One North Mississippi couple spent the past three years restoring a turn-of-the-century home in Como. It is just the latest in a long line of old homes the Marsh family has remodeled.
They moved into their first “project” house in Louisville, Ky., in 1983 and have been restoring homes together ever since.
“From 1983 until probably 1999, we bought old homes and flipped them,” said David Marsh. “We didn’t go much further outside a one block restoration area called Cherokee Triangle and the first home we lived in, we remodeled it and realized we could sell it and make a pretty good profit.”
Remodeling the home they lived in became a hobby for Marsh and his wife McGehee, who at the time had a geodesic dome business. Marsh said they enjoyed working on the domes but didn’t want to live in one themselves.
“We just kind of came to it initially in the ‘80s and ‘90s and it’s something we’ve enjoyed doing and have always done together,” Marsh said. “What’s been great about this partnership is that she and I have this as a hobby – we both enjoy doing it.”
When they buy a project home, Marsh said his wife goes through the house creating a vision of what it will look like.
“She’ll come up with the ideas and I do a lot of the execution and we do a lot of it together,” he said. “It’s something we’ve both cherished and it’s been a great part of our 41-year marriage.”
The couple is unique in that they move into the house before they remodel it.
“It’s great living in the house you’re working on,” Marsh said. “What we do first is repaint and redecorate whatever has to be done to the master bedroom because you have to have a room you can escape to. If you’re going to totally destroy the inside of your house, you have to have a place to retreat to.”
The Marshes moved into the 1902 Queen Victorian house in Como three years ago and began their remodeling process from the master bedroom out.
“(Living in the house) is very comforting because you really get to know the house, and every house is different but every house we’ve worked on will tell you what needs to get done,” Marsh said.
The house on Sycamore Street, at the end of Como’s quaint downtown, sits among old oaks. The house’s third story turret gives it a mysterious quality, as if someone is watching as you pass by.
In the great room of the Como house, one of the things about the restoration that stands out is a section of old wallpaper left above the mantle.
“It’s hard to tell sometimes whether a house is haunted or not,” Marsh said. “I’m not sure how to gauge that. We’ve lived in three of the five that I would say probably had spirits in them, so one of the things that McGehee and I do, if we start in a room – generally one with a fireplace – over the mantle we’ll do a lot of restoration on the wallpaper in there and leave it intact.We do that because we think that if there are spirits that still live in the house, they will be pleased with us doing this restoration work but honored by us leaving the original house intact as they have known it.”
Four rooms of their latest renovation have pieces of the original wallpaper.
Marsh doesn’t talk about keeping the spirits happy like a man who is haunted or especially convicted. He talks about it like it’s a courtesy he would expect if someone decided to repaint his living room.
Before moving into the Como house, the Marshes farmed in Montgomery County, Ky., for eight years, raising freshwater prawn, cattle and tobacco.
The house they worked on in Kentucky was built in 1855.
“The house itself was extremely well built – three layers thick brick, two story, metal roof,” Marsh said. “As I was working on it, I was in the basement and I knew there was an old furnace we didn’t use. The previous owner had put in geothermal wells. Behind this behemoth-looking furnace I found a door that led to a second room in the basement that we didn’t know was there. It had a dirt floor in it and a set of stairs that went to the outside of the house and the front porch that had been added about 1910, covered the stairway. That started putting chill bumps in me and made me ask questions.”
After consulting the local historical society, Marsh found out the home was a stop on the Underground Railroad. “We didn’t do much to that room because it was obvious it was a hallowed place,” he said. “This was a house we often felt the presence of other spirits in, but they were all friendly and never felt harmed.”
Marsh started working with his hands at a young age, growing up on a farm outside of Memphis.
“We had a large workshop and my dad never held us back from letting us build or do whatever we wanted to, including learning to weld,” he said. “It’s always been a natural thing – if I wanted to build something – to go build and do it. I do think a lot of people are doing restoration and DIY type of people find they enjoy it and it’s not as hard as it may seem. Home Depot and Lowe’s have made this a lot easier because there are lots of self-help types of things to do things, and people are amazed they can do it.”
The Marshes sold their Como house and aren’t sure what’s next.
“We are debating if we’ll work on another right now,” Marsh said. “Do we want to take on another project or maybe take a breather?” Either way, he said they will most likely move closer to Memphis where his wife works as senior counsel for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Photos by Phillip Waller // Story by JB Clark