Preserving history, one window pane at a time

In 1923, Harvey Jeremiah Peeler, known to his friends as "H.J.," built his home. Resplendent with 18 rooms and top-notch early 20th-century design, it served as a residence for Peeler, his wife and eight children.

A showcase for the early superintendent of Kannapolis schools, it boasts a large front porch and sun room, bead board ceilings, French doors with beveled glass, and four fireplaces.

Built along Ridge Avenue just across the tracks from Cannon Mills and just down the street from A.L. Brown High School, the house sits just in front of where the Great Wagon Road once carried travelers from the North into the South - which also means George Washington traveled through the front yard before the home was there.

After Peeler died in 1929, his wife found the house too much to keep up with on her own. After letting rooms to teachers and mill workers for several years, she rented it out and moved the family to a smaller home across the tracks. From 1950 to 1968, the house was the old Lady's Funeral Home, and at many times sat vacant.

In 2004, Jamison Lee was taking a walk in the mill village where he lives with his significant other, Colleen McDaniel, when he saw the home, sagging and in disrepair. A sign proclaimed that the house and contents would be put up for auction soon.

"I just walked by it and fell in love with it," he recalled from the front parlor of the newly restored H.J. Peeler home.

Lee, then 33, did what his heart told him to do and McDaniel agreed: He bought the old house at auction, paying $132,500 for what is now valued now at more than $300,000, including the land it sits on. After seven years restoring the house, Lee and McDaniel held a ribbon-cutting and open house last week to celebrate.

Lee admitted that tens of thousands of hours went into restoring the house to its 1920s glory - definitely "more time than money."

"I couldn't have paid anybody to do it," he said. During the restoration, Lee and several friends stripped wood, cleaned and indexed glass, took up linoleum and did hundreds of other chores.. "It was a big job."

For each window, Lee took the window and sash out, took glass out - with a 5 percent to 10 percent breakage rate - and stripped and refinished the wood. He would go home at night with blisters on his thumbs.

In all, he restored more than 40 double-hung windows.

Now the house, once in total disrepair and falling apart, is recognized on the National Register of Historic Places. Rather than look renovated, the resident looks like a well-cared for older home and is preserved for the future.

"It has been very rewarding to see the house come back to life," he said.

"It's not about doing it and getting it done," added Lee, who says he spent the first couple of years of ownership researching history and planning the restoration. He also admitted that he's refused to watch the Tom Hanks classic "Money Pit," a dark comedy about a home restoration. "It's about the journey, the process."

Lee said he had no experience in restoration when he started the journey, but now he feels confident that he's made a mark on history to preserve it for the future in a way that makes him proud.

He said there's still plenty to be done, but he is practicing patience because he wants it to be as close to original work as possible.

'A superior job'

Mike Reavis began working for Lady's Funeral Home in 1966. He visited the home Thursday to see how Lee had changed it.

"I just want to see what they changed and what's still the same," said Reavis during a tour. The building was home to Lady's until 1968, when it moved to North Cannon Boulevard. Owners of the funeral home helped Lee with historical research.

After walking through the home, Reavis was more than satisfied.

"They have done a superior job in bringing back the appearance that was here in the early years," he said. "I'm so thankful that somebody's brought it back. Hopefully it will be here forever."

Phil Goodman, president of the Kannapolis History Associates, was also happy with the restoration of one of the cornerstones of the Kannapolis mill village.

When he met Lee, he said, "I thought, 'Does this young man have any idea of what he's tackling?' " Now, Goodman praises Lee's vision and willingness to keep the historical integrity of the home intact.

That's the positive feedback the young preservationist was hoping for.

"I remember that (auction) day," said Lee. "That was a scary moment. 'Going once. Going twice. ...' Oh my God."

Now, after seven years of labor, the H.J. Peeler House is ready for visitors. Lee uses a second-floor room as an office for his business, Jigsaw Digital Inc., and has plans to rent out other space.

"Everything you pull back, you reveal something," said Lee. In video production since he got out of college, Lee added, "I've always had an artistic side." When he bought the home, he never realized that his artist's eye would produce a historic beauty in 3D.

Lee, a transplant from South Carolina, said he's been in love with Kannapolis since he arrived.

"I know more about this town than the town I came from," said Lee. "I am going to try my best to leave something better than I found it. It's important to preserve things that can't be replaced."