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Coast transplant creates new homes from old gems

By Rheta Grimsley Johnson |

Old friends of Betty Douglass Sparkman of Pass Christian were dubious about her retirement when she announced it and moved to the Gulf Coast from Falls Church, Va., three years ago. She just isn’t the type to sit on the porch painting her toenails.

Whether working to ease famine in Ethiopia, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro for kicks, using her MBA in Jamaica and Zimbabwe at U.S. State Department headquarters or in Washington, D.C., at the American Association of Retired People, Sparkman craves a challenge.

That’s why 20 years ago, bored at a comfortable desk job, she spent weekends rehabilitating Baltimore row houses with a friend. With each project, Sparkman gained confidence and expertise.

The demanding avocation eventually led her to start her own contracting firm in Northern Virginia. Experience gained on the job helps make sense of her current retirement “hobby,” restoring and selling historic Pass properties. Sparkman and her partner, David Taylor, do much of the physical work themselves.

“I tell people that I inherited my love of mechanical things from my mother,” Sparkman laughs. “She was clever in that way.”

The latest renovation is a Victorian-era farmhouse at 554 E. Second St. in the Pass, on the National Register of Historic Places, painted the gray of a tree trunk and now on the market for the first time in 75 years. Sparkman and Taylor led a team of carpenters, painters and other skilled craftspeople to return the former carriage house to its 1893 glory. Before that, the pair overhauled and sold an American Foursquare house on Second Street that had languished since Katrina.

“Both were labors of love,” Sparkman says. She prides herself on balancing that fine line of old home restoration — leaving the character intact but adding features desirable in a modern age when homeowners want larger kitchens, bathrooms and entertainment areas.

“We re-used all the original materials we could,” she says, pointing to a kitchen island made from a shiplap bedroom wall that was taken down. Corbels she found on the property accent the kitchen space. What was old is new again.

Leaving the D.C. area and heading to the Coast wasn’t an entirely easy call. Sparkman had many close friends from her State Department days and loved the endless cultural opportunities that Washington offers. But after spending a Christmas week in the Pass four years ago, she and two of her siblings decided Harrison County was the place to enjoy an active retirement.

It wasn’t the first time the Douglass clan spent time on the Coast. Immediately after Katrina, all three slept on the floor of a Methodist church in Turkey Creek and volunteered to repair storm-ravaged homes.

With characteristic zeal, Sparkman has now immersed herself in community activities and she loves the relatively quiet life she leads here. She jokes about the “five-second rush hour” in the Pass.

“It used to take me longer to get out of my driveway in Falls Church than it does to pull out onto Highway 90,” she says. “I love the way my UPS delivery person, Steve, and mail carrier, Rodney, see me in town and greet me with a warm, ‘Hello, Miss Betty.’ You’d never have that kind of personal connection in D.C.”

Her first Christmas on the Gulf, Betty had knee replacement surgery and underwent extensive rehabilitation. It wasn’t long, however, before she was high atop a ladder once again, rewiring an old mansion and shelving retirement, placing it somewhere far out of reach.

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