Cadre of volunteers working to restore historic millionaire cottage on Jekyll Island
Jekyll Island officials estimate job that is being done for cost of materials could have cost up to $5 million with paid labor
By Terry Dickson
February 8, 2015
JEKYLL ISLAND | More than a decade after it began, the effort to restore Hollybourne Cottage in the island’s Landmark Historic District is a long way from completion, but that’s not all bad.
The people donating their labor to the meticulous restoration enjoy the work and wouldn’t mind stretching it out. And the Jekyll Island Authority likes having an example of the way things were before the other cottages and club buildings in the millionaire’s village got their own overhauls.
Dick Tennyson was an electrical engineer for GE. He retired in his late 50s, and at 78 he’s the one directing much of the work albeit with oversight from officials at the state park.
The work is not pretty and when asked to point out the most important projects, Tennyson heads for the basement.
He points up to a 4-by-2-foot beam that supports 11 feet of the floor. It appears to be pressure-treated pine but Tennyson says no.
“It’s cypress painted with coal tar. It will keep out the bugs and the moisture, we hope. Well, we know it will keep out the moisture,’’ he said.
Moisture was the problem throughout and not just after the roof developed leaks — large and small — that rotted floors, subfloors, ceilings and windows on the upper floors. In the basement, the rot undermined much of the supports that kept the house from falling in on itself. The windows had steel lintels, but they rusted and the corrosion expanded, cracking masonry.
There is something called a sole plate at the very bottom of every wooden-framed house. It was mostly rotted.
“We replaced about 95 percent of that,’’ Tennyson said.
They also replaced a lot of 2-by-6-foot floor joists, he said.
“Two by six. Not 11/2 by 51/2,’’ he said, referring to the planed size that comes from lumber mills. It had to be larger because that was what was used originally.
“We wanted to stabilize it, that was my objective, so that what happened upstairs wouldn’t matter,’’ he said.
Formerly, getting around upstairs meant walking on sheets of plywood because the floors were rotted and unsafe. Volunteers laid diagonal boards of heart pine in the house’s gun room recently as sub-flooring to replace the only remaining temporary floor.
Sections of floors formerly cordoned off lest someone fall through are now replaced with oak boards, some recycled, some new, waiting for a finish.
Pointing to a rebuilt floor, Tennyson said, “The dark part is new. By new, I mean we took it from downstairs.”
That’s the way it’s been throughout the restoration of a house built of oak and scarce heart pine.
John Hunter, director of Jekyll Island’s historic resources, says Hollybourne is a prime example of a couple of things.
“It’s a great example of what happens to a building when nothing is done to it in a long time,’’ he said
Visitors can see the cost of neglect that is no longer visible in the restored cottages, he said.
“It’s very powerful for them to see how far we’ve come. We can say everything used to look like this,’’ he said.
If the restoration is taking a long time, it took even longer for the ruin to take hold.
Charles Stewart Maurice of Athens, Pa., a bridge engineer and partner in Union Bridge Co., was a founding member of the Jekyll Island Club. He had the nine-bedroom cottage, which was designed by William Day, built in 1890 as a winter retreat.
When World War II broke out, the Maurices and other residents were forbidden access to Jekyll Island, which had no bridge at the time. Some accounts say the Maurices last visited Hollybourne in 1947, the year before the Jekyll Island Club was dissolved.
After decades of neglect, it cost about $1 million just to stabilize Hollybourne.
Hunter estimated that it would have cost $4 million to $5 million for a professional restoration contractor to come in, tear everything out and replace it. Not that he’s getting anything less than professional work from the volunteers.
“They’re really talented guys,’’ Hunter said of Tennyson and those who work with him, some every day. “A lot of them were engineers and general contractors. Basically, they’re restoring it for the cost of materials.”
Now that the supports are stable, Tennyson was on the second floor last week tearing out old, cracked ceiling plaster, cleaning the lath so a plasterer to replace the ceiling.
“I could probably learn to plaster,’’ he said. “This is not the place to learn it.”
There was someone working on every floor this week. Mike Walker of Gasport, N.Y., and Dean Nelson of Maquoketa, Iowa, were in the basement putting in a door, or least getting close.
“It just takes time,’’ Walker said. “Not much down here is square.”
Walker said he became interested because of a friend of his from Rochester, N.Y., came down and worked on the house.
“I enjoy woodworking,’’ Walker said.
So does Nelson, who said, “It’s in amazingly good shape for as old as it is.”
On the first floor, Bill Goettle of Dillerville, Va., who was on his first day as a volunteer, said he came because he didn’t want to do what his wife and a friend of hers had planned for the day.
“Dick said he needed someone scraping,’’ Goettle said as he paused in his work on a window frame. “I’m scraping.”
In a doorway, Pete Grace and Don Watson of Ontario pieced together the base of a decorative column they had build of heart pine to match what had survived the leaks.
Although much of the exterior looks unchanged, there are examples of the hours and hours of work at the sides of every window. Interns restored from 30 to 40 of the 112 shutters and Tennyson did t
The elaborate glass doors, which were broken by vandals, are now fully rebuilt and a huge decorative piece of the masonry framing is back in place, mostly from Watson’s and Tennyson’s work.
It will be a long time before the entire house is open, but Hunter said he hopes it won’t be long before what was once the living area is open again for some events.
Terry Dickson: (912) 264-0405