How dedicated homeowners, a preservationist, and a talented local carpenter rebuilt a treasured island beach house—one plank at a time
With its wraparound porch and raised-pier foundation, the Wilson family's 1909 cottage is part of a historic beach colony.
The Wilson family's Tybee Island beach house leans. Just a little. To the right. A souvenir, say some, of the hurricane of 1947, one of the few to ever hit this Georgia barrier isle, which lies about 20 miles from Savannah.
Back then, the island took a beating, but many of the turn-of-the-century raised cottages on Colony Row, like the Wilson place, remained. Built to last, the two-story beach houses were constructed of heart pine, on piers 2 feet up from their foundations to sit above storm surges and to maximize ocean breezes and sunset views. Nothing fancy, these spacious summer retreats were little more than pine planks nailed to framing, with no insulation, and painted white to deflect the heat of the sun. Their construction followed the railroad out onto the island, which helped make Tybee one of the most popular summer resorts in the Southeast. Summering there became a tradition for
Savannah families, and many cottages are still passed from one generation to the next.
Today, the biggest threat to these historic summer homes is not so much what Mother Nature might dish out but the checkbooks of greedy developers. Where real estate is prime, the desire to knock down, rebuild, and multiply is intense. Which is why, on Tybee, every time a home falls into the hands of preservation-minded homeowners like the Wilsons, it's an occasion worthy of a crab boil.
The kitchen and the main living areas were moved to the second floor, where nearly every room has a water view. To lend the new cooking space a patina of age, a transom was designed over the door, the cabinets were covered with beadboard doors, and the entry to the pantry was marked with a stock wooden screen door painted to pick up the blue in the countertop tiles. The original pine floors only needed cleaning and sealing.
When Erica and Tad Wilson first spotted their future beachfront home, they weren't even in the market to buy. Texas transplants, they'd been living in Savannah and using a small duplex they owned on the island for six years. But when they saw the ailing 1909 cottage, with its hipped roof and its wraparound porch with water views on three sides, they knew they were looking at the bones of a great beach house. It was being sold by five siblings, four of whom lived out of state. "We lucked out," says Erica of their find.
But that's not to say that the couple didn't have their work cut out for them. Their potential beach beauty hadn't been touched since the 1970s, when the owners "modernized" it, replacing the wood double-hung windows with metal ones, slapping dark wood paneling on the walls, cutting up the original rooms, and installing dropped, acoustic-tile ceilings. "We had 15-foot ceilings upstairs and never realized it until we started renovating," says Erica. At some point in its past, the downstairs—an area that would have been left open in the early days to handle rising tides—was enclosed to house the kitchen and guest quarters.
From the beginning, the couple knew that they wouldn't simply be transforming the house into a family-friendly summer home for their three children and weekend guests—they'd be restoring it. "We
wanted to keep the integrity of the house, to bring it back," says Erica.
Turn-of-the-century builders wisely set back the island's cottages so they're about an acre from the water, helping to protect them from high winds and waves.
So the couple hired local preservationist and designer Jane Coslick as their project manager. Coslick has been saving homes for 25 years, and Tybee Island, where she had spent summers since childhood, is her specialty. Coslick, in turn, unleashed her secret weapon, carpenter Bruce McNall, who'd been restoring homes in the area for three decades.
"The house really needed work," says McNall. "It had to be almost totally rebuilt to meet current code." The foundation was in good shape, but the roof needed replacing. There was water damage on the first floor, the walls were out of square, the wiring faulty, and the plumbing sorely in need of an update. But that original heart pine had weathered the decades just fine.
So the team decided the home had to be stripped down to its shell—with a catch: Every original pine board would be saved and reused.
The project was McNall's daily job site for a year. Off came the heart-pine siding, up went hard-wearing, weather-resistant, fiber-cement Hardie plank. It wouldn't have to be painted annually, like pine, and it was one of several practical concessions the team made, including hurricane-rated replacement windows and a galvanized tin roof in place of the existing cedar shakes (in the old days, says Coslick, Tybee cottage roofs were painted tin). A handmade pine porch railing and exterior pine staircases, inspired by the originals, were added to the front and back of the house.
Inside, the Wilsons focused their attention on the house's second floor, where the main living quarters would be located. While the 70-foot-long wraparound porch ran the circumference of the house, in some places it was little more than a narrow passageway. So to create additional living space, they squared it off on the beachfront facade, pushing out about 16 feet. They found that by enclosing the porch on the adjacent south-facing side of the house, which also has water views, they could gain room for a master suite with a walk-in closet. And by removing an interior wall, they could open up the new kitchen and bumped-out eating area to the great room. Though the alterations were small, they yielded 30 percent more living area. Downstairs, the existing space was reconfigured into two bedroom suites, a family room, a playroom, and a mud/sand room where the old kitchen had been.
The front railing was bumped out as much as 16 feet in places to create a comfortable space for outdoor living.
Floor plan in place, Coslick and McNall then focused on preserving the look of a historic Tybee Island beach cottage. Just as McNall had taken the original pine boards off the cottage's exterior, he removed the tongue-and-groove heart pine from the interior. He worked on the studs, insulated between them, then started reinstalling boards on the walls and ceilings, having stripped and sanded them. In the porch addition spaces, he used new yellow pine. "I bought some that was a little wet. I put it up and it shrunk and cracked," he says, explaining how he blended it in with the mature pine throughout the rest of the house.
To add character to the interior spaces, Coslick designed simple rectangular transoms over entranceways and windows, similar to ones found in other Tybee cottages, and she hit her regular salvage yards for doors and hardware. "They're mismatched throughout the house," she says, in keeping with the informality of the place. French doors replaced the modern sliders that opened onto the porch.
When Erica couldn't find kitchen cabinets she liked, she turned to Coslick and McNall. "They all looked too finished," she says. "I wanted something that you'd think was built with the house." Their solution was to build simple boxes, with doors made of new 1x6 pine beadboard, and paint them white, like the rest of the interior.
This summer will be the Wilsons' first in their freshly restored home. Tad and Erica and their three young children will spend days kayaking, fishing, and walking the beach. As with generations of Tybee islanders before them, all life will radiate from their beach cottage, which by the way, still tilts, albeit gently. When reconstructing the home, McNall sheathed over and framed out around any gaps where the walls had moved. The Wilsons say it's part of the personality of the house. And they've since heard it wasn't the hurricane of '47 that was responsible for the place racking, after all, but the home's original builder/owner, Captain George P. Walker. You see, when Capt. Walker first brought Mrs. Walker out to see her new cottage, she didn't like the view. So her husband had the house moved. Which could be true, because the word on Tybee is that the sunset views from that second-story porch are, honestly, the best on the island.