Market St. Makeover in Onancock

As imaginative as their owner, renovated condos in historic commercial building in downtown Onancock ingeniously incorporate reclaimed wood, upcycled materials, refurbished furniture, European antiques and more

by | Mar 23, 2022

Kingston upon Hull, about an hour from York, England, is a long way from the town of Onancock on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. But that is where this stylish story begins.

Tucked between King and Market Streets, in a former haberdashery in the Coffman Fisher Building (c. 1910), are a half-dozen two-bedroom/two-bath condos, the brainchild of pond-hopping, antique-dealing Brit John Mills, who purchased the property in early 2015.  You could say these spaces are brimming with character, but that would not begin to describe these eclectic European-meets-industrial modern residences.

Imagine, if you will, a dining table whose former life was as a basketball court in an old North Carolina school, rolling barn-style doors reclaimed from the walls of a vintage cedar closet, or countertops crafted from the slate of a billiard table, and you only begin to get the picture.

Mills is the prolific progeny—one of four—of an entrepreneurial antique dealer mother and a British Merchant Navy chief steward father “who was away for 25 years at sea.” His mother, who he remembers as predominantly concerned with the wellbeing of herself and her family, was deeply inspirational to Mills, having started “with a tiny little rundown stall like something out of Dickens.”

But she ultimately earned enough money to own five shops and purchase some 20 properties. One of them, “a huge Georgian mansion with 20 bedrooms,” she purchased at auction. “You had to remember which rooms had no floors,” Mills recalls, adding, “I grew up in very unique circumstances.”

Antique buying trips to Belgium and France with his mum in the 1970s are deeply imprinted on Mills who also sells European antiques—some five shipping containers per year at one point—from a quartet of retail spaces below the condos. Since 2000, he has divided his year between the states and his self-restored family home in England, which was poet Philip Larkin’s last residence.

Mills’ antique dealing route to Onancock began on Greenville’s Reedy River in South Carolina, continued in New Jersey, and ultimately led to Onancock at the suggestion of a customer who lured him to the Eastern Shore with the promise of a robust market for antiques.

While that turned out not quite to be the case, Mills stayed, selling antiques on eBay and Etsy, and carving out a half dozen condos from an abandoned building in the center of charming Onancock, surrounded by restaurants, pubs and shops.

Though he asserts that the town was once “a wealthy place due to oysters, potatoes and tourism,” now you can “buy a coffee for a dollar and a hot donut for 75 cents.” But home-seeker interest is growing in Onancock, as nearby Cape Charles becomes increasingly expensive.

Mills summarizes his career as always having “bought, restored, and sold” properties, beginning with “a Victorian apartment for my first little girl” when, at age 15, he found himself soon to be a father.  But his furniture fabrication started prior to that. Wielding chisels borrowed from his school, he started making and selling furniture in his very early teens.  With pockets lined by profits, he quickly realized that “You could buy cigarettes and alcohol and the girls loved you.”

Though he has “guys that help,” the majority of the skilled work is done by Mills. All of the furnishings in the condos are either vintage, reclaimed and ingeniously refabricated, sourced from Europe—England, France, Italy—or all of the above. Mid-century furniture devotees may recognize the likes of wall units by Poul Cadovius or a Sapele Hamilton sideboard by Robert Heritage for Archie Shine Midcentury.

Each 1,000-1,500 square foot condo opens onto a common deck with off-street parking below.  Huge skylights flood the interior spaces with natural light where a dizzying palette of material harmonizes in unexpected ways.

The floors are southern yellow pine planks; walls are clad in exposed brick, veined marble, painted wooden coffers and white subway tile; counters are concrete, copper, slate, teak or modern German Formica with a grained gray wood look; and light fixtures are rattan with boho styling intermingled with their antique counterparts.

Diverse eras and styles similarly converge: mid-19th century to mid-mod 20th century; German kitchens and Italian showers; English mansions and Ikea. And virtually every object has an origin story worth hearing, be it stained glass, crystal doorknobs, mirror frames that were once trim in an English house, or cabinets repurposed from a school science lab, also from the Mother Country.

Humble about his achievements and practical about his approach, says Mills simply, “In this day and age, we should be trying to recycle; it benefits everyone to use vintage and antique furniture.” Even better, though, if it is globally sourced and filtered through the inimitable imagination of Mills himself.

Mills plans to sell all six condos, located at 48 Market Street in Onancock. Interested parties can contact him at 757-709-0524 or johney70@hotmail.com.

PHOTOS BY JANICE MARSHALL-PITTMAN

 

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