Inside a Charming Tennessee River House

On the Kentucky Lake/Tennessee River bank, a creative couple dives into transforming a 1960 concrete block fish camp into The Waverly River House. 

Mitzie McDonnell imagined what life could look like on the river bank off of Periwinkle Lane. Here, she documents the transformation of an unlikely forever home.

The Beginning

I’m a realtor, and I received a call from a gentleman regarding a property he had found online. He asked if I would be able to take pictures and videos of the home and property to send to him so that he could determine if he wanted to make the trip to see it in person. I agreed and called to notify the listing agent that I would be viewing the property. I didn’t recognize the address, so I mapped out my route and made my way to Periwinkle Lane. I realized once enroute that this community was where my grandparents had taken my family and me camping and fishing when I was a child. 

Once I arrived, I immediately noticed the grounds were overgrown, and tree branches were hanging low. The house was a concrete block rectangle that didn’t even have a front door; instead, there was an old hand dug well right in front of it. And, off to one side of the house stood an old storage building. 

I walked around the side to find my way in, and that’s when I realized that the lake was right behind the property. With some cleanup, mowing, and tree trimming, I knew the view would be gorgeous. My heart leaped with excitement!

Once inside, I realized someone had started the renovation process, and they had removed the kitchen cabinets and started running some new wiring. The floors in the main living area were white square tiles that seemed to run on forever. The house smelled of smoke from the old brick fireplace, but the ceilings were tall and all wood. As bad as it was, I could already see its potential, and I was forming a vision in my head of what it could look like. I made pictures and videos of everything and went back outside to walk down to the water. 

The backyard had large mature trees, and it gradually sloped down to the water. It was located in a small cove right off the main channel of the river. I could see barges and boats on the water, and in my mind, I imagined what a life here would be like. I was hooked. 

I returned to the office, emailed the pics and videos to my customer, and waited for his response. He later called to tell me that he thought it was a bigger project than he wanted to deal with and had decided to pass on it. The next step would be the big one. I had to convince my husband. 

In casual conversation, I asked my husband if there was anywhere that he could live, where would that be? We had discussed moving to Florida, where his mother lives, but we know that most likely won’t happen because our kids and grandchildren are here in TN. He didn’t have an answer. I said, “Well, I want to live on Periwinkle Lane!” He asked, “Where the heck is Periwinkle Lane?” I said, “Get in the car!” When we arrived at the property, my husband, Frank, walked around and saw the property’s potential, and he immediately fell in love with the location and views. We both knew we wanted to make it ours.

Tennessee River House Transformation

Starting the Renovation Process

We sold the house we were living in and quickly put a small apartment in the back of my husband’s construction office building to live in while we worked on the river house. It was located right next to the railroad tracks. The first week there was almost unbearable, with the train running and blowing their horn all hours of the night. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, we also had a big rain, and the apartment flooded. I knew we needed to get some work done quickly on the house so that I could get out of the apartment as soon as possible!

The first major projects were digging a new well, getting the electricity up to code, and finishing a bedroom, bathroom, and laundry room so we could live there while we worked on finishing the rest.

From the beginning, we decided to pay for all the renovations out of pocket. So we would work at our jobs to make money and tackle the next project on the list. We did not have a real kitchen for two years! Frank made a plywood countertop on saw horses for my kitchen sink. We had a microwave and a propane gas two-burner sitting on a stainless prep table to cook on. It was a slow process, but you find out you can do anything you set your mind to. 

Decorating Style

I love for my spaces to feel comfortable and welcoming to my family, friends, and dogs. I like nice things, but I’m not a fancy person. I think a home should reflect the people that live there and their interests. Therefore, I have incorporated maps of the lake/river, boat oars, old metal minnow buckets, and driftwood found on our property as decor throughout our house and guest cottage.  

Making a Home Special

We know God brought us here. Once we realized we wanted to pursue buying the property, we started praying to God to let us know if this was the right path for us. Unbeknownst to me, Frank had prayed for God to show him a sign. Within a day of that prayer, Frank was looking at a map of the river and where the property is located, and that’s when he saw it. The view looked as if God was holding it in his hand, and we knew Periwinkle Lane was where we were supposed to be.

Advice for purchasing/renovating older and unique homes

Know that it will take longer and cost more than you ever think it will. Be willing to roll with the punches and have lots of patience. The work you put into it will give you a sense of pride and accomplishment that will last your whole life. 

Learn more about Mitzie and The Waverly River House.

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