In the News

The Wilkins House Got a Facelift

Photo credit: Greenville Journal + Kyle Campbell

The two and a half year renovation on The Wilkins House is finally finished. The home was originally constructed in 1878 for William T. Wilkins, a Spartanburg native who helped supply the region’s booming textile industry, and his wife.

This historic landmark was leased to a funeral home from 1930 to 1990 then became an antique shop and wedding venue. In 2013, the home was saved from being demolished and replaced with a nursing home/assisted living center.

Neil Wilson, owner of RealtyLink, bought the property and transferred from its Augusta Street location to 105 Mills Avenue in 2014 with help from donors and The Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation. The restoration included a lot of repairs to brick and plaster as well as removing 30 layers of interior and exterior paint but kept the “character-defining features”.

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Moving the Wilkins House Took Eight Hours

, zlee@greenvillenews.com

Published 5:01 p.m. ET Sept. 6, 2014 |

Augusta Street was a dirt path surrounded by cornfields when the Wilkins House was built in 1876.

The scenery changed when the path was paved into a busy road. Old homes turned into offices. Commercial lots filled up, and yet the Wilkins House stayed.

Now, the once grand mansion has a new perspective.

Inch by inch, the 800-ton home moved some three blocks Saturday morning.

The job, which took more than eight hours — two of them just to turn onto Mills Avenue — saved the home from being demolished for an assisted living center. The structure will now be restored to its original state and new additions will be built in keeping with the Italianate style, said the home's new owner, developer Neil Wilson of RealtyLink.

Six-year-old Drew Reid blew the train whistle that officially started the move just after 7 a.m. Saturday. The house lumbered down Otis Street and through a parking lot, fitting neatly between two office buildings. It made a sharp right on Mills, where dozens of onlookers ogled at the sight of a house raised up on beams and tires.

Two forklifts were kept busy the whole time, hopscotching steel plates along the road for stability. Several trees were taken down, as were some utility wires cut by Duke Energy.

The power was still out at noon when a woman went into labor at the birth center on Mills Avenue. Amy Leland, a midwife with Blessed Births, said she hadn't been told about the outage when the lights went out but that police were bringing her a generator.

"If need be, I can deliver by flashlight," Leland said. "Doesn't stress me out a bit."

By 2 p.m., the house had turned onto a vacant lot on Elm Street, where it will stay, safe from future threats.

Wilson said he plans to live there and open the house to the public four times a year. Several non-profit groups, including the Greenville Historical Society, Greenville Humane Society, and the Governor's School for the Arts & Humanities, will be able to use it for fundraising efforts as part of a agreement with Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation.

Palmetto Trust worked with local residents to raise more than $294,000 to help relocate the Wilkins House. Wilson himself became the biggest donor by pledging $360,000. The developer behind the assisted living center pledged $10,000.

"It's the heaviest structure ever moved in the state," said Mike Bedenbaugh, executive director of Palmetto Trust.

Bedenbaugh said he normally doesn't like moving a structure because it detracts from the historical significance but that the Wilkins House was a special case.

"The only reason this one was done this way was because the architecture was so extraordinary that it was worth it," he said.

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Wilkins House Restoration Peels Back Decades of Wear

IT’S BEEN NEARLY A YEAR SINCE A MONUMENTAL MOVE SAVED THE HISTORIC WILKINS HOUSE FROM DESTRUCTION. NOW A DECONSTRUCTION IS REVEALING THE DEPTH OF ITS AGE.

It’s been nearly a year since a monumental move saved the historic Wilkins House from destruction — instead leading to a deconstruction today that is revealing in imperfect detail the depth of its age.

A simple drive by the mansion’s new resting spot on Mills Avenue offers the most striking image.

The white paint that once entirely covered the house’s 139 years of wear and tear has been stripped away, revealing the original red brick — and all the blemishes that come with the relentless march of time.

The columns and quoins that frame the entrance are a muted mix of brown and various shades of dull gray.

Inside, there is more.

Plaster cracked by foundational stress and water damage has been chipped away and is in the rawest form of careful reconstruction.

The paint throughout, all lead-based, is coated up to 12 layers thick.

The work — and the cost — is more than Neil Wilson says he imagined when he became an unlikely benefactor to preserve one of downtown Greenville’s few remaining historic homes.

“I’m not going to be the guy who puts the 13th coat on it,” says the local retail developer, who had been more accustomed to tearing down old buildings to make way for new ones before learning last year that the Wilkins House faced the impending wrecking ball.

“I could have cut corners and not taken the paint off and saved a hundred grand,” he says. “Do I want to spend that money? No, not really. But then again, I don’t want to live in a house for the next 20, 30, 40 years — however long I’m here — where I’m like, ‘God, I wish I had just done it the right way.’”

The “right way” has meant that the home built in 1876 to showcase the wealth of merchant William T. Wilkins appears for now as if it is falling apart.

The truth is, Wilson says, the paint and drywall added over the years only served to hide what is clear now that it has been stripped away.

What looks like the “before” in a before-and-after picture is exactly that.

But with a better “before” to come.

“It’s looking at one of its worst days, so to speak, but we’re not cutting any corners,” he says. “In the next few weeks, you’re going to see a lot of changes in the Wilkins House.”

Neil Wilson, owner of the Wilkins House, explains the progress made on the historic home’s renovation.MYKAL McELDOWNEY/Staff

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The Italianate-style mansion was built at the end of the Reconstruction era on what was once a 93-acre estate along Augusta Street, just three blocks away from its new location on Mills Avenue.

Wilkins, a Spartanburg merchant who made his fortune in New York, went above and beyond with ornate features.

One preservationist involved in saving the house from demolition, Kelly Odom, estimates that the cost to reproduce such a home today would be $10 million.

The price tag to restore it has yet to reach such heights, but the cost involved is “well above” the original $1 million estimated, Wilson says.

Knowing now all that is involved, would he step in today as he did a year and a half ago when preservationists made their plea to save the home?

“I would like to say yes — but I’m not sure,” Wilson says with a wry smile.

Over the course of the 20th century, Augusta Street transformed into a commercial corridor that today faces intense development pressure.

The home transformed with it.

For 60 years, the Jones Mortuary inhabited the home, the owners painting its exterior white, adding on wings.

The additions prevented the home from being named to the National Register of Historic Places, leaving it vulnerable to demolition.

After the mortuary, the home served as an antiques shop and most recently as a bridal event space.

The wave of downtown redevelopment finally washed to the doorstep of the mansion in late 2013.

Developer Dan Simmons eyed the four-acre property for the Waterstone Assisted Living Facility, a 104,000-square-foot assisted living and memory care center with 114 units that he says will begin construction by the end of this month.

The Wilkins House would be too costly to save, Simmons said, and impossible to use on the site.

Preservationists moved into action when plans to demolish the mansion were revealed.

Greenville, with its notorious penchant for tearing down its history, had already lost three historic homes in the Augusta Road area alone — the Cureton House, the McCuen House and the Otis Prentiss Mills House.

In January 2014, a Save the Wilkins House Initiative formed.

Then word got to Wilson, who, through the RealtyLink business he founded with his twin brother, previously had looked at the property for a grocery store.

Two months later, the Save the Wilkins House group, Wilson and Simmons teamed with the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation to pull off a big move.

The cost to move the home would be $720,000 — Wilson paying half, donations raised through a Save the Wilkins House fundraising drive the other half.

Simmons gave Wilson the house and contributed $50,000 to the move.

In an agreement with the Palmetto Trust, Wilson, using his own money, would restore the home to its original form and grant the trust an easement to protect against future threats.

Upon restoration, the home would be placed on the National Register and opened to the public at least four times a year.

The plan worked.

The home’s newer additions were demolished and the rest lifted onto dollies for transport.

On a Saturday morning last September, the 800-ton home was transported methodically over an eight-hour period — some trees cut down, power lines temporarily moved — to the corner of Mills Avenue and Elm Street.

“Everything had to fall into place,” Wilson says. “And it did. I don’t know why it did, but it did.”

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Joshua Gordillo had followed news of the move.

“I said, ‘That’s for me.’”

After renovation work finally began in January, Gordillo walked onto the work site and introduced himself.

Before moving to Greenville nearly two years ago, his trade in Orange County, California, had been as a drywall contractor.

But there is something else — he happens to be an expert in the art of plaster.

A lost art.

The walls of the Wilkins House, like the interiors of so many homes before the mid-20th century, are made of plaster.

Unlike modern drywall, plaster walls are painstakingly crafted. There are few craftsmen who work on them today.

Gordillo offered to work for half his hourly rate at first just to show what he could do.

Now, he’s taken on the months-long task of reconstructing the walls in the Wilkins House — made of the old mix of mud, sand and horse hair — tearing out defects, patching stress fractures and rebuilding ornate plaster ceiling molding.

“Up walks this guy,” Wilson says. “He’s an artist. I don’t know how somebody’s skilled enough to do what he does.”

The mansion is a full-time job for Gordillo — and part of a larger vision he has to start a business specializing in plaster work in Greenville, which is seeing a surge of renovations as people look for creative ways to move into the city core.

“To get established, you have to have a reputation,” he says. “My whole idea was to land this job, do it, and then when someone says, ‘What have you done?’ I say, ‘Well, what about this one?’”

By the time he’s done, Gordillo figures he will have worked on the house for a year.

***

The work will be complete, Wilson hopes, by the beginning of next summer.

The construction site buzzes with activity throughout the day.

The white paint was removed from the exterior with solvent, a costly method but necessary to avoid damaging the brick.

The interior door moldings — featuring seven separate pieces of stain-grade wood crafted together — have been carefully stripped of paint so that the original texture can be seen.

The former solarium is being preserved. Hidden gems covered by drywall over the years will shine again.

But not all will be old.

Another 3,200 square feet will be added to the original 6,000-square-foot floor plan.

Carpenters have been busy framing for the new additions that will make the Wilkins House a home as well as a museum.

Wilson will live in a rear, modern portion of the house and leave the front end for display and for entertaining charity fundraisers.

Amid the sound of generators firing up to power electric nail guns and saws, he points to the shell of what will soon become a new den.

“I’m not a formal person,” he says, “so I’m not going to be sitting in there with stuffy furniture and that kind of stuff. I’ll be in here. Come by and get you a beer, just have a seat.”

A man cave, then?

“No, that’s downstairs.”

In a newly created basement, Wilson will have a home theater equipped to watch sporting events — “four games at one time,” he says.

There will be a wine bar, billiards room and an outdoor kitchen.

He plans to move into the downstairs area in about a month so that he can more efficiently oversee the renovations.

Everything must be done right.

“I count pennies, don’t get me wrong,” he says. “But there’s something from a historical perspective that you think less about the money and more about the finished product. Greenville does not have a good track record of hanging on to the past. It’s got a great track record of building for the future.”

Now, no matter how he got here, Wilson is doing both.

 

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A Look Inside the Wilkins House

Crews discover ‘hidden’ parts of historic home

For the first time this weekend, WYFF News 4 cameras were invited inside the historic Wilkins House.

To see pictures inside the house, click HERE.

Late last year, a developer announced plans to build an assisted living facility on the site on Augusta Street.  The Wilkins House had to be demolished or moved.

For months, the group called Save the Wilkins House Initiative has worked with the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to save the house.

“Our community does have a heart and wants to preserve what they feel is important in Greenville,” said Kelly Odom, chairman of Save the Wilkins House Initiative.

The groups are restoring the home, which was built in the 1870s, to its original beauty.

Over the years, the house was also a mortuary and wedding venue.  Things that have been added are now being removed.

Crews discovered a hidden staircase leading up to the attic.

“I think this is, without a doubt, the most fascinating part,” said Odom.

They also found a hidden porch.

Odom said sometime over the years, the ceilings upstairs were lowered.  When they were ripped out, the original crown molding and detailed medallions were revealed.

“It’s just amazing, kind of like finding an artifact you didn’t think would be there or would have been lost over the years,” Odom said.

Stripped down to its original beauty, the Wilkins House is now eligible to be on the National Register of Historic Places.

“Because of the money that’s being raised by the community, it will forever be protected and this decision to have to move this will never happen again,” said Mike Bedenbaugh, executive director of the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation.

“It can become a home, it can become a business. Its use to us really isn’t as important as the fact that whatever use it is, it will have to adapt to the historic integrity of the building,” Bedenbaugh said.

Odom said $90,000 are still needed to move the house to its new location at the corner of Mills Avenue and Elm Street.  The hope is to move the house as early as Aug. 9.

Odom said the Wilkins House weighs between 800 and 1,000 tons and when it’s moved, it will likely be the heaviest house ever moved in South Carolina.

 

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Historic Wilkins House Restoration Unveiled

A historic landmark in Greenville, saved from demolition and transferred from its original location, has been restored and its legacy preserved.

Photo: Kyle Campbell

The Wilkins House has long stood as a historic landmark in Greenville, and now, after being saved from demolition in 2013 and transferred from its original location on Augusta Street to 105 Mills Avenue in 2014, the home’s two-and-a half-year restoration is officially complete. And thanks to a preservation easement that dictates the building can never be moved again or torn down, the Wilkins House’s legacy is permanently secure.

photo: Kyle Campbell

The home was originally constructed in 1878 for William T. Wilkins, a Spartanburg native who opened hardware stores in Union and Greenville that helped supply the region’s booming textile industry. His wife, Harriet Dawkins Cleveland, made the house a recognized site in town, often hosting extravagant parties and events for charitable organizations. After Cleveland’s death in 1930, the Wilkins House was leased to a funeral home until 1990, when it then became an antique shop and wedding venue. But in 2013, the home was planned for demolition when a developer bought the property to build a nursing home and assisted living center.

photo: Kyle Campbell

When word spread that the historic landmark was in danger of being lost, Kelly Odom of the Greenville County Historic Commission and other community members began to look for a solution to save the home. The organization connected with Michael Bedenbaugh, executive director of The Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation, and, with the help of city officials, got in touch with Neil Wilson, owner of RealtyLink.

Wilson had purchased the Wilkins House with the goal to preserve and restore it, but first it had to be moved to a new property, an undertaking that came with a $700,000 price tag. Wilson agreed that if half the funds were raised, he would match. More than 250 donors raised $300,000, which Wilson decided was enough to proceed. In September 2014, the 800-ton home was moved two blocks to its new location on Mills Avenue.

photo: Kyle Campbell

The restoration included plaster repair, removal of 30 layers of paint in the interior and exterior, and brick repair, says Kyle Campbell, owner of Preservation South. The house’s Venetian Gothic architecture contributed to certain “character-defining features,” including a side porch, balcony, and chimney, which were recreated based on historic photos. One of the most painstaking endeavors involved refurbishing four original combination gas-electric crystal chandeliers. Additionally, one of the original over-mantle mirrors, provided by descendants of the Wilkins family, was reconditioned and put back in the house.

“We’ve got the house as close to how it originally looked — especially on the exterior — as possible,” Campbell says. “We hope it continues to be a landmark for years to come.”

photo: Kyle Campbell

“This effort is a true testament that Greenville cares about its past and recognizes its importance in shaping its future,” Odom adds. “It also shows that historic preservation does not hinder development but can enhance it.”

During a donor reception held at the home April 6, The Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation introduced the newly established Bill and Woo Thomason Endangered Places Fund for Greenville County, which will engage the community in the effort to “help save buildings when they become endangered or at risk of being lost,” Bedenbaugh says.

photo: Greenville County Historical Society

The Trust’s next to project is to ensure the long-term protection of the Fountain Fox Beattie House, which was sold back into private residence for $600,000 earlier this year.

 

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