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No one knew until now what was behind the old paneling and drop ceiling at the old Friendly Wig Shop in downtown Elizabeth City.
Jeff and Valerie Mitchell did not know what secrets were hidden in the 132-year-old building at 106 Poindexter St. before they began rehab about a year ago. The Elizabeth City couple ran into surprises even after two structural engineers checked it out.
"You just don't know until you start tearing out walls and floors that have to be moved," said Jeff Mitchell, a 57-year-old financial adviser.
The Brothers-Long Building, circa 1885, was home to many businesses: grocery store, jewelry shop, savings and loan. There are even tales that the upstairs was a brothel at one point. By the time it became the Friendly Wig Shop in the 1970s, the building had undergone many changes.
The restoration job was a little like peeling away the layers of an onion, said Mitchell.
Beneath the paneling, construction workers found stamped tin, dating back to around 1914, and remnants of wallpaper even older than that. The tin had a raised fleur-de-lis design with decorative arches that had tarnished with age and water damage. Mitchell originally wanted to preserve the patina finish but abandoned the idea because of its uneven color and delicate condition.
The Mitchells wanted to save the building's historic character, so they searched for ways to salvage the stamped tin as a wall covering. In the Victorian era, the machine-made construction material was considered more economical than plaster.
Refinishing the tin posed a problem, however. "There's no rule book for doing something like that," said Mitchell.
He researched a couple of different methods online, including a dry ice blast, that might clean off the finish without damaging the tin. Eventually, local contractor Ron Hazelton discovered a place in downtown Norfolk, Va., called The Strip Joint, that specializes in restoring old wood and metal products. Hazelton removed the tin in two-foot sections and trucked it to Norfolk for stripping. The wall covering was then re-installed.
The end result is stunning. Tall walls are covered in a white, textured relief of stylized flowers and arches at the entrance. The look is accented by extra-wide chair railing, stained dark, in Victorian-era fashion.
The ornate ceiling overhead was another hidden find.
The drop ceiling at the Friendly Wig Shop covered up a detailed pattern of crown moldings and 2-by-2 panels with floral design. The whole ceiling was covered with it, but in many places, it was damaged beyond repair.
The Mitchells and collaborators came up with the idea of piecing together what was salvageable to use in the downstairs entryway. The job was like fitting together a puzzle. They laid out pieces of ceiling on the Mitchells' lawn, figured out how to fit them together, and took pictures. The construction crew then moved the pieces to the building and patched them together on the vaulted ceiling. The end result is a complex pattern of moldings at the entrance. At one time, a similar design covered the entire ceiling of the 1,200-square-foot first floor.
The Mitchells hosted an open house during the First Friday Art Walk on Feb. 2 and displayed before-and-after photos of the building's transformation. They have already rented the upstairs, which was turned into an apartment. The downstairs is redesigned as office space with large reception area, two offices, kitchenette, restroom and work stations -- all equipped to meet modern standards.
"Feedback from the community has been really positive," said Mitchell. "There's a growing sense of pride in downtown, and I think the public really wants to see more things like this happen."
The historic rehab turned out to be more complex than a typical remodel because it involves custom work and ordering from specialty suppliers, said Mitchell.
"Demolition has to be slow and careful not to damage historically important features of the building. Materials have to match or closely resemble what is being replaced during repairs and rebuilt features," he said.
The Mitchells chose the more complex, and expensive, route because of the building's historical significance and because of their love for downtown, they said.
"We wanted to be part of downtown revitalization, and this building seemed to have a lot of promise," said Mitchell.
Mitchell credits the project's success to lots of specialists, historians and local subcontractors. Contributors included restoration specialist Reid Thomas with the state Historical Preservation Office and local historian Edward Fearing. Their neighbor Brett Boslau re-designed the floor plan.
Grant Burgess, a local brick mason, did his homework to match historic masonry features upstairs, noted Mitchell. The mortar was mixed with tobacco juice, tea, and/or swamp water (Mitchell could not remember which) to match the original color.
Valerie Mitchell said her goal was to make the 1,200-square-foot upstairs a place where she would want to live while keeping its historic character. The apartment contains its original maple hardwood floors, some brick walls, and even glass-panel doors.
The outside of the building is dramatically different from its days as the Friendly Wig Shop.
The Mitchells discovered the original entrance to the building when tearing out the 1970s-style facade. Two iron columns, originally on the exterior, were hidden inside the building, encased in aluminum.
Now the iron columns are a symbol of what was once hidden inside the building.
They have become the signature feature on the exterior after the Mitchells restored the original entrance. The pillars were scraped, primed and painted a Rookwood Blue Green, along with the petite trim -- all reminiscent of one early layer from the building's past.