Keeping It Real

Mike Watkinson has made a career of protecting the integrity of historic homes. 

The Grandstaff House (c. 1787) in Edinburg after restorations.

It was at the historic Mahone’s Tavern in Courtland where Mike Watkinson first caught the bug for restoration.  

Watkinson’s grandparents owned and lived in the 1796 building that was the boyhood home of Confederate Gen. William Mahone. After his grandfather, also a carpenter, died, the now 45-year-old helped his grandmother do repairs on the house. 

The restoration of the tavern, now a museum, sparked Watkinson’s passion for preserving historic homes. Since then, he has turned his passion into a profession with his company Shenandoah Restorations, which restores old structures using traditional building techniques—many of which he learned during a three-year tour in Guatemala with the Peace Corps in the early 2000s.

“That’s where I learned to use the old hand tools and to do mud daubing,” he says. “When I came home, I noticed the materials and techniques used in old buildings here are what they’re still using in Guatemala today.”

Watkinson works on a log cabin restoration.

No special training is required to work on historic buildings, which is why such efforts often go wrong. “Misguided and poor quality restoration or remodeling have wrought more destruction on our historic buildings than time, termites or fire,” says Watkinson. 

In any project, Watkinson and his team salvage original materials and reuse historic features, not only preserving the building itself, but also protecting the integrity of the original construction. “Because of the admirable craftsmanship of early American builders, old buildings have unique character and are imbued with a certain soul that penetrates the entire structure,” he says. 

For those who consider purchasing a historic home, Watkinson has one important tip—expect the unexpected. “Old houses are harder to work on than modern ones,” he says. “It takes time and it takes money. But, most learn to love it.”

This article originally appeared in our 2018 House + Garden issue.

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