Preserving A Historic Small Town One Cottage At A Time

Renovated cottage in Norris Tennessee
Oak Road Cottage in Norris TN
Renovated cottage in Norris Tennessee

Regina Merritt's sense of style gives new life to these cottages from the past.

 By Stacy Williams

Her paint-splattered brown boots and dusty long-sleeve shirt have their own story to tell. Regina Merritt knows the meaning of hard work, and she likes to get her hands dirty. But don't be fooled by her apparel. She expresses a fresh, sophisticated style through the art of home restoration.

Apart from her pink floral-rimmed glasses and thin ribbon in her hair, there is little about Regina's appearance that divulges her flair for home décor and love for cottage living. Her passion for preserving old houses in the small community of Norris, Tennessee, however, is obvious. And although the finished homes speak for themselves, it's just as gratifying to see Regina beam as she talks about them.

"I used to come to Norris in the summers when I was a kid, and I knew this was where I wanted to live as an adult," she said, "But it wasn't until around 1990 that I realized what a gem Norris was."

When she and her husband Jeff moved to Norris in 1982, Regina was working for a Knoxville electrical supply company. After finishing some renovations on their Norris home, she realized how much she enjoyed the planning, prepping and painting. When the cottage across the street went up for sale, Regina decided to purchase that house and renovate it as well. 

Interior following renovation of Norris cottageNearly 15 years and 12 restorations later, Regina's business idea has become a veritable family affair aptly named Merritt Properties. Regina still heads the business, and is responsible for most of the home design, dealing with the real estate agent and just about every last detail involved in home restoration.

Jeff installs flooring, tiling and siding. Regina's parents, Richard and Mary Hutcheson, have played equally supportive roles in their daughter's enterprise, and have taken time off from their respective careers to help. Back in 2007, Richard took a leave of absence from work to help Regina finish a project and has yet to return. Regina endearingly refers to him as "the problem solver," and plans  to keep him onboard.

During the day, you can usually find Mary at Archer's, the local grocery, where she works as a cashier. When she gets off work, she heads over to help the family meet deadlines, sanding doors and stripping wainscoting until her fingers are so raw they don't even leave a print, says Regina.

According to the Merritt business card, the mission is to restore each cottage to its original charm and character using recycled original materials to make "old houses into new homes."

The town of Norris was founded in 1933 as a model community for Tennessee Valley Authority workers who were building nearby Norris Dam. Primarily, the homes consisted of a collection of small cottages that, today, sit on lots fronting a network of winding, tree-lined streets. 

Today, its residents are dedicated to a sense of community and neighborhood tradition, and the city remains a prime example of the merits of cottage living.

The layout and structure of the houses, as well as the town's unique master plan with its curvilinear streets and open green spaces, make it unique, as compared to most other small towns in East Tennessee. Regina has always been attracted to the way the houses are nestled within the landscape, and she's not the only one.

"The houses here look like they are chatting with one another," Kentucky resident Sherry Faulconer told writer Robert Strauss of The New York Times, which recently featured Norris in its Great Homes & Destinations section.  Faulconer and her husband last year purchased a cottage and use it for weekend visits with their grandchildren.

While these homes may be considered young by architectural standards, many have seen better days. Sometimes it's a rusted out damper in the old wood fireplace, and sometimes the exterior siding has rotted. No matter the damage, the Merritt family restores everything to pristine condition. On average, they have been able to finish a restoration in about eight months.

"Before I start a project, Jeff and I go in and remove all of the original moldings, doors, hardware, wainscoting, light fixtures and plumbing fixtures," Regina says.

These items are then labeled and stored to be re-used in the finished product. This is the first of the multi-phased restoration.

The most distinguishable feature of a renovated Merritt Property cottage is its stained Stained glass window in one of Regina's renovated Norris cottagesglass windows, which illuminate Regina's passion for art, craftsmanship and character. Her color schemes and design plans revolve around these pieces, and she calls her them her signature.  

"I build the house around the glass," she says matter-of-factly.

She is very selective about her glass, making sure that each piece is hand-made. She is a frequent customer at The Antique Warehouse in Blue Ridge, Georgia and Log Cabin Antiques in Charleston, Tennessee,  both of which import most of their glassware from England. Once the glass is chosen, the real work begins.

Each restoration includes a complete insulation, plumbing and climate control makeover. Most Norris cottages were originally fitted with precarious wall heaters, courtesy of TVA, and they are the first things to go. Rewiring these aged homes is also necessary for safety reasons.

"Working in the utility industry, I've seen first-hand what bad wiring can do," she says.

With a gutted interior and updated structure under their belts, the Merritts move on to the bigger projects. If needed, new additions are built, the exterior siding is restored.  Then it's time to refurbish the floors, wainscoting and windows.

Ideally, Regina would love to restore and reuse the original hardwood floors of the house, but often the flooring is reinstalled as a combination of original and new pieces. All the homes finished by Merritt Properties have hardwood floors, typically a clear heart pine or a lighter red oak.

Creating bright open spaces into the snug cottage interiors is the next step, and sometimes creates a challenge because the walls and floors were often made of dark, solid wood.

"I like things to be light and airy," Regina says, but if the heart pine flooring is in good shape, she will keep and refurbish it.

Providing more natural light is essential in these small homes. This is where the stained glass comes in. Although the glass pieces themselves are small (usually no bigger than a doormat), installing these windows in the upstairs spaces and bathrooms provides light and privacy.

 Study in renovated Norris cottageBath in Norris cottageFeb2009Issue/109wnorris_doorway.jpg


Regina often converts the less-functional casement style window into a slider window. Sliders are more versatile, she confides, and leave space for outdoor shrubbery around the perimeter of the house. 

The "rough-in" phase commences when the electricians and heat and air contractors arrive, followed by priming, painting and refinishing the walls and floors. Next, the Merritts install molding, cabinets, light fixtures and anything else one might consider the ‘meat and potatoes' of remodeling. 

When it comes to fitting an original door to a different home, Regina is adamant about the proper sealing. She uses dental tools when stripping the old paint off and then has  the doors professionally re-jambed with new weather striping and threshold at a millwork shop. Along with doors, the house is also dressed with new fixtures in the bathroom and appliances in the kitchen.

Finally, the focus shifts outdoors and to Regina's favorite phase of the process: landscape design. As a dedicated 12-year member of the Norris Tree Commission, she is knowledgeable about native plants and believes good soil goes a long way. Beginning with flowering shrubs, usually hydrangeas or azaleas, the space is then filled in with evergreen shrubbery and perennials.

"My overall goal is to design a landscape that has year-round interest," Regina says.

And thanks to Jeff, the most recent property designs incorporate retaining walls, stone walkways and wooden lattices.

The final phase has been dubbed "the punch list," and Regina admits that everyone dreads these detailed touch-ups because the list is perpetually accumulating tasks.

"We will get a couple of things finished on the list and, then,  because I just want everything to be perfect,  I will think of three more things to add."

Merritt restorations can readily be identified by the polished charm of the front yard. Whether it is an antique fixture embedded in the covered stoop or a set of curved stairs leading to the welcome mat, the designs have an extraordinary, yet familiar, quality about them. 

Since ownership of many Norris homes is passed down through generations of families, Kitchen in renovated Norris cottagethere are always stories to be saved. As a way of retaining the home's history, the Merritts began a unique tradition of assembling a time capsule for each home, which they store behind the mantle or staircase.

Anything found in the home during the restoration process is fair game. The Merritts always include a personal letter and current newspapers. To continue the home's narrative, the new homeowners are also invited to contribute a letter.

"At 58 Pine Place [the cottage currently being renovated], Jeff found two love letters from longtime resident Jerry Crossno's mother and father before they were married. One letter led us to believe it was written the week before their marriage on Christmas Day," Regina said.

The Crossnos were most likely one of the first families in Norris, and there are at least three generations still living in town. Preserving these personal artifacts is the Merritts' way of protecting the historical integrity of the home and also the community history in which Norris thrives.

And even though Regina herself is not originally from Norris, she has found comfort and support from the community. Norris residents have responded positively to Regina's restoration efforts, and several have generously supplied her business with a variety of original Norris fixtures and hardware.

When long-time Norris resident Linda Fields saw Regina's current project on Pine Place Circle, she contacted Regina about contributing to the renovation. She offered an old twelve-light original door that had belonged to her mother, and to Regina's delight, its features matched the original existing front door of the house.

As Regina throws a stick for Pine Place Circle's neighborhood dog, a friendly Jack Russell named Chipper, she explains her appreciation for the Southern hospitality they've received during their work.

"We have received homemade breads, cookies, brownies, even fruit smoothies when the heat is on," Regina said.

Although the deflated economy and unsteady housing market are a concern, the majority of Merritt restorations have attracted potential buyers before the homes were completed. But with more projects on the horizon, this family team can't lose sleep worrying about buyers. They plan to begin work on their next Norris home early this summer.

She says that the homeowner's excitement is one of the most gratifying things about her job. Her goal is to make the residents' transition into their new "old" home as seamless as possible.

"I want the new homeowners to be able to hang up their clothes, place furniture and not have to do anything but enjoy."


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Stacy Williams, our roving editor, is relocating to Washington, D.C.,where we hope that she will continue to provide us with her viewpoint on the lifestyles, art and cuisine that she encounters. You can also follow her ramblings on her ongoing blog,  Stacy's Morning Coffee.

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