Restoring Elsie's House

Sundae Horn
All dressed up and ready to welcome you!
All dressed up and ready to welcome you!

The Irvin and Elsie Garrish house is one of seven Howard Street homes that you can visit this weekend during the OPS Holiday Historic Home Tour.

Restoring an old house is a labor of love. Just ask Bob and Kathy Phillips, who saved this old house and made it a welcoming home again.

They vacationed on Ocracoke every August for years, and in 2007 they saw this property up for sale. They looked it over, but the amount of work the house needed was overwhelming.

“We would come back year after year and it was always still for sale,” Bob said. “We would talk to the family about it, then go home. After four years of looking at it, we decided to take the plunge.”

Kathy and Bob at their Open House last year
Kathy and Bob at their Open House last year

They bought the house in 2011, and hired contractor Tom Pahl of Ocracoke Restoration Company to take on the challenge of an historical renovation. It took about a year to get her 'er done.

Built in 1888, Elsie’s House is a typical Ocracoke story-and-a-jump design. Simon Garrish and Sarah Howard had it built for them when they wed, and it remained in the family for years, eventually belonging to Armeda O’Neal. She sold it to her nephew, Capt. Irvin Garrish, and his wife, Elsie.

Irvin was a ferry captain and the island’s first representative to the Hyde County board of commissioners. Elsie was the island’s nurse. They had both grown up on Ocracoke, and lived other places, before returning to their island home. Irvin and Elsie’s daughters Agnes and Martha still live on the island, as does Martha’s son, Van O’Neal.

Agnes and Martha were hoping to sell their parents’ house to someone who would appreciate its history, and they found the perfect buyers in Bob and Kathy.

“There’s so much history in this house. We’re the third owners, but we feel more like custodians of this property,” Bob said. “We’re happy to be giving it new life – it’s a privilege to be a part of it.”

The sisters couldn’t be happier with the results.

“The house had a lot of termite damage; it was almost too far gone,” Agnes said.  “Now we can’t imagine it being better.”

Bob, Tom, Kathy, Martha, and Ronnie Van O'Neal
Bob, Tom, Kathy, Martha, and Ronnie Van O'Neal

The first phase of the restoration was doing structural work underneath the house. Tom says he did “a significant amount of tearing out and rebuilding.” In phase two, they restored the windows and replaced the aluminum siding with traditional lapboard to match what was on the front porch. Then they restored and remodeled the interior.

“Roger Meacham and Jason Elicker were my main crew for this job,” Tom said. Tom O’Keefe and Ryan McCuaig also did some work on it. “They put a lot into it. Old houses need lots of care. They need a special kind of attention that not all carpenters can give.”

Bob and Kathy say they are “eternally grateful to Tom for his vision and fine work.” The admiration they feel for their carpenter is mutual.

“I could only do this because the owners were so open to all my ideas,” Tom said. 

Bob and Kathy live in Raleigh where he is a lobbyist for Common Cause and she is a nurse working in neonatal intensive care. Agnes and Martha appreciate that the house still belongs to nurse like their mother. In honor of that connection, Bob and Kathy christened the cottage “Elsie’s House” and had a plaque made that hangs from the old light post in the yard.

Jason and Roger put the finishing touches on the porch
Jason and Roger put the finishing touches on the porch

Bob and Kathy came to Ocracoke the first time in 1982, and fell in love with the island and its people. The loved visiting with their two children, Jake (18) and Claire (16), especially for Claire's birthday in the summer.

“It’s not the beauty of Ocracoke that attracts us, it’s the community,” said Bob. “The bonds and connections are something special here that’s not on the mainland.”

“All my friends from Raleigh have heard me say that it’s the people we love,” Kathy said. “We are thrilled to be a part of the community.”

During the restoration, Tom and his crew discovered beams that are, he says, "most certainly salvaged from a shipwreck." Rumor has it the house was built from bits of the Henry Bateman, a sailing sloop that was launched in 1826, and there's no reason to doubt it. Tom found much evidence of ship's timbers, including some long beams that were covered in copper as they would have been on sailing vessels. 

Part of a ship's keel covered in copper, now being used as a girt under the house.
Part of a ship's keel covered in copper, now being used as a girt under the house.

All are welcome to come and visit Elsie's House this Saturday, meet her owners, and learn more about the joys of restoring and preserving a piece of Ocracoke history. Tickets for the Home Tour are available at the OPS Museum, or by calling 252-928-7375. 

And just for fun, read this wonderful interview with Elsie Garrish about her long life on and off Ocracoke. 


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