A House With a Diary - 526 Citizen Street
When they purchased their historic home in 2014, Chris and Patricia Cheek didn't realize that it came complete with its own journal, started 65 years before - one that contained a few surprises.
- story and photos by Ellis Anderson
November 20th, 1951, Eudora Welty and Elizabeth Bowen weekend.
The entry a few days before reads: Getting ready for E&E weekend!
Eudora Welty, of course, was the enduring and beloved Mississippi author. Elizabeth Bowen was her literary counterpart from Ireland. When Welty met Bowen in Ireland in 1949/50, the two became great pen pals and fast friends. Bowen visited Welty in Mississippi in 1950 and apparently again in 1951, when the two writers traveled from Welty’s home in Jackson to Bay St. Louis.
While she must have been friends with the owners at the time, Dr. Roy Turner and his wife, Welty would have had her pick of coast hosts she could have visited. Yet, she brought Elizabeth Bowen to this particular house.
It’s easy to see why. While it’s only a short stroll to the beach and the Old Town commercial district, walking the grounds of 526 Citizen, one has the illusion of being in the remote countryside. The high ceilings, generous windows and French doors make the house seem like a comfortable pavilion, a place built specifically to make appreciation of nature easier.
When Welty visited, the Turners were calling the house – along with its three acres and two ponds - “Youpon Hedges.” The reason is obvious. The Cheeks estimate that between thirty to forty Youpon Hollies are planted on the property, most of them tree sized by now.
It’s a sure bet that if Welty were to visit today, she’s be spending most of her time on a grand screened porch that didn’t exist at the time of her visit. Its construction was the first project the Cheeks tackled after they bought the house. It’s almost impossible now to imagine the house without it, the mesh is seamless.
Patricia and Chris first glimpsed the house when they were bicycling around Bay St. Louis, soon after they’d met. The property was for sale and appeared abandoned. A jungle of overgrowth had swallowed most of the extensive landscaping and it marched toward the house. The two tentatively walked into the yard, coming upon a pond and the biggest live oak tree either of them had ever seen.
It turns out that the tree, which has been measured and registered, is the oldest known tree in Bay St. Louis, estimated to be 540 years old. Awed by its majesty that day, they never dreamed that it might eventually be theirs.
Then after their engagement in early 2014, they began looking for a house where their blended family could feel at home – new turf for everyone. Patricia had been living in her “dream home” in Gautier, one she’d restored after extensive damage from Hurricane Katrina. The same storm had completely destroyed Chris’s recently constructed home in Pass Christian. When they met, he’d been living in a house located in the Bay’s Cedar Point neighborhood. When they discovered that 526 was for sale, the oak tree beckoned again. The fact that it was a “project house” only added to the allure for both of them.
“The mystique of the tree is gripping,” says Chris. “The lay of the land just grabbed us both. We also saw the potential of what the house could be, it had a farmhouse atmosphere. A warm and welcoming feeling seems to emanate from it.”
The couple planned to marry beneath that oak, but first tackled the back porch addition. They called in Bay architect Ed Wikoff and Ed Madden, a local contractor who has extensive experience in historic restoration, with a reputation as a meticulous craftsman.
“I have a real appreciation for things well done,” says Chris. “If you don’t use an architect, you’re simply enclosing space and creating more square footage. That wasn’t our goal. We wanted to retain the historical integrity, make it structurally sound so it could endure the elements, and be functional for our living needs.”
The house itself had been built around 1905 by the Ladner family. Originally, it was a mercantile store with two rooms attached that served as a home for the proprietors. Through the years, two other owners added on more rooms. Like many houses on the coast, it had a hodgepodge exterior appearance.
To add to the confusion, the front of the house actually faced the grounds instead of the street, while the former general store entrance faced Citizen. Wikoff and the Cheeks realized that a porch running the length of the house could unify the appearance.
“The porch helps tie the whole house together,” says Wikoff. “But we didn’t want it to become a passageway only. Careful placement of the doors makes it work as a real living space.”
Ed Madden began work on the porch in February 2015 and finished two days before the Cheeks were married on April 25th. When planning the wedding, Patricia and Chris visualized a ceremony under the oak, with an altar they had built themselves. The construction of the project proved to be their first major marital challenge.
“When the porch was added on, Ed had saved any wood that had to be removed from the original house,” says Patricia. “So we were making the table out of this salvaged wood that had lots of coats of paint that had to be sanded off. It was hot as heck and we both had our own vision of what we wanted it to look like. Chris is an experienced woodworker, but it was my first attempt.” She laughs while remembering. “Today, if someone wanted to sell me a handmade table for $1000, I’d want to pay them $1500.”
The old adage about rainy wedding days being good luck held true in the Cheeks’ case. A torrential downpour flooded the yard, yet the ceremony and reception came off beautifully. Ed Madden and his wife Ann (a professional photographer who was shooting the wedding) rescued the altar from the storm and it served its purpose admirably. Today, it’s the island in the Cheeks’ kitchen, a reminder of how their different visions can merge to create the lovely and the lasting.
wedding photos by Ann Madden
Both Patricia and Chris are sensitive to the impact environmental surroundings can have on the psyche. Patricia graduated USM with a degree in retail management, fashion and interior design, so she's got a savvy sense of style.
Chris graduated from Millsaps in Jackson with an undergrad and masters degree in business administration. He has realized his boyhood dream of “caring for elders” by owning two assisted living homes and two nursing homes (Dunbar Village in Bay St. Louis is one of the latter). All four homes are listed on the Eden Alternatives registry, a select group of homes which focus on empowerment and life enrichment while creating a more homelike environment.
The couple also share a common philosophy about old houses.
“There’s a lot of old houses that people want to redo and bring in the greatest and latest, but sometimes upgrading to modern standard takes away from that,” says Chris.
Patricia pointed to a vintage floral wallpaper that covers the ceiling of their kitchen. “Some of my friends want to know how soon we’re going to replace that. When it falls off, I tell them. We both think its part of the story of this house and appreciate it.”
Since both Patricia and Chris lost most of their art and treasured furnishings during Katrina, they’ve enjoyed collecting newer pieces together. Auctions are a favorite resource, as are the antique and collectible shops in Old Town. Each summer, they meet Chris’s mother in Maine, where the family engages in some serious antiquing.
One particular piece that Patricia admired came from the home of a former Maine governor. The shop owner explained it was going to be a hard sell, since the piece was over nine feet tall and most Maine ceilings were eight feet. The next summer, the prediction proved true. The price had been slashed, but the piece remained unsold. She sighed, imagining it in their new home, a thousand miles away.
A few days before Christmas last year, the Cheeks Goldendoodle, Belle, began barking ferociously, alerting the couple that a strange man was in their yard.
“It was early in the morning, yet Chris didn’t seem concerned,” Patricia says. “Finally, I decided to call the police, it was just too strange. Chris started laughing and told me to go out and look in the man’s truck. It turned out he was delivering the governor’s bookcase.
“It was the biggest surprise of my life,” she says.
The couple’s complementary vision will come in handy since they have a list of future projects. Priorities include a barn and rebuilding the glassed in patio/porch (“We may disagree on which is the greater priority,” Chris says, laughing).
Patricia, who's currently a personal trainer at the Body Barre in Bay St. Louis, will get plenty of workout time as the couple continues to hack back the undergrowth on their three acres. The object is not to radically change the landscaping, but rather to reveal the original vision by clearing underbrush and vines from around mature trees and shrubs.
Yet one significant transformation hangs near the front gate: a sign that bears the new name of the house. That was a surprise from Chris as well. It reads “Pat Oaks.” And that’s a name that would please any Mississippi writer.