The Hammond House becomes James O’Neal’s passion
By Don Rhodes | Photos courtesy of charleshammondhouse.com
Few investors had the determination to take on the renovation of the dilapidated Charles Hammond House, built in the late 1700s in North Augusta, until Augusta-reared insurance agent James O’Neal did in 2017. Those who wanted to save it became shocked when realizing how much time and money was required to restore it to its original glory. Others simply could not arrange the financing for the purchase.
The house was on the real estate market a couple of years before O’Neal finally signed the deed and began renovations in 2018. O’Neal has fond childhood memories of the house since his family drove from Augusta to attend church at Second Providence Baptist in North Augusta.
“There always has been something special about that house with me,” recalled O’Neal. “My mom [Beverly O’Neal] grew up among row houses mostly in Philadelphia where I was born. She would say when we passed the Hammond House how nice it would be for a family like mine to have — a big white house with a white picket fence like those big houses on TV.
“I was working on renovating a house near my office about the time I passed the Hammond House and saw a ‘for sale’ sign. But I was busy with that other house.
“About two years later when I had completed the Augusta house, I felt a fluttering in my heart when I saw the Hammond place was still on the market. My mind immediately thought, ‘Let me give them a call.’”
He connected with Yancy Skinner, associated broker for Hixon Realty Company in North Augusta, and began the process of purchasing the historic building.
Southern planter Charles Hammond built the basic home of five rooms and a central hallway in the late 1700s, before the nation itself was founded. “I use the year 1775,” O’Neal said, “but it could have been built between 1765 and 1775.” By 1830, the house had grown to include five bedrooms, three baths with additional porches, a guesthouse, small barn and a formal garden created by an English landscaper.
The property, which also has a family cemetery, passed through other owners including Jeanne and Charles Eubanks who managed in 1973 — roughly 200 years after the original house was built — to get it listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“I have so much admiration for the work that Charles Eubanks did to keep the house preserved the best he could,” O’Neal said in noting Eubanks owned the house from the early 1960s until 2017. “If not for his efforts, the house may have been lost.”
And eventually it came into the ownership of Allstate insurance agent James O’Neal, who paid roughly $190,000 for something even Sherman wouldn’t burn. “My family and close friends knew about my renovating and bringing houses in Atlanta back to life that should have been torn down. So, they knew what I was capable of doing.”
“I began realizing this was too much for just a home for myself. I had fallen in love with the history of the house and it being older than our country. I realized that remodeling this house was a bigger story than the romanticized dream I originally had in mind.”
– James O’Neal
After graduating from A.R. Johnson High School in 1989, O’Neal migrated to Atlanta to attend Morehouse College. In 1993, he completed his degree in business administration with a concentration in marketing and, of all things, a minor in risk management! O’Neal stayed in Atlanta where he began buying and saving old houses, mostly in the Grant Park area.
After returning to Augusta in 2008 to work as a sales professional at his father’s insurance agency, O’Neal resumed his passion for renovating old, deteriorated houses. He thinks the Hammond House is his 27th restoration project, but reflects, “It could be in the 30s. I’m not sure.”
After the purchase, there were some surprises that left O’Neal amazed. “I started pulling the tax records, and when I saw an entry for 1785, I thought they had made a mistake with the writing,” O’Neal related. “I thought it had been built in the early 1900s.”
Another surprise was learning that many local builders didn’t share his same passion for restoring a historic house accurately with period bricks, lumber and conforming to many long-ago, time-consuming building practices. “So many just wanted to get on the project, get it done, get their money and get out,” he said.
The aspect of keeping true to the building aesthetic of the 18th and 19th Century pine boards construction became foremost when O’Neal and early helpers learned the Hammond House had been built with few nails. Instead, the boards connect at right angle notches through precise and tight cutting known as mortise and tenon joints, or dovetailing.
And like other builders everywhere, O’Neal’s reconstruction slowed due to the COVID-19 crisis reducing the number of available workers; the shipping crisis delaying the arrival of building materials and the inflation crisis increasing lumber costs.
“I thought, like my mother had thought, it would be great to fix it up and live in it,” he said. “But I began realizing this was too much for just a home for myself. I had fallen in love with the history of the house and it being older than our country. I realized that remodeling this house was a bigger story than the romanticized dream I originally had in mind.”
And in a moment of increasing despair, there came a call from a wonderful lady named Beth Francis, who many around Edgefield County know for spearheading community concerts and the restoration of Horn Creek Baptist Church (circa 1790) near Mt. Vintage Golf Plantation.
Francis, the fifth great-granddaughter of Charles Hammond, offered help.
“When Beth called me out of the blue,” O’Neal related, “she said, ‘James, you don’t know me, but I’m going to be your best friend.’ She introduced me to the people at the North Augusta Arts & Heritage Center, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the North Augusta Garden Club and at the Discovery Center in Edgefield.”
Others who knew of the project and came on board included Terra Carroll, president and CEO of the North Augusta Chamber of Commerce; Jon Posey, a founder of Historic North Augusta; Erick Montgomery, executive director of Historic Augusta Inc.; Brenda Baratto, then executive director of the Aiken Museum of History; Bryan Halterman and Bettis Rainsford, well-known local historians and experts in historic architecture; Lynn Thompson, chairman of North Augusta’s Living History Park and president of the city’s Olde Towne Preservation Association; Barney Lamar, caretaker of the Horn Creek Baptist Church; Jane Gunnell, an Edgefield realtor and a leader of the Edgefield Historical Society, along with many more.
O’Neal envisions the house as a hospitality venue for wedding and business receptions and as a teaching tool for students, tourists and local residents. Coming soon is the restoration of the main entranceway and 1830s-era garden.
In early December, the Hammond House was officially opened, for the first time since 2018, to visitors with the Tour of Christmas Homes benefiting the Beta Sigma Phi Sorority. “I have seen people shed tears being at the house. I have seen people get goose bumps there, and that has made me feel like this has been worth it.” One of the special people helping with the Christmas tour was O’Neal’s mother, Beverly, who had prophesied correctly that her son would own the Hammond House one day.
For more information or to help support the Hammond House restoration, visit charleshammondhouse.com.
Appears in the May 2022 issue of Augusta Magazine.