The MacMillans Rehab a Georgian Home Near Odessa
Living History: The MacMillans lovingly rehabbed an 18th-century house near Odessa.
Katie and Reed MacMillan relax on the porch of a Georgian home that took them 18 years to rehabilitate. It sat unoccupied for the five years before they bought it, but even at its worst, Fairview kept its grandeur.
Photograph by Ron Dubick
At a Glance
Who The MacMillan family
What Georgian rehabilitation
The land surrounding Fairview, the grand home built by a Revolutionary War officer in 1773, has evolved dramatically over the centuries, from prosperous wheat farm to burgeoning suburbia.
But the house has been a constant, remaining remarkably unchanged, down to the original key in the massive front door.
“Nobody felt the need to rip things out and start over, which is truly wonderful,” says Katie MacMillan.
She and her husband, Col. Douglas Reed MacMillan, have been faithfully bringing back Fairview, steadily working for 18 years. Their 12-year-old daughter, Mary, is growing up there.
“Mary is the one who reminded me that this is a home, not a museum, when I was dashing around getting ready for a group of school children who were coming for a tour,” Katie says.
Reed MacMillan’s fascination with 18th-century architecture began in 1988 during a visit to Williamsburg, Va., where he and Katie celebrated their first wedding anniversary.
Both had grown up in circa 1960 split-level homes. But as they walked the streets of the Colonial city, they were smitten by red brick buildings constructed in the Georgian style, an architectural movement from 1720-1840 that celebrated symmetry. Picture columns flanking a central entry, windows balanced on either side of the door and chimneys positioned on both sides of the house.
“I fell in love with the Georgian style of building,” Reed says. “From then on my goal was to own and live in an 18th-century home.”
THE ROAD TO THIS OLD HOUSE
Six years later, Katie got stuck in a traffic jam on U.S. 13 on her way to the beach. In search of an alternate route, she drove down Old State Road, just outside Odessa but with a Middletown postal address, where she spied a large Georgian house with a for sale sign outside.
The MacMillans immediately contacted the real estate agent, who told them they were too late. A contract had just been signed on the house, which had been vacant for more than five years.
“I was disappointed, but only a little bit, because we knew the house needed a lot of work,” Katie recalls.
Months later, the agent called back. The sale had fallen through. Were the MacMillans still interested?
Katie was less enthusiastic than her husband. But it didn’t take long for her to develop a bond with the old house.
“After one week, I felt at home, at ease and comfortable,” she recalls.
That said, the property required a monumental effort to undo the damage caused by years of neglect.
“The fields were so overgrown you couldn’t see two feet in front of you,” Katie says.
Inside, rain was pouring into a dilapidated second-floor bathroom.
“I closed the door and didn’t open it again for two years,” she says.
With so many projects on the to-do list, it was difficult to know where to begin. The MacMillans made a pragmatic choice. The house didn’t have a washer or dryer—or even hookups for them in the basement. So they installed a second-floor laundry room.
In establishing a comprehensive game plan, the couple also consulted the “Secretary of the Interior’s Guidelines for the Treatment of Historic Properties,” published by the National Parks Service. The government recommends choosing one of four approaches: preservation, rehabilitation, restoration or reconstruction.
Because their home suffered from deferred maintenance, the MacMillans focused on rehabilitation, a strategy that emphasizes retaining and repairing of historic materials, with some latitude for replacement because the property is deteriorated.
In the years before the Internet, they relied on the printed word for insights and information.
“We read books: how to wire, how to do plumbing, how to plaster,” Katie says. “You just can’t go into a room and paint something. It has got to be scraped. It has got to be sanded.”
An important part of their studies involved learning to take on projects without risking their personal safety.
“You really must know how to turn the water supply off before repairing a broken pipe and know how to shut off the power before replacing a broken electrical outlet,” Reed says.
Over the years, the MacMillans restored plaster walls, upgraded plumbing, installed a picket fence around the garden and took on myriad other tasks.
“I can hit a nail pretty good now,” Reed says.
One of their largest undertakings was stabilizing the foundation of a two-story addition that had shifted over time, as witnessed by a slope in the floor.
“We always know where to find the dog’s ball because it rolls to the back wall,” Katie says.
They decorated the house with furniture that is traditional in feeling instead of 18th-century antiques. Reed notes that people tend to steer clear of rooms that are filled with precious pieces.
At Fairview, the family enjoys each and every room.
TO THE MANOR BORN
Even at its worst, the house retained its sense of grandeur. Opulent dentil moldings punctuate the roofline. Solid wood shutters on the first story are outfitted with locks for security. The louvered shutters on the second-story windows enable air to flow into bedrooms. Many of the 12-over-12 windows maintain the wavy panes of glass installed nearly two and a half centuries ago.
Behind the house is a three-seater outhouse, the ultimate in pre-plumbing luxury. On humid summer days, you can detect the scent of a wood fire in the smokehouse.
Inside, the front door retains its original, massive lockbox. Ten-foot ceilings are defined with lavish moldings, a sign of the prosperity of the original owner, Maj. James Moore. After being held prisoner for two years during the Revolutionary War, he went on to grow grain on 171 acres. He founded a newspaper.
Spacious raised-panel cupboards flank the fireplaces in both the living room and the dining room. Moore would have used cupboards to tuck away china and other possessions befitting a man of means. The MacMillans use the cupboards to store electronics and Mary’s toys.
“This house had built-in stereo cabinets way ahead of its time,” Katie says.
Upstairs, the master bedroom boasts an adjoining dressing room. The bedrooms are outfitted with large closets, a rarity in Colonial days.
Records indicate that Moore owned as least one slave, a manservant who lived in the house. His room is spare and small, in contrast to the spacious proportions and extravagant finishes in the rest of the house. The ceiling is just over 6 feet high.
“The only reason we can think of is that having a low ceiling made the room easier to heat,” Katie says.
Originally, the kitchen was separate from the main house, which reduced the risk of fire. Over the years, a connecting room was constructed between the house and the kitchen, which is now a room for casual dining.
The MacMillans inherited a tired kitchen that had last been updated in the 1960s. It needed to be torn out and done over, which presented the couple with a restoration dilemma.
Should they knock down walls to make the kitchen larger and brighter? Or should they stay within the footprint and install a kitchen that was in keeping with the style and age of their home?
“In the end, we decided to maintain the integrity of the house,” Katie says.
Most of the land was sold off generations ago. Wheat fields have been supplanted by a bumper crop of housing.
Fairview was spared from development due to its status as a home on the National Register of Historic Places. The 3.5 acres that remain provide room for gardens, Mary’s playhouse and a barn that is home to Wally, an Appaloosa saddle horse, and Rye, a miniature horse the family adopted through an equine rescue service.
“We have lots of privacy, as well as nice neighbors, so it’s just right,” Katie says.
The gardens have sprouted a cornucopia of artifacts left by previous residents of Fairview. Among the finds: broken pottery, old bottles, nails, hinges, a stirrup iron and the stone foundation of a long-gone outbuilding.
“Every time we dig a new garden we pull up treasures,” she says.
- Walls can talk—and homeowners should listen. Look to the original architecture for input in renovating an old house. The MacMillans decided not to knock down walls during a kitchen project in order to maintain the integrity of the property.
- It’s a home, not a museum. The MacMillans have decorated their house with family pieces and other furniture they have collected over the years rather than antiques that require extra special care.
- Prioritize your list of projects. Fairview had lots of history but no laundry room. Installing a washer and dryer was at the top of Katie MacMillan’s to-do list.
- Channel your inner handyman. The MacMillans did nearly all the rehabilitation work on their home themselves. They learned new skills by reading how-to books.
- Harken to history. Fairview was once a large farm. Only a few acres remain, but the current owners maintain that tie to agriculture by keeping horses.