Old Porter house getting new life on Wesleyan College campus

To put it simply, there wouldn’t be a Wesleyan College in Macon today without the contributions of James Hyde Porter.

In the 1930s, it was Porter, while serving on the college’s board of trustees, who helped guide Wesleyan through the Great Depression when it was nearly bankrupt. Porter not only put up his own money to keep Wesleyan going, he also challenged other businessmen to do the same.

Besides three buildings on campus already named for Porter and his wife, Olive, Wesleyan is in the process of rescuing Porter’s former getaway cottage from his farm in south Bibb County by moving the house next to campus and restoring it as closely as possible to its original state.

Rick Maier, Wesleyan’s chief financial officer, said the Porter house will serve as a memorial for Porter, as well as having its own function for the college.

“Everyone on campus is really excited,” Maier said. “We’re going to use the great room as a meeting space, and in the caretaker’s part, we’ll house VIP guests.”

The house itself played an important role in college life, Maier said. Each spring, the Porters would host Wesleyan students for a party on the farm where the cottage was located.

The idea of saving the Porter house started nearly three years ago. Josh Rogers, then-executive director of Historic Macon, learned that the old house was falling apart and the church that owned it, Porterfield Baptist Church, was considering tearing it down.

The house was already in poor condition and a tree had fallen through the roof, making the structure unusable.

Rogers, now president and CEO of NewTown Macon, persuaded the church’s board to consider other options, and he eventually found willing partners in Wesleyan and Porter’s own foundation to move the house to Tucker Road, adjacent to the campus, where the college already owns other properties.

“The church called an emergency meeting of its trustees,” Rogers said. “None of them wanted to tear it down. I asked them to give me a couple of months. The trust was immediately interested. It was just a matter of figuring out how to make it happen.”

Much of the house’s foundation had rotted away because of water and termite damage, and moving the house more than 10 miles was a tricky proposition. Officials needed permission from the Georgia Department of Transportation, and power lines would have to be moved.

Eventually, the company hired to move the house decided to cut it into two sections as well as remove the roof.

Because the remaining roof tiles were clay with a specific look to them, builder Rusty Poss of R.C. Poss General Contractors had the tiles individually numbered so they can be reused when the house is put back together. That’s also the case with the curved bricks created to form a rounded, turret-like structure in the front section of the house.

‘Original as it can be’

Poss, whose company specializes in the restoration and preservation of historic properties, said the idea is to use as many of the original materials as possible. However, he said his workers seem to find new damage to parts of the house almost daily.

“There’s a lot of termite damage and rot,” he said. “We put a lot of bracing in so we could make the move. ... It was much more different because of the state it was in. Now it’s on a new foundation, and we can start with our list of repairs.

“We want it to be as original as it can be. When we build it back, we’ll use as many original materials as we can.”

The house’s deterioration wasn’t the only thing to contend with. Thanks to record rainfall in 2013, workers had to continually push back the moving dates and laying the new foundation because the ground was too wet. The move had originally been set for May or June, but weather pushed it back to last November.

Gene Dunwody Sr., one of the architects working on the project, is the son of the original architect, W. Elliott Dunwody Jr. Dunwody noted that his father’s own house and the Porter house were built within a year of each other and have many of the same design features.

The refurbished house “will have modern heating and cooling, but we’ll try to maintain the character of the house,” Dunwody said. “It’s been a challenge.”

Though Porter and his wife had no children, other members of the Porter family already have donated artifacts for the house, besides those Porter himself donated to Wesleyan after his death, Maier said.

Because of the weather delays, Maier said it’s impossible to know the exact timeline or cost for completing the project. For now, the estimated cost is about $500,000, with a completion time of late summer, depending on the weather and if any further damage is found. The Porter Foundation is paying for the work.

Once the house is completed, Maier said landscape architect Wimberly Treadwell will come in to shape the exterior. In addition, a road will be built from the back of the house to the campus.

Rogers said when the work is finished, the house will benefit the whole community.

“I think it’s a win-win-win for everyone,” he said. “The church is happy that it didn’t have to tear it down, and the house gets saved. I think it’s a big success for everyone.”

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.