Fortifying the Washaway
19th-century home gets new underpinning and much more
The three of us, contractor Daniel Brock, estate agent Russell Harris and I, are in the southwest corner of Grayton Beach standing on a pile of white sand while a little front-end loader works impatiently around us.
Before us, the old-style, “oyster-shell” mansion is buzzing with carpenters, tile setters, electricians and painters. It’s the first and last 19th-century dwelling left in Grayton Beach, a survivor from the days when one great Florida cattle herd ranged unfenced from Panama City to Pensacola.
Yet the venerable old place never would have survived today’s housing speculation if not for the folks of Grayton Beach leaning into legacy rather than the bulldozing of local culture. At stake was the place’s ambiance accumulated over 132 years.
Since 1890, owners have included notable Panhandle names like McCaskill and Butler; it was once called Wickersham’s Place, but the name that has stuck is Washaway House. The structure was blown off its foundations, once by the great hurricane of 1926 and again in 1995 by Opal. So, the name’s not hard to puzzle out.
Perhaps because of its seeming indestructibility, the Washaway’s current owners, the Hull and McNellis families, have opted to save it and make it grand.
We walk underneath the building to inspect the forest of pilings that the building rests on. The “crawl space” is 8 feet high.
“There’s 96 of those things!” Brock said. “Sunk ’em 20 feet into the ground.”
“No more wash aways here,” Russell added.
“Part of the plan,” said Brock, “is to make a game room and maybe a workout room, down here.”
Back at the street entrance, as we pass through the compound’s gate, Brock talks to me about floor space.
“The building’s original square footage was 2,200, including porches,” he said. “We’ve added another 3,500 square feet inside and brought the total, all around, up to 10,000! And, oh, that gate? It’s made with some of the original hard pine we replaced.”
On the first living level are an outside fireplace and grotto, christened the Butler Bar and equipped for outdoor cooking. Across the patio is a 12,000-gallon swimming pool. A commons room on the south corner has a wavy line molded on the inside wall showing the level of the 1926 hurricane’s storm surge.
The elevator isn’t operational, so hugging the wall, we take the unbanistered stairs to the next level — a labyrinth of bedrooms and balconies with postcard views. Sunlight penetrates the bathroom showers through walls of glass brick. Washaway’s layout is quirky and complex in a Victorian-era way.
We take more stairs. A landing at the top of them enshrines pictures and objects from the Washaway’s past. Turning left, there are more suites with glorious views from even higher up, plus a bunkroom for kids.
Turning right leads through a cupola.
“There’s a story about a fisherman lost in ’26,” Brock said, “and how for years before she died, his wife kept a light burning for her husband’s return. So there’s going to be a light up there.” He points to the high windows below the cupola vault.
Proceeding on, Russell said, “There’s a local legend about Al Capone hiding out in Grayton Beach, so this room here is the Al Capone Room. We’re debating whether to put bullet holes in the walls.”
Briefly, the three of us are standing on the Al Capone balcony looking down at the swimming pool and joking about whether we could jump far enough out from the balcony to make the pool.
It wouldn’t feel right to regard the Washaway as soulless property. It’s more like a homegrown memorial filled with reminders of such as Charles Gray, the Army major for whom the town is named, or Gen. William Miller, who along with a friend, built Washaway. Miller helped turn back a detachment of Union troops at the Battle of Natural Bridge near Tallahassee.
In World War II, a Coast Guard contingent bunked at Washaway and rode the beach on horseback to patrol against saboteurs from German u-boats.
Seven bedrooms and eight bathrooms later, we come back poolside via the stairs. We’re shaking hands and moving toward the entrance gate.
“Is this all for the owners’ private use?” I ask at the last minute. “Or is it commercial?”
“Well, maybe,” Brock said, “but there are two different families. But maybe.”
In Emerald Coast real estate, that’s transparency.