After leading a nomadic life—24 houses in 10 years—a local writer transforms an early 1900s Thunderbolt cottage into a creative haven. Amy Paige Condon tells the tale. Photography by Richard Leo Johnson.
It’s a clear, cool night in the back yard of author Chad Faries’ home in Thunderbolt. We’ve all just come from a reading at The Book Lady Bookstore downtown, and several guests are marveling at the stars while others discuss verse with four visiting poets. We’ve brought snacks, beer, wine and whiskey to share with one another.
I’m not sure how it starts, but someone asks someone else if they’ve been up to the tree house yet. A small exodus ensues as newcomers make their way inside and up the stairs to a window that opens onto the second-floor deck. From the deck, we climb the ladder to the sturdy platform Chad built near the crown of the majestic oak that literally hugs the side of his vernacular cottage. A pirate flag attached to the deck’s railing waves in salutation. A chandelier hangs from one of the tree’s branches and casts an enchanting glow so that the brave hearts who ascended can take in a bird’s-eye view of the tightly knit neighborhood and get closer to the stars.
The Giving Tree
This towering oak caught Chad’s attention the first time he visited Savannah in 2007. He had just returned stateside after six years shuffling between Spain, Serbia and Hungary while completing his Ph.D. in English on a Fulbright Fellowship. In between interviews for a teaching position at Savannah State University, a professor asked if he would like to see a cemetery. Chad recalls the professor saying, “We have beautiful cemeteries here.”
As they wound around Bonaventure Road,Chad spotted a mighty tree with its arms around a charming, if forlorn, home. A “for sale” sign sat out front. “I thought, ‘If I get this job, this is the kind of house I want to live in,’” he recalls. He even went back for a quick second look on his way out of town.
A few weeks later, he was visiting family in Iron River, Mich., when SSU offered him the job. He accepted and then bought the house from 1,300 miles away. The next time he saw it, he was its new owner.
“I walked in and thought, ‘Oh no!’” Chad says, speaking in an indelible “Yooper” accent courtesy of his Upper Peninsula upbringing. “It needed a lot more work than I planned on.”
Where the Sidewalk Ends
The entire front door and portions of the foyer and second-floor porch were damaged by termites and needed replacing. Squirrels had built a nest, full of dry leaves and branches, in a twist of old exposed wiring that was still live. Kudzu, a lasting remnant from a time when cows grazed the property, had overtaken the back yard, choking out natural light and vegetation. Previous renovations wasted precious living space. In the middle of all that tangled vine, an illegally built guest cottage sagged under the weight of a crumbling porch.
The only finished room in the entire house was the front parlor, which had already been converted into a bedroom. It remains tucked privately behind the home’s original carved-wood sliding doors, which Chad has since refinished. Registered as a rentable room through Airbnb.com, it is often used by touring authors as a place to lay their weary heads.
Although an exhaustive redo was not part of his original plan,Chad settled in for the long overhaul. He had worked his way through graduate school in Milwaukee by renovating Victorian mansions as part of Community Builders, a unique co-op of tradesmen who had left other professions such as law, academia and finance. He learned how to roof, frame walls and doorways, and level floors.
“Good problem-solving stuff,” he observes. “I got good at fixing things. I was happy to use those skills here.”
Over the next five years,Chad enlisted the help of literary and artist pals he met through volunteering with nonprofits, such as DEEP and The Unchained Tour. Novelist Adam Davies did a lot of heavy lifting and provided moral support. The Moth founder George Dawes Greene donated a team of raconteurs to hammer nails while Chad was occupied with getting The Unchained Tour’s broken-down Bluebird bus operational. Mechanical whiz Justin Shapiro helped construct the tree house, and another writer friend, Robert Firth, came for a visit and stayed, paying rent through sweat equity.
Together,Chad and his tribe painted walls, stripped and refinished wood, and hung windows, often working into the wee hours of the morning. The elaborate and colorful compass rose adorning the kitchen floor is the result of one of those late-night sessions.
“I thought about turning the house into a nonprofit to teach poetry and carpentry,” Chad muses.
A Light in the Attic
Instead,Chad created an utterly singular space, reflective of his personal journey to find a place to call home after inhabiting 24 houses in the first decade of his life. He captured that quest with unflinching honesty and humor in his first memoir, Drive Me Out of My Mind (Emergency Press, 2011).
Using a stash of one-by-fours and mahogany trim purchased from Mo’s Discount Lumber and Salvage on West Bay Street, Chad infused the 1980s sunroom addition with rough-hewn authenticity. He removed the drop ceiling to reveal rustic beams painted haint blue, which he covered in polyurethane to seal and protect. A small transom cut from colored glass by a friend hangs above the back door.
He also removed the ceiling in the kitchen, exposing warm wooden trusses from which he hung pendant lights fashioned from Mason jars. He installed skylights to bring in an abundance of natural light. The leftover mahogany trim now enlivens stock cabinets from Home Depot. Tongue-and-groove bead board, salvaged from a wall he tore down to open the kitchen to the main living area, has a new purpose as facing for a rolling cupboard. Vintage stained and leaded glass, most discovered at yard sales or on eBay, appears in the kitchen and in doors and windows throughout the house.
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Making use of every available inch of space,Chad created built-ins above doorways, in corners, underneath the stairway and in alcoves to hold his vinyl, motorcycle helmet and cowboy boot collections. Totems of his personal story—owl knickknacks, a Green Lantern ring, a Spiderman and a Barbie doll—pepper shelves heavy with books.
The second-floor landing has been fashioned into a peaceful reading nook, where Chad crafted shelves from tongue-and-groove siding to hold his 20-volume collection of the 1911 edition of The Children’s Book of Knowledge. Letterpress books he’s gathered at writing conferences lie across the top of a vintage green chest.
Chad’s office, where he grades papers and composes poetry, leads to his favorite writing spot, the second-floor porch overlooking Bonaventure Road. Late at night when it’s quiet, Chad retires here to work on the second and third books in his trilogy of memoirs that chronicle his unsteady and unorthodox youth.
Just above his writing space is Chad’s inner sanctum. The attic he finished as his bedroom offers the same worldview as the tree house. From his third-floor window, we can see the pirate flag snapping in the wind.
Chad, who knows a thing or two about what makes a home, says, “I’ll let you psychoanalyze me on your own. A lot of people have told me that the house makes so much more sense once they’ve read my book. It has to do with uprootedness. I was completely uprooted for my entire childhood, and now I’ve created a Peter Pan house that I will never leave.”
The Faries Stats »
Year built: 1917
Year purchased: 2007
Square footage: 2,500
Appointments: 3 bedrooms, 2 baths
Time to complete renovation: 5 years and counting
The Faries Referrals »
Designer/carpenter/electrician: Chad Faries
Lumber: Mo’s Discount Lumber and Salvage
Kitchen cabinets: Home Depot
Furniture and accessories: Owner’s collection and purchases from Bull Street Auction, eBay and area rummage sales