Love Thy Neighborhood • Home Profile

For Bonnie & Terry Dennis, restoring a century-old mansion in Avondale was a matter of civic duty.

Bonnie and Terry Dennis may have purchased their Avondale residence six years ago, but they don’t consider themselves homeowners. Built between 1904 and 1907, the three-story Colonial Revival is one of the oldest houses in Avondale. It is featured in Wayne Wood’s acclaimed book Jacksonville’s Architectural Heritage and has been recognized by the Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission for its historical significance. But local historians aren’t the only ones who appreciate “the White House.”

Neighbors take pride in the home’s stately presence on St. Johns Avenue. Random passersby compliment the couple when they are working in the yard or relaxing on the front porch. Terry says they’ve even overheard complete strangers talking about their house (correction: the house) while dining at a nearby restaurant. “We are fortunate enough to live here, but we feel like the house is a treasure that really belongs to the whole neighborhood,” Terry says. “From our perspective, we don’t own the house. We are its caretakers.”

And what caretakers they’ve been.

When Bonnie and Terry bought the house, its dilapidated condition—complete with a leaky roof, cracked walls, battered floors, peeling paint and zero fully-functioning bathrooms—didn’t exactly reflect the home’s intrinsic value. Whereas previous residents may have gotten by with replacing a few shingles and slapping a coat of paint on the walls, Bonnie and Terry felt the house deserved to be restored instead of just repaired. But before they could even begin to think about interior design, they had to replace the home’s antiquated electrical system, inefficient HVAC and deteriorated plumbing, as well as inadequate insulation consisting of 100-year-old newspapers wadded up and stuffed in the walls.

Throughout the renovation process, the couple remained committed to maintaining the historical integrity of the home. In addition to studying the history of the house and the three generations of McConnels who lived there from 1914–2005, they went on every historic home tour within driving distance, from Asheville, N.C. to Natchez, Miss. Based on their research, they replaced numerous architectural elements, such as doors, casings, window panes and crown molding, that weren’t representative of turn-of-the-century homes and established the look of the house’s interior.

Beginning with the wall paint, Bonnie selected colors that were evocative of nature, as was common in the early 1900s, like harvest gold used in the living room and dining room, sage in the music room and breakfast nook, and cornflower in one of the guest rooms. In keeping with the natural theme (not to mention all of the work it took to restore the wood), the gleaming heart pine floors are prominently featured in the first floor common areas, on the staircases and throughout the second floor, while tasteful area rugs add warmth to the rooms.

To complement their residence’s status as a “neighborhood treasure,” Bonnie and Terry filled the house with their own stash of treasures ranging from 19th century English and French furniture to oil paintings dating back to the 1780s. Mixed in with the antiques, which also include a bank safe, stained glass windows and foosball table from France, are carefully selected reproductions of period light fixtures, furniture and accessories. Oddly enough, two of the most impressive pieces in the house aren’t antiques or replicas; rather, they are the work of Bonnie and Terry.

The red floral print settee in the living room, for instance, was once an ugly yellow and blue couch with holes in it (Bonnie’s words) that looked like it came out of a flophouse (Terry’s words). But Bonnie’s creativity, coupled with the expertise of a professional upholsterer, turned the eyesore into something eye-catching.

Terry’s far more elaborate vision can also be seen in the living room. The intricate dentil molding, which appears in the music room, dining room and master bedroom, was made by hand—with Terry and his firefighter buddies cutting, painting and attaching more than 500 individual blocks to the rails. The work is so impeccable, in fact, visitors believe it’s original to the house, which Terry says is the greatest compliment they could give him.

The Dennises are bound to get many more compliments when they open the doors to the home that they take care of as part of Riverside Avondale Preservation’s Spring Tour of Homes this month. And if you go, be sure to thank them for preserving what has to be the only 5,550-square-foot, turn-of-the-century mansion moved to its current location by oxen that has a Biltmore Estate-inspired library (complete with a hand painted mural on the ceiling), a ghost (or two) and three urinals that once hosted a concert by a band in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in America.

Written by Kerry Speckman • Photos by Bradley Stookey