History in the (Re)Making

For one design-build specialist, everything old is new again.

Reclamation projects are all around us in the Bluff City. Memphians might immediately think of public buildings, warehouses, and grand old homes that outlived their original occupants and usefulness, only to be re-envisioned as new spaces for living and working. But homes with subtler pedigrees also deserve sensitive updating.

While historic restoration of a Victorian mansion or a 1950s rancher requires a vast budget and a desire to take a building back to its past — with every last detail — historic renovation provides another option. A building can change and grow, while remaining true to the bones and spirit of the building.

Garland Sullivan heads a design-build company specializing in giving old homes — and forsaken materials — new life. Sullivan salvages old building materials and details like molding, window frames, and flooring to preserve the character of older homes when making an addition to the original structure. The right materials make modern upgrades feel more organic. "We spend quite a bit of time searching out antiques that are architectural, like doors, pediments, and moldings that have come off a house that's a hundred years old," he says. "We want additions to look like they've been there."

In business since 1992, Sullivan's work is in such demand that he screens clients before accepting a job. "If someone comes to me and says, 'We want to sell this [house] in a year, and just want to add this bathroom as cheap as we can,' I don't do that," he says.

Much in the meticulous way that Sullivan designs new additions faithful to old buildings, he carefully assembled an "educated, conscientious staff that cares about what's going to happen to a home we're working on ten years from now."

In a renovation job, they'll research the vintage of the home, and try to channel past owners. To Sullivan's thinking, a railroad worker and his family living in a cottage would not have installed marble kitchen countertops. He tries to make decisions that fit the surroundings. Sullivan explains that while some of the work is a repetition of moldings and casings already present in the home, the art is in comprehending and applying the aesthetics of the past. "For instance, pine floors were thought to be a secondary product to oak. So they'd put oak in the living room, but pine in the kitchen," he says.

Sullivan also recasts vintage materials in new roles. "A couple of the houses I've done lately have flooring in them that was cut from the ceiling beams of cotton gins in Bogalusa, Louisiana," he says.

Sullivan credits this historical sensibility to his personal connection to the past. "My grandmother in Meridian, Mississippi, was into antiques," he says. "She was born in 1901, and she taught me about elegance and Southern architecture."

His grandmother also taught him that "you've got to choose the proper ingredients," he says, though they aren't always of local origin. Some of Sullivan's creations revive pieces of another architecturally rich Southern city. "We've bought some antique doors in Memphis, but for the most part we purchase material from a company in New Orleans that specializes in antique architectural products," he explains.

Memphis' large historic districts and tree-lined suburbs are some of the city's greatest assets. They'll change to suit the needs of a modern population, but their character doesn't have to.

As Sullivan says, "There's goodness in simple things."

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