by Tim Gilmore, 2/22/2015
Doug Nichols kneels to set a billiard ball on the floor. “It starts about here,” he says. When he lets go, the ball rolls toward the piano and the fireplace at the western side of the house.
He’s referring to the three or four inches the Horace Drew Mansion has sunk and tilted over the last few decades. For most of the house’s history, before the Pearl Street Bridge was built, rainwater flowed naturally away down to Hogan’s Creek. Now the bridge dams up rainfall and pools it around the house, rotting the foundation out underneath.
Michael Bourre, however, isn’t deterred. He’s a previous president of the Northeast Florida Builders’ Association, a guild often, over the decades, at odds with environmentalists and historic preservationists. But Bourre’s dedicated himself to a true restoration of one of the most significant old structures in Springfield. He purchased it for nothing, $40,000, eight years after its last owner abandoned it, but he’s spending $800,000 to bring it back to its glory.
Restoration will include raising the whole house up from its foundation and entirely rebuilding the basement.
A lot of people had given up the 1909 house for lost, but not Doug Nichols, Patsy Bryant, and their teams of volunteers, who’ve come out to the Drew House on weekends for two years to fortify it and clean it up.
Because vandals regularly broke in and trashed the place, Doug built a wooden enclosure at the porch entrance, boarded up windows, and moved furnishings, like the bathtub someone had tossed out a window, to a safe location.
It’s an eccentric old house, even without its sinking into the peninsular bog that is Florida. Its design borrows details from several turn-of-the-20th “revival” architectural vogues. Its half-timbered eaves are clearly Tudor Revival, its
hexagonal side porch and the opposing tower fit the asymmetry of Queen Anne, and its porch parapet, third-story tower arches, angular blocks, and clay roof tiles exemplify Floridian “Spanish Colonial” or Mediterranean Revival.
One rocking chair sits expectantly on the porch at the top of the tower and looks out past magnolias and oaks toward the downtown skyline.
The tower-top verandah abuts the attic, where old sofas and rolled-up carpets and bulbous lamps discarded decades ago await their post-surrealist poet, some Southern Gothic Charles Simic. I’d love to be him, but the sun shines in from attic dormers on my inadequacy.
Doug says this attic served as a billiard room. Horace Drew, the physician for whom this house was built, played pool up here with Oliver Hardy during the city’s days as a silent film capitol.
Drew was descended from an early 19th-century Jacksonville settler with the almost too-convenient name of Columbus Drew, and Springfield in 1909 crowned downtown to the north with some of the city’s greatest architecture.
I take the main stairs and the servants’ stairs at the back of the house, up and down, and read the graffiti throughout, “fuck OUT EAST,” and messages about what can be found for free north on Moncrief Road.
Doug shows me the big kitchen with its wide brick chimney stack and its awful 1980s’ renovations. There’s 1970s’ faux-wood panel board throughout the house. A plastic Christmas tree stands sadly before old gauzy curtains.
A second-story “crying porch,” where, as Doug explains, a mother could take her crying infant at night to keep from waking up her husband, stands off the back of the house.
An old Lincoln Continental rots underneath. Thieves who’ve broken into the basement over the years have stolen the seats, the radio, pieces of pricier metal. The deed’s somewhere in the paperwork abandoned above. Maybe.
Doug’s and Patsy’s young volunteers sift through boxes of papers and find uncashed checks written to Margaret Massey, who bought and moved into the Drew Mansion in Springfield’s down-and-out 1970s. Linley Campbell, tattooed and long-haired, shouts and jumps up when she finds a 1976 two-dollar bill.
Back down on the red-and-white checkered floor of the hexagonal and crenellated porch, Doug smokes a cigarette and Patsy refuses to step too close to the “Black Hole of Calcutta,” which spans out across the floor above the basement.
Walking up and down the main staircase and the servants’ back stairs, I remember T.S. Eliot’s lines from “Ash Wednesday.”
“At the first turning of the second stair / I turned and saw below / The same shape twisted on the banister / Under the vapour in the fetid air / Struggling with the devil of the stairs who wears / The deceitul face of hope and of despair.”
And I remember l’esprit d’escalier, the notion of the haunting of stairs, and of the perfect response recalled too long afterward. Patsy’s and Doug’s and Michael Bourre’s response to this strange collapsing house came just in time. If the Drew Mansion’s still here in 300 years, it will be because of them.