If These Walls Could Talk: A Very, Very, Very Fine House

If These Walls Could Talk: A Very, Very, Very Fine House
Taylor Neilly, Katie Stender and Lady on the front steps of their 1913 kit house

If the walls in newlyweds Dr. Katie Stender and Taylor Neilly’s 1913 Aladdin Kit house in Historic Ortega could sing perhaps they would choose the lyrics to “Our House” by Crosby, Stills and Nash. “Our house is a very, very, very fine house, with two cats in the yard (in this case, make that four cats and a dog) …now everything is easy ‘cause of you.” 

Stender and Neilly met seven years ago and “have never been apart since,” they said. Originally from South Florida, Stender finished her Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine at the University of Florida, worked for Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice and Palliative Care, and was doing a lot of driving from Gainesville, to Tampa and to Jacksonville.

Neilly, a Gainesville native, finished his degree at UF in 2015. They took a leap of faith and moved to Jacksonville where Stender continues her work with Lap of Love and Neilly is a first year 10th Grade Language Arts and Creative Writing teacher at Robert E. Lee High School.

“We moved to Jacksonville on a whim,” explained Stender.

After renting an old house in Riverside, Dr. Katie, as she is known, said, “That’s it for me! I’ll never live in an old house again! We loved Riverside, but we would ride our bicycles through old Ortega and dream of living among the trees, but thought we’d never be able to afford a house there.”

But from the moment they saw it, Stender’s stipulation of “No old house!” went right out the paired casement windows of the two-story historic bungalow on Hiawatha Street. The couple walked through the whole house, sat out in the backyard and made an offer within an hour. “We just loved it as soon as we walked in the door,” Neilly said. 

“I did not want an old house,” laughed Stender. “Now we have the oldest house around here!”

“We fell in love with everything; it’s so unique. I love the windows, the old pine floors, the dual fireplaces, the exposed bricks in the kitchen. It was in perfect shape – move-in ready,” she continued.  “We moved in on Sept. 1, 2016, and then a month later Hurricane Matthew came through,” said Stender. “That was scary.”

Neilly said he loves the country-like atmosphere of Old Ortega. “There is so much history in the house and in the neighborhood. I love the oak trees, and there are bald eagles around here, and owls,” he said.

Rendering of a 1913 kit house from the catalog

Rendering of a 1913 kit house from the catalog

A peach of a house

As a kit, the house was shipped from Bay City, Michigan to Jacksonville as a giant, three-dimensional puzzle of pre-cut lumber. Each piece was numbered and labeled, while plaster, shingles, paint and explicit instructions were included – everything needed for construction, except the hammer. Average finishing time? Less than two weeks.

Historical information is incomplete on its arrival into what was then just oak trees and farm land. Perhaps the parts were carried over a bridge constructed in 1908, which connected Ortega with Jacksonville, and down the dirt road which curved around McGirtt’s Creek to what would become Hiawatha Street.   

Founded by Otto and William Sovereign, Aladdin Kit Homes remained a family business for 76 years before closing in 1982. The Sovereign brothers got the idea of creating and selling prefabricated homes, also known as “Knock-downs” and “Readi-cuts,” from the common practice of ship builders who constructed ships to be transported to other areas for reconstruction. Aladdin’s competitors were Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward, but the Sovereign brothers held their own, selling over 50,000 homes all over the country and the world. 

Purchasing a new Aladdin home was as simple as perusing the catalog, picking out the style, placing the order, and waiting for shipment. The Hiawatha Street house owned by Stender and Neilly is called The Georgia and listed for $897.75 in the Aladdin Kit catalog in 1913.

Appropriately named, it is a peach of a house. Carefully and lovingly tended over the years, the interior has been renovated – central heat and air, updated bathrooms and kitchen and expanded master bedroom – but it is basically true to the original floor plan and its outward appearance could be an ad for the company in present times.

Many families have inhabited the bungalow over the years. Just since 1988, the 104-year-old house on Hiawatha Street was home to at least eight families, whose laughter and footsteps have echoed up and down the stairs.

Stender’s and Neilly’s four cats join the generations of cats which have lounged on the front steps. Now the couple are the next generation of caring homeowners to contribute to what Neilly calls the house’s “good juju!”

By Peggy Harrell Jennings
Resident Community News

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