Circle Oaks: Family invests 12 years in renovation

It sits atop a knoll like a grand ol’ dame. A few creases in her face but soon enough she’ll be back to her old glory. Many remember her fine, portico wrapping her façade.

And as they passed her, coming and going, she filled the passerby with a bit of wonder and envy. What lies beyond the mystique of that southern belle of a home?

Paul and Alison Collins were like the rest of us 12 years ago, as they passed by the house known as Circle Oaks. From Centralia Road they admired the Georgian/antebellum era home and fantasized about what it would be like to live there. They imagined drinking Mint Juleps from the veranda; they dreamed of how their twin boys would enjoy growing up there, but they thought they would never get a chance to buy her.

“We couldn’t believe it when one day a for-sale sign went up,” said Mr. Collins. Upon buying the historic house, he wasn’t quite sure what lie ahead of him to bring the grand old girl back from her decay; replacing rotting wood and dealing with roof leaks, not to mention the cost of bringing her up to date and maintaining her historic character.

“I could see about 60 percent of the damage; 10 percent I suspected, and  30 percent took me by surprise,” he said. “Mostly it was water damage from the bad roof.”

Circle Oaks was named so because of a circle of oak trees surrounding the house. After realizing a few of the oaks had died or had been lost in one of the storms that brought down many trees in the area, “We call it semi-circle oaks,” Mrs. Collins said. “We have about 12 oak trees circling the house now.”

While the most noticeable feature of the Collins renovation of the old house is the three-sided front porch, the interior of the 2500 square foot house still needs some tender loving care.  

The house was built by Benjamin J. DuVal before 1888. By 1888 he gives the home to his son Miles P. DuVal and new daughter-in-law Lucy Tillman Cogbill as a wedding gift. After only 10 months, Lucy died in childbirth and Benjamin DuVal abandoned the house and moved to Portsmouth.    

The two-acre lot also has a separate kitchen behind the rear of the house and a guest house or servants quarters.

Due to dirt actually piled up to the first-floor joists of the home that had been built on brick columns; Collins, while tunneling to reach some of the areas he had to inspect, found much to be talked about.

“We found some interesting family-type stuff like handmade marbles, old nursing bottles, the type that you would pull the nipple over the edges,” Collins said, gesturing with his hands. “And I found one Civil War bullet.” Collins said. The bullet may have been a souvenir of one of the owners over the years.

Major damage from neglect over the years while it was a rental, the two-story porch was rotten to the core. When Collins removed the beaded ceiling board he found rotted ceiling joists, some so bad they were broken in the middle. He left the porch alone for a number of years, the family not venturing out on the dangerous structure that made the house such a showplace.

Collins began a major renovation of the porch about two years ago, wanting to bring the eye-catching porch back to its former glory, but he wanted to do it right.

He now has the skeleton of the porch 90 percent complete, however, from the road it looks like he tore off the porch and replaced it with scaffolding. The structure of the new porch could probably endure a category five hurricane. Collins has built a frame work of four-inch columns supporting an I-beam with wooden joists notched into it to hold the second floor of the porch. He will install tongue and groove flooring as close to original as possible. He has already begun the painstaking process of wrapping the columns in wood to match the original wood columns.

It has been the Collins philosophy from the start torenovate the old house as close to what it was in its glory days. Collins calls it not historically accurate, but historically sensitive. And that has taken some time.

Collins wonders what the neighbors and the general public think about his work and feels like they must think he just tore the porch off and left it a mess when there’s nothing further from the truth.

The Collins’ have also noticed some very impressive links to the past. “Most of the glass is still the original leaded glass with all the wavy imperfections and we didn’t want to risk any breakage.” So while the porch was being torn down, plywood was put over the front and side windows. Collins said, “Unfortunately, during that time the house really looked abandoned. In fact when I was working in the front yard one day, what appeared to be a homeless man walked across the front yard and asked if anyone was living on the second floor as to inquire if it was available for him. The combination of demolition, boarded up windows and piles of debris really made it look abandoned and I wouldn’t want to know what the neighbors were saying.”      

While Collins has been on his renovation journey he has collected a number of traditional-tradesman books on how many parts of houses were constructed in older times.

“I bought a book on how to do standing seam roofing, which is something most roofers have forgotten about,” Collins said. “I also found and bought a complete set of standing seam fabrication tools.”

He says in the early days he spent 40-hours a week working on the house in addition to his full-time IT job at Phillip Morris. Collins says as he gets older, the number of hours he puts in the house have dwindled somewhat, since he does most of the work himself.

The Collins’ put up a website a few years ago hoping to find if there were any folks out there who knew some history about Circle Oaks. He has met and talked with a few that have distinct memories of Circle Oaks, but he wants to hear more, hoping that there could be a photo album that exists somewhere.  

The Collins family consists of Paul and Alison and their twin boys, Joshua and Zachary, who will enter college in the fall.

Collins estimates that all construction on the porches will be done by the fall of this year with the exception of the fancy trim on the ceilings. Then, those traveling Centralia Road will feel that they have stepped back in time once again.

Comments

For the love of a house...

Paul & Alison,

The passion & commitment you've invested in this project is inspiring! Looking forward to seeing the results & excited for you that you will be able to enjoy the beautiful porch soon.

Terra

circle oaks renovation

About 45 years ago, the Welch Family did a major renovation to the house. Mrs Welch was the swim coach at Chester Rec. Assoc., her son Mark and I both swam on the swim team his mother coached. Mark invited me over to see the house renovation undergoing at that time, the main stairwell had been removed on the left side of the living room. The bathroon was a scene right out of the movie"money pit". I can still rembember lstanding downstairs and looking up thru the floor that was removed in the upstairs bathroom. The exterior lead paint was stripped with a blow torch and putty knife. We played on the dirt pile where the new well had just been redug.

This house is a true gem, glad you worked on preserving such a unique piece of local history.

Your renovation

I think it's great you are saving a near condemned historic landmark saving it for another 100+ years. I know the quality of your work and think it's great you are the one doing it.

Your renovation

I think it's great you are saving a near condemned historic landmark saving it for another 100+ years. I know the quality of your work and think it's great you are the one doing it.

I can't wait to receive an

I can't wait to receive an invitation to your brand new grand old porch.

Love the place

Alison,

I had indeed wondered if you were still living there. I believe you bought the place about the time the boys were in 4th grade. Glad to hear they're on their way to college and the house is on its way to its grand "curb appeal." Good luck!

Karen

Circle Oaks renovation

Congratulations, Collins family. Thanks for taking the time to restore that beautiful house. Can't wait to see the finished results.

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