WALKER – Aaron Ellis has faced judges and juries in courts of law, but when he faced the “old Wesley House,” he wasn’t sure of the verdict.
After a year of renovation, repair and research, Ellis has opened his law office in what is the oldest documented house in Walker.
And he’s got the owner’s signature to prove it. From 1909.
A ribbon-cutting recently celebrated the restoration of the house at 13371 Burgess Ave. and Ellis opening his law office in it, while also welcoming TWRU CPAs & Financial Advisors to share space.
“I’m glad we were able to save it,” Ellis said of the house, a New Orleans-style double shotgun.
He likened it to “playing the lottery,” when he first examined what most people would have called the remains of a house.
Ellis said he had no idea what condition the house was in, what parts were rotted and what parts were good. It took almost a year to renovate it.
Ellis said he once expressed an interest in buying the house, but nothing came of it and the house sat for 10 years. Then one day he got a call on a Tuesday and was asked if he wanted to buy it that Friday.
“I’ve known this house my whole life,” Ellis said. “I was hopeful we could salvage it. It had good bones.”
Those bones were hidden by years of neglect and damage.
In 2008, Hurricane Gustave knocked down a tree into the back of the house, shearing off the rear and exposing the inside to the elements for the next 10 years. Layers of bird and animal feces also had to be removed from the attic before it could be sanitized and resealed.
But both Ellis and contractor Jim Kennedy agreed the floor and foundation were solid.
The goal was to bring it back to its original style, removing wallpaper and sheetrock, “peeling it back layer by layer. It was a slow process,” Ellis said.
“There’s a few old buildings in Walker, but we can document this one to 1909,” Ellis said, who rented space for his law office for the past 10 years until he decided to play the lottery.
While putting in a transom over a door to the kitchen, on the back of a piece of lapboard was the cursive signature “T.J. Harris 1909.”
With that clue, Ellis did an abstract search and found the original owner was Henry M. Peak.
“He owned a lot of property around here and build this house,” Ellis said.
“In the 1940’s it was sold to the Wesley family and many people who grew up here called it the ‘old Wesley House,’ ” Ellis said.
The final piece of evidence Ellis could have used if this was a court case: After the wall in the now-conference room was stripped down, Peak’s signature was uncovered.
A small frame nailed to the wall sets off the signature.
In departing from its shotgun style, two doors were cut into the main wall that divided it into two residences, one only 32 inches wide to fit the relocated original front door, which boasts its original lock.
The original doors of solid mahogany were saved, while the 12-foot walls are now visible.
Kennedy worked seven months on the project that required patience and the ability to improvise.
“We saved some of the lapboard (walls) but half of it was gone,” Kennedy said. “We rescued all we could.”
No one made lapboard to fit the size needed for the walls, so Kennedy found some boards and had them cut and shaped to match the original 12-foot boards.
“You are hard-pressed to tell what is original and what is replaced when you go from room to room,” Ellis said.
In the bathroom is a section of the original ship lapboard left untouched to show what it looked like.
During the restoration, it was determined the porch was not original to the house and had been added later.
But that was not a problem.
“When we were looking at it, my son put his hand on the porch and it collapsed in a heap,” Kennedy said.
Clients seeking Ellis’s legal services will be able to see what 1909 was like in Walker due to the restoration and the period decorations.
“The community took a lot of interest as they passed by every day,” Ellis said.