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"What good is a brand-new building?”

That may seem like an odd question for a general contractor to put to a potential client, but it’s one of the first things that Nathan Harbison, vice president of Atlanta-based Macallan Construction, asked officials for the city of Dahlonega, Georgia, as part of a bid to restore and preserve the Head House. Built in 1909 using wood salvaged from the city’s 1841 Baptist Church, the house served as the home office for local physician Dr. Homer Head, as well as the city’s first hospital and as a dormitory for male cadets at North Georgia College, among other uses.

“They could have built the whole project with new materials for half the price,” Harbison says. “But then, you just have another disposable building with a 25-year lifespan that you bulldoze and then build something else.”

Macallan specializes in adaptive reuse and historic preservation, so Harbison is no stranger to articulating the value of spending money to give the past new life—something that Dahlonega, which earned the Preserve America Communities designation from the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation in 2008, believes in, too. It’s why the city bought the home for $475,000 in 2018.

“The feel, smell and appearance of an original historic building and its materials are not replicable in new construction,” says Joel Cordle, a board member of the Dahlonega Downtown Development Authority and Main Street Program. “The existing building is not a memory of a lost structure. Instead, it is a large, solid, iconic entity that residents and visitors are familiar with—a landmark and a constant in the community.”

Jacking Up and Moving

The two-story, 2,399-square-foot, early-American traditional home—located just one block from Main Street—is familiar to everyone in Dahlonega. But, still, the Head House may be prompting double-takes these days, because it isn’t exactly where it used to be. The building was sitting on a crumbling, stacked-stone foundation, so restoring it meant jacking it up off the ground. Then, rather than setting the house back down in its original location, Macallan took advantage of the opportunities created by those foundation problems.

Moving the house just 50 feet to the west offers the potential to add on to its back side, including a commercial kitchen—a key benefit, as the city may use the space as a restaurant. In addition to the enhanced functionality, the new location offers another benefit: It looks better. “The move allowed us to line the house up with the front facades of all the other houses along the street,” Harbison says. “It ties in all those houses that were built in that same era and makes the street more aesthetically pleasing.”

The end result may look like a postcard from a simpler time, but the move—which involved a team of 20 people, including structural engineers, city officials and eight crew members from a local house-moving company—included one serious complication. While a typical move would have involved sliding two 60- to 80-foot I-beams underneath the house to carry the load, the configuration of the neighborhood didn’t allow for a 60-foot beam.

“[The house mover] did what a house mover does not ever want to do,” Harbison says. “He cut two of his beams in two, slid them under and then rebolted them together. That was the only way we could get them under and get them out after the move.” 

‘Save As Much As You Can’

Once the house was on its new plot of land, Macallan approached the work with a clear philosophy. “When you go into a project like this,” Harbison says, “you want to save as much as you can.”

Between the original elements and updates from a renovation in the 1960s, Harbison’s team is managing to retain much of what makes the property so special, including approximately 90% of the exterior siding, much of the flooring, the living-room mantle and window frames. For those elements that have met the end of their run, Macallan is working to rebuild them with the same sense of care that went into the original structure. “Unfortunately, the window sashes had been changed out a couple times over the years,” Harbison says, “but we went back and rebuilt them [to be] historically accurate in size and materials.”

As work has continued, the project has revealed more reasons to appreciate the past. “Today’s houses are built with a framing crew and a trim crew—two different sets of carpenters,” Harbison says. “Houses [like the Head House] were built by carpenters that could frame it and do the finishes. They were very good. That kind of craftsmanship is something we really love to uncover and preserve.”

Originally slated to be finished in July, the project encountered the same supply-chain hiccups that have plagued the entire industry. At press time, the timeline had been adjusted to the end of September, and the initial budget of $1 million had increased to $1.2 million—a sizable jump from the $53.11 that Dr. Head paid to salvage the wood from the church more than a century earlier. However, city leaders are confident that the extra time and money will be worth it.

“The Head House will undoubtedly serve many roles in the coming years but will always stand as remarkable preservation of a historic building in a small community,” Dahlonega Mayor JoAnne Taylor says. “Maybe one day it will be filled with a family, an art museum or a space we can’t even imagine today with future technologies. Walking through the rooms, it might be possible to be immersed in a virtual-reality history of the home, touching on its many residents and uses over the years. Who knows?”

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