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Businesses find charm and character in renovated old houses

Consider the plight of old houses. Once beautiful and well kept, some of them fall on hard times, are left vacant, are considered too expensive for renovation or their residential neighborhood evolves into a commercial area. Or perhaps all of the above describes their woes. For the lucky ones, business and professional people lovingly renovate them for commercial use.

The Chimneys Restaurant in Gulfport and the law offices of Barton and Williams in Pascagoula are outstanding examples of such rescues. In both cases, the renovations were labors of love. Both properties are eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places but choose not to be included.

Sitting on Beach Boulevard, facing the Mississippi Sound, the graceful old two-story house known as the Sternberg House sat vacant for several years before it opened in March 2000 as The Chimneys Restaurant featuring “spirited dining.” Owners Dix and Peter Nord do not have an exact date but know the house was built in the early 1900s. It has 4,100 square feet of space and took almost a year and a half to renovate. The only new space added was a kitchen.

“We fell in love with it and could tell it needed tender loving care,” Dix Nord said. “I think vagrants lived in it.”

She praises the work done by her husband and three other local artisans, Ken Worley, Mark Giudicci and Dan Hensarling, who all got into the project. Giudicci, originally from San Francisco and visiting on the Coast, stopped by one day and asked if the Nords needed help with refinishing floors and hanging sheetrock. Worley did the millwork and Hensarling constructed the new kitchen.

“My husband is so talented and has knowledge of building, so they divided and conquered,” Nord said. “I would do it all over again if I could work with these guys. It was a privilege to work with them.”

She says glassing in the front porch was a no-brainer, knowing that diners want to overlook the water and beach. That alteration would not be allowed, however, for a house on the National Register.

“They suggested we glass in a back porch, but people wouldn’t want to eat looking at a parking lot,” Nord said. “Every day is different on the water and that’s part of the dining experience so we decided we didn’t need to be on the National Register.”

Old houses are nothing new to Dix Nord who grew up in them in Natchez. She’s the daughter of Sallie and Basil Ballard and the granddaughter of John and Sophie Junkin whose house was built in 1833.

“If something is wrong with an old house, you just say that’s part of the charm,” she said, “and it never ends. We will always have things to do to it.”

The Nords are currently adding a wooden terrace on the house’s west side where there’s always a breeze. Built on three levels under the property’s magnificent live oak trees, the terrace features exposed brick and a fountain for relaxed dining al fresco.

In Long Beach for 15 years, The Chimneys got its name from one of the town’s early names. Sailors would refer to the chimneys of a house they spotted when nearing land along that part of the Mississippi shore. Nord said there was no changing the restaurant’s well-established name when the move was made to Gulfport.

The law firm of Harvey Barton and Harris Bell Williams occupies a stately old house on Magnolia Street in Pascagoula that was built by a sea captain more than 100 years ago. Harvey Barton said it was a boarding house for shipyard workers in the 1940s and was converted into a law office by Ralph Pringle in the late 1970s. Barton purchased the house 11 years ago after it sat vacant for eight years. He says he needed to move into it quickly so they worked around the renovation.

“It looks good and works well as an office,” he said. “It has lots of character and everyone who walks in loves it.”

He gives his wife credit for coordinating the decorating that includes an exterior color scheme of taupe and maroon. Walls were sandblasted and wood floors refinished. In the time that he has owned the house, Barton has had to reframe windows, re-do spindles on the stairs and replace boards on the porch.

“Sill, I have no regrets about it,” he said. “From the second I saw it, I always coveted it and wanted it. It was my heart’s desire to have it as an office.”

He says the only problem in the old house is trouble controlling the temperature. At one point the house was subdivided into offices for eight lawyers who all had their own electric meters. The Barton and Williams firm still receives four or five electric bills each month.

Barton also declined to have his property listed on the National Register because of requirements that forbid changes.

“Through the years I’ve had clients tell me they slept in rooms here when it was a boarding house, and they remember eating in the dining room which is now our conference room,” he said.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.


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