Contractor Bruce Massey’s love of history and his construction skills blend perfectly in the renovation of historical Oxford homes.
“I started working with architectural firms after graduating from Ole Miss with my degree in business,” said Massey, whose father made a living in as a heavy-equipment operator and put son Bruce to work on sites around their Natchez, Miss. home in the summers.
Massey appreciated the beautiful antebellum homes in the Natchez area as a youngster. He tucked away the dream that he would someday work on historical structures.
After graduating in 2001, the young history buff immediately began pursuing his goals, landing jobs with Alger Design and Howorth and Associates, both architectural firms.
“I always enjoyed collaborating with architects as a construction contractor because I like being involved in a plan from first draft to the final build,” Massey said with a smile of satisfaction.
Massey’s first historical project was a home owned by Catherine and Ray Hill on North 14th Street. The home was built in 1900. It has a distinctive tin roof, and while it isn’t on the official Historical Register, Massey and his team used Register standards while renovating the structure. That meant his builders had to work piecemeal, meticulously taking apart the home and putting it back together. The crew labeled each piece in the home and raised the original low ceiling to 8 feet, another challenge requiring detailed structural work.
Massey’s next stab at historical construction was on a project renovating an Oxford Square building that currently houses the Old Venice Pizza Company. “The buildings on the square are mainly made of fire-cast clay bricks and they’re actual tied together so that if one falls the adjacent structures are likely to crumble,” he explained. “As you’re renovating in the square you can often see the scorch marks on the original brick.”
In recent years, Massey has focused on renovated family homes like the structure on South 8th Street where William Faulkner used to play pool in the original basement. The most pressing challenge on that job, according to Massey, was meeting modern construction code by building windows in the century-old basement of the home. Originally, the basement had no windows.
“We had to cut window wells out of the original concrete, which required specialized saws and a lot of patience,” Massey said. “It’s a thrill knowing the space where Faulkner played pool on an old felt table with worn leather pouches is now preserved as a shrine to our most famous citizen.”
When Massey turns to the city to meet safety and infrastructure requirements, he calls Katrina Hourin, assistant city planner to find a collaborative solution. “Katrina can make the call for most issues I deal with in a renovation, such as a minor site variance,” Massey said. “Generally, the city is pro renovation although their first responsibility is always protecting the public’s safety.”
Hourin adds that Oxford has developed a formal renovation plan, comprising five Historical Preservation Districts and two Historic Preservation Commissions. Both entities rely on written design guidelines in an attempt to preserve what was left of Oxford’s architectural heritage.
“The commissions prefer and encourage residents and businesses to preserve an existing structure to include renovations, additions and expansions, when necessary, to the original structure rather than to tear it down,” Hourin said.
Are outsiders looking to make a quick buck by buying up premium property and flipping the homes primarily for profit and what are the long-term implications of historical preservation for Oxford?
Hourin has the city’s response. “(We) have no control over how and to whom property is conveyed,” she said. “Any exterior alterations proposed for a home in a historic district must obtain a (COA) Certificate of Appropriateness from the Historic Preservation Commission before work can commence. With land values the way they are in Oxford, buying and flipping a home is difficult and not for the faint of heart.”
Attorney Ray Hill, who owns the Massey-renovated home on North 14th, says he and his wife Catherine, both in their late 30s, are firmly in the pro-preservation camp. He adds, however, there is a middle course.
“Every situation is unique and you have to deal with the house you have,” said Hill, who met his wife in law school and decided to stay. “In our situation we had an old house, but the foundation was in great shape, the floors were beautiful and the roof was functional. All things being equal my first inclination is to preserve an old house, but there are some properties around the Square area that are in bad shape. The cost of preserving a worn out structure may not justify the time and effort.”
Indeed, the timid need not apply when renovating Oxford’s historical homes and preserving that architectural history. It’s a team effort requiring close cooperation between city planners, architects, builders, sub contractors and ultimately, property owners. Progress is measured in years, not days, with a 15,000-square-feet historical home sometimes taking up to two years to complete, according to Massey.
“The owner and the architect are at the head of my chain of command,” Massey explained. “Sometimes owners can be difficult but usually half way through the project, we’re in such close communication that we’ve become friends.”
Story and Photos by Andy Knef, editor of HottyToddy.com