IT'S EASY TO COME UP WITH A LIKELY story behind this stately home in Richmond Hill, Ga. The mature oaks, aged brick, graceful white columns, and plantation location bring to mind images straight out of Gone With the Wind. Surely, this must be some antebellum mansion that's been passed down from one family member to another, lovingly cared for over the past two centuries.
Not exactly. What is now a 6,228-square-foot beauty of a home started out life as a simple, rectangular, brick building, constructed in the early 19th century to serve as a rice mill for a plantation along the Ogeechee River. In 1864, it burned during Sherman's March to the Sea and then lay abandoned for decades until auto tycoon Henry Ford acquired it and many other plantation-era structures in the 1920s. Ford used it as a private laboratory and the mechanical building for a home he constructed nearby in 1937. In the mid-1980s, a Saudi businessman bought the surviving 1,800 acres of the Ford estate and turned the rice mill into offices for his business operations. Developers, who converted the acreage into a resort community in the 1990s, used the building for their sales and marketing operations. Finally, in 2002, new owners began its transformation into a home, the first time in its 200-year history that the building would serve as a residence.
“It wasn't your typical house rehab project, for sure,” says architect Donald M. Rattner, principal of the Studio for Civil Architecture in New York. “First and foremost, we wanted to create a residence, but we wanted it done in a way that would capture the unique history of the place while still allowing for a completely new use.”
Rattner's biggest move was the addition of a two-story galleried front portico, which was intended to elevate the building to a more classic aesthetic, give it a true entrance, and tie it more strongly to the original Henry Ford house, which is just across the oak alley. To improve the building's proportions, rooflines over the two-story section were regularized into a continuous gable. Inside, the building was mostly gutted, but, where possible, original brickwork was exposed and cleaned.
“Inside, we wanted to develop a more intimate human scale,” says Rattner. “People want to be comfortable and not overwhelmed, so there's a considerable change in scale from outside to in.” The current plan features the kinds of rooms that modern families demand: a large great room, a full-blown master suite, and plenty of secondary bedrooms for this second home.
One structure, a leftover from the Ford years, was incorporated into the new plan with few changes. It's a tall, circa-1930 brick chimney that was used as an exhaust flue for some of the electrical equipment that served the Ford house. “It's unique and perfectly stable, so no one contemplated moving it,” says Rattner, who worked the chimney into the family's outdoor dining area. “You don't actually need a 60-foot flue for a barbecue, but it made for a good barbecue.”
Project: Rice Mill at the Ford Plantation, Richmond Hill, Ga.; Size: 6,228 square feet; Price: N/A; Builder: Cambridge Building Corp., Hilton Head Island, S.C.; Developer: Dolan, Pollak & Schram Development, Richmond Hill; Architect: Donald M. Rattner, formerly with Ferguson Shamamian & Rattner Architects, New York; Landscape architect: DesignWorks, Charleston, S.C.