Restoring Tison House

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Tison House:
Reigning Queen of 37th Street

by Cima Star








Each time I pass, much less enter, Don Reinke’s magnificent 1908 Tison House, it is with a tinge of envy and an overdose of awe. My enchantment with this lovely Queen Anne Victorian goes way back.

In the late 90’s, I finished, with a sense of exultation, exhaustion and definite depletion of my bank account, the restoration of a smaller dilapidated, gutted, and woebegone Queen Anne on Park Ave. The job had taken 20 months of work and endless turbulence and frustration of all involved.

Would I ever want to do it again, people would ask. “Yes, definitely!” “No, never!” were my simultaneous answers.

Dreams don’t die. I wandered about the Thomas Square neighborhood frequently, looking at distressed Queen Annes. These graceful beauties with their striking asymmetrical drama, their seductive curves, beguiling curlicues, moldings and furbelows, all seemed to implore, “Help me!”

One was the Tison House, a genuine Queen of the era, She was enormous, a magnificent mansion which had no doubt once reigned over much of 37th Street, known as “Millionaire’s Row” in an era when millionaires were as scarce as billionaires today.

No longer habitable, she was so off kilter she looked as though she might at any moment fall flat on her face onto 37th Street. Inside, she was, well, a wreck. Ruined floors, collapsing walls and crumbling brick work had mostly raped of her finery. The floors were so soft and rippled, you could feel seasick walking on them. Moldings and trim had been so often painted over countless years, that they appeared soft and squishy, like painted, damp mud.

Most recently, the Tison House had been a rooming house. Shortly after the first time I saw her, she caught on fire. Her third floor virtually demolished, the queen seemed terminal.

I bought another Queen Anne, one block away. This one was slightly smaller but far healthier. Turned into two large units, she was fully occupied and needed little but massive amounts of face-lifting, which I gradually provided. I did not attempt to restore her to the elegant single-family manse she once was, though I may yet do so.

Meanwhile, Reinke, contractor and preservationist, originally from Tennessee, was the knight in shining armor. Pockets apparently filled with platinum, he charged to the rescue of the Tison House.

The house got a new roof, and Reinke straightened her up. No mean feat, this required braces, pulleys, hoists, and endless attention to chimney, fireplaces and detail work to insure that none were damaged in the process of correcting the posture of the queen.

For a long time, I passed the house almost daily, often peering in at the work going on, occasionally wandering in an open door.

Work progressed slowly. Moldings were removed, then scraped and sanded and sanded and scraped. I’ve no idea how many layers of old paint were there.. In my own building, I recall one of my workers saying he had counted 16 different colors painted over each other in the hundred or so years of its life. Floors were leveled. Walls repaired. Sanding and plastering and painting and a hundred other details went on and on.

Someone told me that the Tison House had once sported several leaded glass windows overlooking the corner of 37th St. I’d never seen them. But gradually, they began to appear. So did the wondrous pocket doors so common in houses of the era.

The exterior was painted in a subdued teal blue.. Planter boxes appeared in front of the house, as did attractive posts with circular tops, no doubt designed to protect house and landscaping from the cars that all too often careen into corner buildings in Savannah.

One day, a typical Victorian gargoyle appeared, scowling out over Whitaker Street.

A uniquely Victorian brass ceiling now shines in the large kitchen. Beneath, glowing cabinets match the gleaming heart pine floors. The only jarring note is the granite countertop, which to this eye at least, clashes with that magnificent ceiling.

The once burnt out dome shines; the spectacular leaded glass windows sparkle.

Soon, the Queen will reign once more. Long live the Queen!...and long live Don Reinke.

-- Photos by Bob Wisener

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