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Mark Cooper uncovered the spectacular quarter-sawn white oak woodwork almost by accident during the restoration of a Queen Anne-style house in Decatur. The wood had been painted over at one point during the last 100 years.
Daily photos by Gary Cosby Jr.
Mark Cooper uncovered the spectacular quarter-sawn white oak woodwork almost by accident during the restoration of a Queen Anne-style house in Decatur. The wood had been painted over at one point during the last 100 years.

Sweet restoration
Work on 104-year-old home worth effort despite restorer’s battle with bees, honey

By Ronnie Thomas
rthomas@decaturdaily.com · 340-2438

Mark Cooper cashed in on a sweet deal.

What else could the Decatur man think about the old plaster and stone Queen Anne Victorian-style home at 1030 Sherman St. S.E., with honey dripping down a second-floor bedroom wall?

He saw bees buzzing in and out above a piece of trim at the northeast corner before he bought the 1903-era, three-story house almost two years ago.

Cooper was amazed when he tore away the wallboard and saw the number of bees and the size of their hive, which covered one wall of the bedroom and stretched to a window of another.

“They were between the plaster on the outside and the plaster on the inside of the walls,” Cooper said. “The honey leaked through.”

He said that for almost two months, various people told him they’d come and get the bees. When no one did, he had no choice but to dig out the honey-laden hive so he and Dean Nix could get on with the restoration of the house, which looks like a miniature castle.

“I put chunks of the comb with the bees in 5-gallon buckets and took them to the Dumpster,” Nix said. “I can’t recall how many buckets, but there were many. It took a while.”

Cooper said the house has the attention of the Alabama Historical Society, noting that Bob Gamble, head architect, has visited several times.

“I have turned down $275,000 for it because I don’t think that’s anywhere close to what it’s worth,” Cooper said. “If it were in Atlanta or sitting in the Twickenham Historic District of Huntsville, it would bring well over $1 million. My family and I are going to live in it.”

It is the latest of several houses being restored in Decatur.

More surprises

Exterior view of the Queen Anne-style house on Sherman Street Southeast being restored by Mark Cooper.
Exterior view of the Queen Anne-style house on Sherman Street Southeast being restored by Mark Cooper.
Cooper, who restores old houses as a hobby, was in for more surprises, most of them pleasant — and lucrative.

On the first floor, beginning with the foyer, he removed layers of varnish, stain and possibly paint from the ceiling, doors and door casings, mantles, baseboards and built-in dining cabinets to discover they were built with quarter sawn oak, which some call tiger oak.

“The first indication I had of the quarter-sawn wood was after I removed a little bench in the corner of the foyer to do some plumbing work,” Cooper said. “I was reinstalling the strip that was the back of the bench. That’s when I noticed the design on the back, and I knew what I had. I just didn’t know I had so much. You could build a house today for what the trim downstairs cost. One of the casings on the inside of the front door has more than 20 pieces.”

Cooper said builders used four different types of hardwood flooring, including oak, poplar, pine and chestnut.

“You can’t get chestnut now because of the disease that killed all the trees,” he said.

The approximately 4,000-square-foot house, which Cooper bought from Harold Smith, who died recently, has four bedrooms, three full baths and a full basement.

“There is under 3,000 square feet on the first two floors,” Cooper said. “The second floor is larger than the first floor, and that’s unusual. A bedroom hangs out over the front porch.”

Another surprise for Cooper was having to rebuild the roof of that porch, painstakingly heating and bending strips of wood, and gluing them together for the curve of the porch.

He counted nine fireplaces in the house, after unveiling five that Sheetrock covered.

“I now have four working fireplaces and will try to have seven when the work is complete,” he said.

That will take some time yet because Cooper only works on the home only during his spare time.

“We are restoring it completely, including rewiring and replumbing,” he said. “We tore it apart and are in the process of putting it back together. The third floor is totally gutted. My wife tells me it looks like a bomb hit.”

There are reminders of long ago, far away bomb attacks on that floor, stuffed between the ceiling and decking.

“There was no such thing as insulation when the house was built. But during World War II, the residents used The Decatur Daily and newspapers from Birmingham for insulation. I took the better preserved papers home. Here are the rest,” Cooper said, pointing to a box crammed with papers from the 1940s, tattered and torn but readable, extolling the exploits of Americans and their Allies.

There is another unusual feature in the structure of the house. Studs on the outside walls, more than 20 feet long, run in one piece from the basement through the first floor and the second floor to the roofline. Also, a room on the first floor has what Cooper calls “a kid’s door. It looks like a window, but the bottom half opens up, and a kid has plenty of room to walk right in without stooping.”

Cooper, walking into the basement, said he continues to be amazed by “all the stuff in this house when I bought it.”

He stepped past two old seats with decorative iron sides that came after another restoration project in Decatur.

“There are seats 4 and 6 from the Princess Theatre,” he said.

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