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Posted: July 28, 2012 5:10 p.m.

Dorward: If these walls could talk

For many years, I had a recurring dream about a house. The dream would always begin with me walking through the woods, trying to find my way home. Branches veiled the moonlight, and as I came to a clearing, there it was, looming large and safe. I knew every closet, every corner, every keyhole. Then, years ago, the dreams tapered away and the image became faded and forgotten, tucked away like an old photo album.

I was house hunting on the Internet the first time I saw Orna Villa, the historic Greek Revival home built in 1820 by Dr. Alexander Means near Oxford College. The pictures didn't really do it justice and I wasn't at all certain that it was the house for me. I was living in West Virginia at the time, having just finished my MFA at WVU, and was looking for an old house that I could renovate - with room for a big garden and even a horse someday. I compiled a list of twelve houses I wanted to see, spread all throughout Georgia. I flew to Atlanta and rented a car for a weekend of concentrated house-hunting. It was near the end of the first day when I arrived in Oxford.

I turned into the long driveway of Orna Villa...there was something so familiar about how it curved around the ancient trees. Then, I saw the house through the trees - the huge white columns - and I realized. This was it. This was the house right out of my tucked-away dream. This was my happily-ever-after-home.

Yes, I heard all the stories about it being haunted, but I can tell you that I never felt more at peace than that moment I first entered this house. As I turned the doorknob, I felt as though the house itself was welcoming me home.
It's a peculiar kind of person who willingly - and even enthusiastically - takes on all the perils and pitfalls of restoring a big historic house. We are a strange breed. There is something in our DNA. We are like salmon, risking it all, swimming upstream, to get to that one unique place that calls to us. Walls do talk, as any of my sort can tell you - and that is what draws us; that is what we come for - to hear the stories they have to tell and be part of it.

But there is something else, too. Most of us feel a deep responsibility to the community. Every historic home is a living member of its community and by signing the deed, we are also signing a covenant with that community as well as with the house itself - to tell its stories and keep it alive. Like people, houses are alive as long as they are remembered - as long as their stories are told.

When I came along, Orna Villa was standing empty. Whether it was the housing market crisis, the economy or just a shortage of that peculiar breed of homeowner who buys historic haunted houses - Orna Villa had been vacant for over a year.

I moved in on December 21, 2011. There had just been an uncharacteristic snowfall that turned everything into a winter wonderland. I will always remember the feeling I had when I arrived, keys in my hand. Was it my imagination, or was she happy to see me?

I set to work in short order. My first project was stripping off 200 years of peeling wallpaper. As I made my way from room to room, the walls began to talk. I discovered a window in the stairwell that had been sealed and plastered over when a room addition was added some time in the 1960s; inside a closet were the remnants of what had been the exterior wall of the small, humble 18th century farmhouse that Orna Villa had once been before Dr. Means came along to make her over into something grand. I uncovered the barely visible, painted-over carvings of initials and fraternity symbols etched in the mantle of one of the bedroom fireplaces by students of Emory University at a time when Orna Villa took in student boarders after the Civil War; and I carefully revealed the lath and plaster that had been constructed nearly 200 years ago by the hands of slaves.

Restoring grand old houses is not for the easily discouraged - I've collapsed into sleep with plaster dust in my hair and bits of wallpaper stuck to my knees; I've suffered a broken tail bone from a tumble down the staircase; I have more cuts and scrapes than a Cub Scout troop after a week-long camping trip; and literally weeks can go by without me ever leaving the house. Ceilings have fallen in and trees near the house have been struck by lightning. It takes me three days to mow my front lawn; and I once had to rescue a bat from the pool. Sometimes I feel as though I'm living at Green Acres.

But nothing makes me happier than when there's a knock on the great front door and I open it to someone shyly saying, "My grandmother grew up here ..." or "I used to play here as a little girl... Do you mind if I look around?" Mind? This is what I came for. I like nothing better than to spend lovely southern afternoons listening to Orna Villa's stories as she reminisces with her old friends.

Lisa Dorward is an Oxford resident, a lifetime writer and a member of Newton County Reads.

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