August 17, 2013 9:16:19 PM
William Browning - [email protected]
Last week, Rick McGill, a local real estate agent, was driving Highway 45 North with one hand on the steering wheel and the other holding a cell phone to his ear.
McGill needs an elevator. That's what he explained to the person on the other end of the line. Then he turned onto Bluecutt Road.
The elevator is for a house. It will service four floors. The businessman McGill was talking to knows elevators and suggested it would cost roughly $26,000 to install one.
McGill turned onto Briarwood Circle and the conversation began winding down.
McGill told the man he would mull it over and get back with him. Then he turned onto Greenbriar Drive.
Later, after hanging up and making his way into Cady Hills subdivision, he stopped his SUV in front of the house where the elevator is going.
It's a big place -- there are four white columns across the front -- behind a fence and row of crepe myrtles. No one has ever lived there. It was quiet. At one time, though, rumors swirled the property, and its construction was never finished. It's a place with a past.
And McGill now owns it.
He's not concerned with the past. He's intrigued and excited about the home's future.
"For so long, I thought of it as a grand old lady that needs to be dressed up and taken to the ball," he said after stepping inside the front door and standing beneath a 23-foot ceiling. "That's what I'm planning to do."
The story of what longtime Columbus residents call the "Ma house" begins 20 years ago. That's when Albert and Helen Ma bought three acres in Cady Hills, according to county records.
At about the same time the local restaurant owners began construction on their 13,885-square-foot dream home the stories started. Rumors flew.
There was a list of code violations, allegedly. Neighbors were upset, allegedly. There were incidents of vandalism, allegedly. There were shaky finances, allegedly.
Whatever the reason, construction halted. Records show the Mas sold the property a decade in. They eventually moved away from Columbus and could not be reached for comment.
At their old house, the grass went unkempt. Scaffolding sat for years. The driveway in front of the towering, unfinished mansion became a popular spot on the late-night circuit for local teenagers.
In 2004, things began looking up. Don DePriest, a local businessman, bought the property. Construction resumed and the house went back on the market. An agent at Crye-Leike Properties Unlimited in Columbus had it listed at $885,000.
This was when the housing market soured, though, and the Ma house was still only about 85 percent finished. Even if it was purchased there was work to be done.
"That sort of scared people," McGill, co-owner of Crye-Leike Properties Unlimited, said. "A lot of people weren't interested in that large of a project."
The bank foreclosed on the home for $681,238 in late 2010, according to county records.
McGill stepped in in May. He has lived in the neighborhood for nearly two decades. Like everyone else, he followed the construction from Day One. He heard the stories but where some saw controversy, he saw "potential," he said.
"I saw through the rumors," McGill said. "I saw through all that and researched this house to know it is built in a quality manner and it has the potential to be a wonderful home."
He declined to say what he paid for the Ma house.
The house has over 30 rooms, including eight bedrooms.
A neighbor interviewed for this story said McGill's plan to finish the vacant home and find it an owner is welcome news.
Another laughed and said that if nothing else, at least the grass is being mowed.
Bargain price for Southern mansion
What prompted McGill's interest in what may see as a risky proposition?
First, it's an investment. McGill sees manufacturing businesses moving to the area -- not the least of which is the big Yokohama Tire plant which will break ground soon in Clay County -- and executives are coming.
"Anyone who has ever dreamed of a Southern mansion-type home, it's going to be priced to where they could afford to have it be a reality," he said.
Second, it's a project. McGill and his wife have an empty nest. He has sold the farms and hunting lands that kept him occupied in the past.
"What we are basically looking at is, finish the property and if I haven't sold it by then, move in and prove to everybody that it is a wonderful, wonderful home," he said.
One of the first things McGill did after purchasing the property was bring an engineer over. They rented a 60-foot lift and inspected the home.
"There is not a single cracked mortar brick or a single cracked piece of sheet rock anywhere inside of here," he said. "Just phenomenal."
The lights and electricity were turned on not long ago. There were no leaks. No electrical problems.
"Not in the whole durn thing," McGill said. "That speaks to the construction right there."
McGill, who says he has already shown the house twice, hopes to have it finished by February.
Pressure washing has been done. Things are being painted. Construction continues.
Twenty-three marble steps lead to the front door. On the way up, empty ledges are on either side. McGill is having a lion statue put on each. ("We found a set in Destin, Fla.," he said.) New lights and a new surface are being put in the fountain the driveway circles.
McGill is having three six-foot tall, four-foot wide chandeliers hung in the front room. You could almost play a basketball game in the great room. Gas logs are going in the six fireplaces. He is replacing 30 roll-out windows for roughly $15,000 and touching things up. He is finishing the theater room and the game room and having marble and hardwood floors put in places with unfinished surfaces.
And, of course, he is still working on getting that elevator.
William Browning was managing editor for The Dispatch until June 2016.