house saved

Nate Robinson wasn't a fan of old Victorian homes. And he didn't know anything about carpentry or renovation -- until he was neck-deep in saving a 1903 house.

But two years after Robinson, 54, bought the gutted, uninhabitable home at 343 E. White St., next to Rock Hill's Greene Funeral Home, all that has changed.

"After working on this house, I'd buy this house in a New York minute before I'd buy a new construction," Robinson said. "This house is rock solid."

The 3,500-square-foot house had been relegated to use as rental apartments when it was damaged by a fire in 1997 and was slated for demolition.

Historic Rock Hill decided to save it.

The historic preservation group bought the house, then resold it to a couple who began the renovations, but they were unable to finish, said John Misskelley, a member of the preservation group. The new owners tore off the plaster, took the walls down to the studs and added a new roof.

But the couple became overwhelmed at the work and decided to move back to North Carolina, Misskelley said. They sold the property back to Historic Rock Hill. Robinson rented it from the group and lived in a home at the rear of the property.

After two years, Robinson, a Rock Hill firefighter and a part-time medic, decided to buy the house from the preservation group and fix it up himself.

He didn't have any knowledge of or experience with historic renovation, but he enlisted a contractor neighbor who agreed to work with him on a tight budget.

"It was a mess," Robinson said, describing the original state of the house. "It was a big mess. Sometimes, it looked impossible. It was just an overwhelming task."

When Robinson started the work, the interior of the home was just bare studs enclosed by lapboard siding. He put up the drywall and laid new wood floors. He replaced windows and had the sagging foundation repaired.

When his contractor friend was unable to continue the work, Robinson enlisted the skills of a carpenter who helped him finish the work. But often, he worked alone.

"I worked two jobs and took on the (renovation) job when I wasn't working," he said. "It was a scary ordeal for me, because I was in it to the point where I couldn't turn back."

Robinson said he learned how to do some of the work from his contractor and carpenter friends. But he also taught himself. He read books "on how to frame houses, lay down hardwood floors and how to lay tile," he said.

Mackey Norman, a member of Historic Rock Hill and a past president, said saving properties like Robinson's home is important to preserve the community's historic character.

"How much history have we got around here anymore?" Norman asked. "Rock Hill back in the '70s tore down half the town. There's not really any houses left to restore."

But Mackey and Misskelley said it's difficult to find people who have the time, money, skills and desire to renovate properties in areas like White Street.

"I'm just so in awe of this man for what he did," Misskelley said about Robinson. "He took this house and restored its historic character. If he hadn't, this would be a vacant lot."

The house was originally owned by Mrs. Duncan Albert and later a physician, Dr. D.E. Walker. Then it became a boarding house, called Allen Rooms.

Misskelley, who lives on North Confederate Avenue and is president of the Historic East Town Neighborhood Association, which includes the White Street area, said that group wants to restore the character of the neighborhood as well.

Many of the formerly single-family homes in that area have been chopped up into apartments and relegated to rentals, he said. But that is changing.

"Slowly but surely and house by house, we're making progress in this downtown neighborhood," said Misskelley. He said he expects Historic Rock Hill's renovation of the nearby 167-year-old White Home at White Street and Elizabeth Lane to help.

"Instead of a vacant lot, we have a new neighbor," Misskelly said of Robinson's work. "I was so excited when I saw the inside of that house. I almost cried."

The house includes a designer kitchen with a large island, new tile floors, stainless steel appliances and Corian countertops. Robinson bought some of the fixtures and appliances on E-bay.

An arched passageway divides the kitchen and breakfast areas. Robinson made stately wood columns to place on each side of the passageway. "I just thought it would look nice," he said.

The house has been wired for sound, too, he said. In May, Robinson said he received his certificate of occupancy for the house and was able to move in.

Although much of the home's interior has been modernized, some features remain, including a large cabinet in the kitchen that's original to the house.

And Robinson said he still has much work to do. The staircase to the second floor remains to be restored. And he plans to work on the porch, which includes columns rescued from an Ebenezer Avenue home that was torn down.

Robinson said he probably will live in the house for a few years, but eventually he plans to sell it. "It has come together real nicely," he said, "but it seems like the work never ends."