more rewarding—even as you come across obstacles and unknowns along the way.
Buying an old house and fixing it up yourself, even on a long timeline and with a small budget, will guarantee that it's up to your standards (a far better idea than buying a poorly updated one). And while the pair encountered numerous setbacks along the way, Carl says that “all things considered we wouldn't hesitate to do it again.”
Because of a recent relocation to Kentucky, the Arflacks’ meticulously cared-for Greek Revival is currently for sale—and they know it will take a special person to fully appreciate the home’s storied past. As for Carl and Patrice, the two are currently eyeing an 1809 historical residence to purchase near Carl’s new job location.
Have you ever renovated an old house? Share your best advice for staying within a budget, in the comments!