I am not lost on the fact that we are celebrating the resurrection of Christ this Easter weekend. Using “resurrection” in the title is appropriate as its meaning is most fitting: a rebirth, restoration, reappearance, renewal, revitalization. All are appropriate to the saving of the Dickson-Williams Mansion. During the first couple years a lot of work had gone into the project but it was still only the beginning. The mansion would indeed be a phoenix, a symbol of rebirth from the ashes of the past. While money was important, time was the ultimate factor. No one was lost on the fact that seeing the return of the showplace of East Tennessee was going to be a long, slow process. A Sun article said it best: “The historic mansion is being restored for use ‘someday’ as a house museum.”
The Dickson-Williams Historical Association was formed with board members Betty Alexander, Bob Bailey, Betsy Bowman, Louise Chamberlain, Richard Doughty, Bill Gass, Helen Horner, Gregg Jones, Woodrow Mitchell, Louise Orr, Harry Roberts, Robert Rodefer and Sarah Webster.
It had a sub-group “The Mansion Campaign” to help in the raising of funds. Honorary chairmen were William’s descendants. Beverly Williams who with wife Wilhelmina are involved in the D-W Historical Association and are tour guides. Beverly helps maintain the grounds and the home itself. Their work is invaluable in maintaining the mansion. Beverly’s brother William Dickson Williams, (not the one I wrote about) was an honorary chairman also. The general co-chairmen were Bob Rodefer and Sarah Webster.
The additions to the mansion were removed revealing the historic home. The hospital additions, too, were slowly taken down. This was not a start up the bulldozer and knock it down type project. In his zeal to get the ball rolling, Mr. Doughty brought in the “students” of the Greene County Detention Center School of Demolition and Restoration. They were tasked with cleaning out debris, removing the added drop ceilings, removing added wall partitions etc.
Bill Gass, the consulting architect, said in a Sun interview in 1988, “Because the most recent public use of the building was the Greeneville Hospital, the spacious interior was filled with many small rooms and hallways. Walls, plumbing, and hospital doors had to be removed without damage to the original portions of the structure.” Gass said, “it is remarkable that so many of the home’s original fixtures remain after its years of varied usage. Original floors, walls and windows remain throughout the house.”
These “students” from the detention center also removed some original plaster and one decided to test the integrity of the 200-year-old hand turned balusters of the stairway with a two-by-four.
Gass worked with Henry Judd, a restoration expert whose resume included restoring Independence Hall in Philadelphia and the Andrew Johnson sites in Greeneville. Gass related that “the mansion was studied and taken apart ‘piece by piece.’ Gass told me this week, “I learned an awfully lot fast.” He said Judd only spent a couple days at the mansion, but his help was invaluable. He used a damp mop to reveal shadows that only appeared briefly showing where walls and doorways had been. He said partitions had been added so that each patient’s room had a window. Remarkably, Gass said, the outside walls and the 4X8 windows had not been touched. A restoration architect from Raleigh, North Carolina, was also brought in to write an historic structures report.
Bill said the home was put together with nails and pegs. He said the second floor was tied to the outside wall giving the entire structure stability. He said the original builders dug down to solid ground then started with a layer seven bricks thick. No concrete footers like today. He said the staircase had settled eight inches over the years and a structural engineer from South Carolina was called in and added a well-hidden steel beam to support the raised and leveled stairs. Mr. Doughty told me once the only staircase he had ever seen more glamourous was in the Nathaniel Russell house in Charleston, South Carolina.
The biggest revelation from Judd was that the famous daguerreotype Doughty used in his 100 Year Portrait of Greeneville was not the mansion. A member of the Williams family had given it to Doughty and it had been widely used as an early depiction of the historic structure and gardens. What Judd found was that there was no archaeological footprint and no structural evidence to support the mansion ever looked anyway but what we see today. Doughty told me at the time he was “deeply disappointed” the photo was not of the mansion.
Sadly, this image has become engrained as “the early mansion” and is accepted as such. I had come to the conclusion that Sarah Webster, the president of the D-W Heritage Association, and I were the only people that knew and believed it not to be the mansion.
One tour group coming to town a couple years back had used the image on their T-shirt design. I informed them the image was not the mansion so they could correct it before printing their shirts. I got a long email from their president informing me, “Please understand, this is how the mansion looked in 1820.” One would think, as Greene County Historian and a member of the D-W board I would have known what I was talking about. Yet, this gentleman from Ohio wanted to correct me. I asked another group to please not identify the image as the D-W on their webpage and they told me it was on the national archives site as the D-W and they would continue to use it.
Some have questioned this image over the years because the geography does not match the local landscape. Enough said, the image is not the mansion! However, it will continue to show up and be used as such because it has been widely distributed in the past. Just where it came from and if it is actually a house or just an artist’s depiction remains a mystery.
Gass said this week that the first priority was to determine what was added and when. He said they visited two other local homes built by Battersby and Hoy, the Valentine Sevier home and one in Warrensburg, both still standing. He said that the builders brought their own tools from Ireland and these were made especially for them and all the woodwork and trim would reflect their style and tool marks. The same planes would have been used to replicate the woodwork in all three homes. The plan, he said, was to return the mansion to its appearance during the time of the Civil War, the most storied time of the mansion’s history.
Another thing they looked at were nails and nail patterns. Early 1800s nails were made by blacksmiths, and later up through 1850 cut nails were used. These nails and the pattern in which they were driven told when and by whom they were used. Gass said this “went a long way in determining what to leave and what to take out.”
He said the most important item was to make sure the walls were structurally sound and the house had an adequate roof. He said there was controversy over the original roof of the house. Some of the experts thought it had a tin roof and others, including Mr. Doughty, felt it had been wood shakes. Mr. Doughty won that argument and in 2014 the shakes began to leak and the home was refitted with a metal roof.
Bill and I discussed September 9, 1987, when at 10 a.m., as the Sun reported that day, “Historic Walls Tumble.” The entire corner of the home including the Morgan bedroom, three stories collapsed. Bill said the bricks were not fired as hard as modern brick and having dried out from being against another wall had taken on water during unusually heavy rains. As he told the Sun that day, “there are about 400,000 bricks that will have to be cleaned and reused.”
Fortunately, no one was hurt and other than a couple windows and a fireplace bookcase lost, the house remained intact, and the wall was rebuilt. This was not a job for the Greene County Detention Center School of Masonry & Bricklaying. A Sun account reported the 10-week job of replacing the wall was being performed by Tennessee Restorations from Nashville. “The original bricks, newly cleaned, are being placed back in the same style as before, using mortar mixed to match that of the original brick wall” it said.
It was about this time I met Mr. Doughty on the street in front of Cumberland Presbyterian Church. He asked if I had seen the mansion and I told him no. We walked together and I remember turning the corner on Church Street and seeing the mansion. It reminded me of images of bombed out buildings from WWII. Mr. Doughty was telling me about the bricks and I asked him if I could have one. He handed one to me and I asked if I could have one for my sister. He handed me two. I asked why he was giving me two and he replied, “You have two sisters don’t you?”
Gass said that experts had analyzed the plaster walls to determine which colors had been used in the original home. They used park service guidelines to determine which color schemes most matched the original. I have heard stories over the years that Mr. Doughty had his own ideas about the colors and had painters apply the colors that suited his tastes. He was known for his temper tantrums and shared one with his fellow board members when they decided to cover over his favorite colors with what more closely resembled the originals. Before painting, the walls were repaired and replastered where needed by Ikey Brobeck.
Gass said they found an original door in the basement of the old hospital, so they knew what the doors had looked like. He said that Mr. Doughty discovered a mantle original to the home from the Morgan bedroom in a house belonging to Haskell Fox on the Asheville Highway. Bill said he didn’t know how he did it, but Doughty managed to get the mantle and returned it to the mansion. He said Paul Odendal built matching mantles for the other fireplaces and Rick Adamson from Newport marbleized them.
One of the greatest obstacles was removing the two-story bridge that joined the mansion with the newer hospital building. Since it was attached to the mansion on one side and the hospital on the other it had to be carefully removed. It could have easily brought down the entire building if not handled right.
With the bridge gone, work could continue on the front of the home. A window was needed on the second floor and the elegant front door on the bottom. Local woodworker Charles Stanton built the window, sills, and built the front doors, side lights, and transom. It is the signature element of the home’s renewal and one of the first sights that greet visitors.
The restoration was progressing, and much was left to be accomplished. Doughty’s shining star was that he was able to find and convince owners to return furniture to the home which had belonged to the Williamses. One of the greatest finds was the bedroom suite in which General Morgan had spent his last night. Instead of a long list of items here, it would be much better for readers to take a tour of the historic home and experience it for yourself.
On Sept. 3, 1995, the mansion was opened to the public. A formal blessing was held on the lawn outside as 500 people came to see the restored mansion. I was one of the many people that toured the home that day. I remember Sarah Webster in the dining room area wearing a black period dress telling us about the home. It was an amazing visit and awesome to see the historic home returned to grandeur.
The restoration began in 1986 is still ongoing. Furniture relative to the home is still being added. The grounds and the house itself continue to see improvements. Walkways have been improved, steps at the parking lot added. Boxwoods and other plantings added. The heating and cooling systems have been updated. All the home’s windows have been reglazed. One current project is to replace the home’s shutters. Composite sets of shutters for one window run $3,000 per set. It is never too late to support the mansion and be a part of history. The Westside Garden Club decorates the home in period fashion each year as the Christmas season approaches. This is one of the best times to tour the mansion. In my opinion, any time is a good time to tour the mansion. Tour it now and go back to enjoy the beauty of the decorated home at Christmas.
Tours of the mansion are offered daily at 1 p.m. beginning in the lobby of the General Morgan Inn. There are activities planned throughout the year to highlight the historic home and its 200-year-old story. Come trail a bit of Greeneville’s past, you will be glad you did.