Gordon and Lesa Reeves knew a big job was at hand when they decided to buy the majestic, but dilapidated, house at 311 Cherry St. in Mount Airy and have it restored to former glory.
It would be an understatement to say the former home of Dr. Campbell A. Baird had seen better days. After being constructed in 1913, Baird and his family enjoyed many happy times there in what was considered one of Mount Airy’s finer homes of its day, catching attention with its huge Doric columns in front.
The doctor died in 1949 and his wife about 10 years later, and their beloved mansion would embark upon a downward spiral that led to the structure being rented to apartment tenants — and finally occupied by no one at all.
As is the case with any home not lived in, neglect took its toll on the once-elegant house and it gradually deteriorated into a state of major disrepair.
Ownership eventually shifted to a group of about seven heirs who lived out of town, and it was uncertain what the future held for the Baird House as local preservationists held their collective breath.
Until early 2012, that is, when Gordon and Lesa Reeves took their leap of faith. One massive renovation project later, they have landed happily at the century-old home — moving in during July — and for the first summer in many years, family life abounds at the place.
“I can’t believe it was just sitting here, waiting to be loved,” Lesa Reeves said while giving a visitor a tour of the refurbished two-story Greek Revival home this past week. It reflects the best of old and new, with structural elements such as doors, cabinets, mantles and others either having been replaced or restored to their original integrity, while enhanced by modern appliances.
“I think basically we left the house pretty much the way it was, except we put a screened-in porch on the back,” said John Kidwell, a local restoration expert with many years of experience with such projects both locally and in the Washington, D.C., area.
Kidwell estimates that the reconstructed house that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which he referred to as a “grand old lady,” is 90-percent original. “What we tried to do is save everything we possibly could,” he said.
“It far exceeded my expectations,” Lesa Reeves said of the finished product. “I knew it would be beautiful — but it’s far more beautiful than I ever anticipated.”
The eye-popping structure that adorns Cherry Street, and Mount Airy’s Historic District, did not emerge easily, however.
The bulk of the restoration work came during the colder months at the start of this year, at a time when the contractor suffered with bouts of the flu, bronchitis, pneumonia and bronchitis again. “We worked right through the winter,” Kidwell said of himself and a crew numbering four to five people at any given time.
There were pitfalls and unforeseen problems along the way — the kinds of things normally encountered during the restoration of a 100-year-old structure.
Issues with the foundation were uncovered due to the house settling over the years, which Kidwell believes were exacerbated by blasting at the nearby granite quarry. This caused a lot of sinking, he said, requiring the under-structure to be shored up under the purview of a local engineer.
“We did run into a lot of termites,” Kidwell said of another setback. Also, five large (6-by-8) beams had to be replaced, along with bases for the large columns out front.
“But they had done a pretty good job on the house,” Kidwell said of its original builders and their use of quality materials. None of the joists were replaced, for example.
Assisting with the interior of the project was Lesa Reeves’ brother, Greg Goad, who did much of the initial work. “He’s the one that tore the house apart,” Kidwell said.
“We couldn’t use the doors — we had to buy new doors,” he added. “But we used every bit of the trim he (Goad) saved.”
Kidwell employed equipment in his shop for the home’s woodwork, some of which originated in local furniture factories that were in their heyday in 1913.
Vision A Key
The veteran contractor said that when such a project is undertaken, one must have a vision to work toward — even though it might be hard to see at first when everything is in disarray.
“I knew it was going to be a hell of a project, but I knew it was going to be great when we got done,” Kidwell said.
It also helped that Gordon and Lesa Reeves had a vision as well, which included much research on their part. “It makes a job go really well when a client knows what they want,” Kidwell said.
Despite living in Rural Hall, where the couple already had bought a home but put it on the market when they decided to purchase and renovate the Baird House, Lesa Reeves visited the reconstruction site “just about every day.”
Reeves works as a regional human resources director from an office inside her new home, which has 13 rooms in all and 3,275 square-feet. Her husband is employed in the electronics field.
In instances when a decision had to be made on trying to get by with what was there or tearing it out, the couple went with the latter option to ensure the end result would be perfect. “And that was a wise decision,” Kidwell said.
Along with ornate woodwork of its mantles and cabinets and other features, and high ceilings popular during the early 1900s, one of the more-striking aspects of the revamped home is new hand-scraped maple floors throughout.
The walls are painted in soft shades of colors such as green and brown, although Lesa Reeves pointed out that her son Chandler’s room is done in that of his new school, Mount Airy Bears blue. The shade was matched perfectly by the Sherwin-Williams store here.
Another room is occupied by the family’s pets, cats Hansel and Gretl and dog Sam.
Kidwell added that Sherwin-Williams, “realizing that this was a historic-project for the city, wanted to be involved and as a result donated all of the exterior paint and furnished all of the interior special colors selected by the owner.”
Support of the local business community didn’t end there, Kidwell said. “Riverside Building Supply furnished most of the building materials and worked with us regarding special-ordered items.”
Gordon and Lesa Reeves have added interior-decorating touches throughout the house, including an antique radio and telephone, among other older items. “I just love the history,” she said.
During the renovations, a number of artifacts were uncovered, including a large old spoon engraved with the letter “B,” coins, marbles, a highway map from 1936 (when the statewide speed limit was 35 mph), a Christmas card sent to the Bairds’ daughter and even a 1946 copy of the Greensboro newspaper.
“That was actually stuffed in an old flue,” Lesa Reeves said of the latter. She plans to have a local business develop a framed display of the items so they can be enjoyed by visitors.
Pointing out that the house is still somewhat of a work in progress, Lesa Reeves is looking forward to decorating it for the holiday season when the restored mansion will be on a local Christmas tour of homes.
Some folks haven’t been able to wait for the official tour, however, as word of the work has spread.
“There’s hardly a day goes by that someone doesn’t want to stop and look at the house,” Lesa Reeves said.
Naturally, a huge price tag has accompanied the endeavor.
The historic property was listed for sale at $165,000. At the first of this year, the cost for renovations was put at $350,000.
“Let’s just say we went over budget — and leave it at that,” Lesa Reeves said with a smile.
But by all accounts, everyone involved is happy with the result. This includes Kidwell, who said he is fortunate to have been part of a project that has provided a rewarding experience for him personally in watching the progress on the house from beginning to end.
“It’s really gratifying to have been a part of this history.”
One can only wonder what the original owners might think if they were alive today, but Kidwell is confident he knows the answer.
“I believe the Bairds would be pleased with the result.”
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or firstname.lastname@example.org.