by Pamela Franklin Jones
Twenty-two years ago, on a gloomy fall UT game day, we began house hunting in Knoxville, Tennessee. We were looking for a family home in a neighborhood with sidewalks and a large garden.
Although the realtor had put some thought and effort into showing us some houses, it soon became apparent that they were not what we had in mind. After a long fruitless search that day, we retreated to the motel and talked about our options. Glancing through a local free paper, we found in the room which had a few classified listings, a For Sale notice spanning two columns caught our attention. It advertised a handyman’s dream, and there was a picture of the house which looked as if it had potential. An open house was set for 12 o’clock the next day, which was Sunday, when we would be returning to our hometown in South Carolina.
The next day, we drove to the open house hoping to be admitted early due to the fact that we had a long drive home that day. The morning drizzle had turned into a heavy cold rain, but we were anxious to check out the house before we left Knoxville. The mansion, for it was a mansion, was in a rather rundown area but close to I-40 and in a neighborhood with sidewalks. Knocking on the door, it was opened by the owner, but we were not admitted because she was still in the midst of staging the rooms. We had to cool our heels in the local McDonald’s for an hour or so, and then drove back to the property.
Having bought and sold several properties in the past, this was easily the most astonishing viewing ever. It was raining outside, but it was also raining inside! In almost every room, containers were placed to catch the leaks. A veritable waterfall was pouring from an upstairs bathroom through the dining room ceiling and making its way to the basement. It was very dim, and rather a rabbit warren, because the house had been subdivided to make a total of nine apartments. We tried not to exchange glances as the children ran excitedly upstairs already choosing their bedrooms. One had a balcony, one a huge wall mirror, one a roof deck and its own bathroom, but without exception, every room had holes in the roof with damp rotting plaster falling down to the floor. There were large gaps in the floorboards which had been attacked by termites, and we had to walk carefully. There were doors which had swollen shut and could not be opened, there were horrifying bathrooms and really disgusting kitchens . . . but we could all see the potential for this tired old place.
Later, we discovered that the city had tried to demolish it at least once, and had also attempted to sell it at auction but were unsuccessful. However, on that day of our viewing it for the first time, I stood at a kitchen window and gazed out at the jungle of undergrowth and trees that was the buffer between us and the back road and knew that I wanted to buy this house.
When we finally corralled the children and left to start our drive home, it soon appeared that we were all of one accord. We could see the potential, and although this would be our biggest renovation project yet, we were confident we could do it.
After some negotiation with the seller and against the advice of our lawyer, we eventually closed on the property and then spent three months in an apartment waiting for the house to be rewired and replumbed and brought up to code.
Twenty-two years and two roofs later, we have a history with the Dunn Mansion. It has excelled our expectations in every way. It is indeed a wonderful family home, and we have made it our own. It will always require work as any old house does.
Apparently, some previous tenants believed that we acquired some ghosts with the house and would return on our first Hallowe’en to request a tour of their previous apartment. We did certainly have some occupants in the guise of hundreds of pigeons living in the attic who would leave in the mornings and return with a rush of wings at night until we sealed the holes and evicted them. If the ghosts are here, they are friendly ghosts. For a long time the floors were impossible to get clean because of the coal dust that had filled all the cracks. Nothing was quite as bad as the rats that apparently lived in the rear bank and had the run of the place for years. They were quite used to humans and very bold, even sitting behind a plate on the dresser eating their supper whilst we were eating our supper at the table!
Regardless, we have faced every hurdle and solved it together and have not shirked the work that it took to save this house. It has been a labor of love. There are still many tasks to complete and some to begin over again but this is home. No regrets!