Second Chance Manse
Rebirth of a historic landmark
By Deborah Salomon
Color Photography by John Gessner
Black & White Photography by Caroline Deese
Young family. Old house. The result: spectacular.
Consider this — the mansion was a wreck, with broken windows and busted walls, its 6,000 square feet strewn with trash and dusty furnishings. The most recent inhabitants were squatters, human and critter.
Creepy. A deep, dark money pit. Most house-hobbyists would run, not walk, in the other direction.
Not Abby and Trey Brothers, she from Mount Airy, he from Albemarle. Abby, a nurse, and Trey, military personnel, were living in Baltimore, preparing a move.
“It was sheer coincidence,” Abby recalls. “I was looking on Zillow for places near Fort Bragg (now Liberty). I found Cameron and zoomed out to Moore County. This was the first house listed. It was the ugliest pretty house I’d ever seen.”
Trey continues: “I saw her face light up, and I knew it was all over.”
That face lights up still at the memory. “It was the same feeling as when I knew I wanted to marry Trey,” says Abby. “You just know.”
That was 2017. Since then, they have begun to fill the six bedrooms with the arrival of William, 3, and Eloise, 8 months.
But first, a job as much period restoration as renovation, which sets this historic property apart from those with classic exteriors and magazine interiors. Its rooms have the ability to propel you back in time — but the trip is made in air-conditioned comfort.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in what became Aberdeen, Page was the name that opened doors. Allison Francis (Frank) Page, one of 10 children, saw the Sandhills as a source of naval supplies, mostly logging and turpentine. He bought land, diversified into railroads and commercial buildings, prospered, and in addition to establishing the town of Aberdeen, he and wife Catherine produced eight offspring. Several gained prominence in government, clergy and banking.
Frank Page died in 1899, after building homes for most of his children on Page Hill. Fourteen years after her father’s death, daughter Frances Page Wilder and her husband, lawyer Thomas Wilder, commissioned popular architect J.M. McMichael, who had designed the local Methodist church, to build a brick homestead outside the compound for their family of nine.
The Great Depression changed everything. The unoccupied house stood vacant for decades, smothered by vines and shrubs. Had it been clapboard rather than brick, story over.
A developer saw the house, which he christened Willow Oak Manor, as a venue for weddings. His plans proved financially impractical. The house appeared doomed.
However, beyond the shambles its aura captivated Abby and Trey. Their plan: obtain a Fannie Mae government loan and do the work themselves. Abby had helped her dad on mission trips, and Trey gained experience working construction. How-to videos and YouTube provided the rest.
“Whatever required a permit we let the contractor do,” Abby says. Which left ripping out 60 tons of plaster in the summer heat. And so much more.
Moving day, after nine months of sweat equity, came in May 2019.
At the outset, they decided to leave the layout mostly intact and keep flooring, paneling, door and window frames dark and wall colors quiet — pale olive, khaki, beige, ochre, grey.
Fronting the house, a porch with veranda proportions previews the spaciousness within, enhanced by tall windows and 12-foot ceilings.
Opposite the front door, the split staircase ornately carved and illuminated by a Phantom of the Opera-worthy chandelier elicits gasps, immediately delivering ancestral elegance, as does the triple-wide entrance hall with a parlor on one side and a study equipped with bookcases — previously kitchen cupboards — on the other.
In the parlor, a settee found in the house suggests the affluent 1920s, as do a massive wardrobe and side tables in the foyer, several dressers and the dining room buffet. Other furnishings lean modern-comfy, practical for a family raising children.
Unfortunately, chimneys had to be capped off. “We had an issue with bats,” Trey says.
Antiquity earns a bye in the main-floor master suite, where an adjoining sunporch has been converted to a spa bathroom; the glass wall wraps around a long bench facing three shower heads.
Upstairs, each child has a bed-playroom the size of master suites elsewhere. Narrow stairs lead to what was a sleeping porch, now a sitting room. Also on the third level is a small maid’s room and bath with original tub, sink and a stairway that leads directly to the kitchen, perfect for guests desiring privacy.
Ah, the kitchen, no place for old-timey anything. “I knew what I wanted — big, the open concept,” Abby says. It required removing walls to create one room from three. Now, the dining room, dominated by her grandmother’s table, is part of the kitchen. Another wall was added, creating a laundry room and pantry. New floors were required but no pricy granite, soapstone or marble countertops. Instead, Trey poured 3,000 pounds of concrete, creating a sturdy textured surface.
Outside, what was once overgrown brush has been cleared for a kiddie playground. A porte-cochère recalls times when guests arrived in elegant motor cars, long before the manor’s neighbors included businesses and tract housing.
Funny how life turns out. Abby grew up in what she calls a little brick rancher. “I never wanted to live in another brick house,” she says. Trey shared a bathroom with three sisters. Now, he has four choices. With grit and determination, Abby and Trey Brothers rescued a landmark from the wrecking ball.
Besides, Trey adds, “The house is a good conversation piece.” Like the time Abby found the initials MFP scrawled on a wall.
“A lady and her granddaughter rang the bell. She said she had lived here. I asked her if she knew who MFP was,” Abby explains.
“That’s me, Mary Frances Poe!” the lady exclaimed. “I stayed in the back bedroom.”
Mission accomplished, except for one detail. So far, Abby notes, no ghosts. PS