Kathy Novotny is pictured in front of the small structure that stands behind her antebellum home, Temple Heights, on Ninth Street North in Columbus Wednesday. Dr. Mark and Kathy Novotny purchased the circa 1837 four-story Temple Heights in 2016 and are now leading a major rehabilitation of the smaller house that once served as slave quarters. Photo by: Chris Jenkins/Special to The Dispatch
Kathy Novotny shows neighbor Bob Wade beams thought to be more than 180 years old in the small house Wednesday. The Novotnys intend to keep the beams in place.
Photo by: Chris Jenkins/Special to The Dispatch
Portraits of Sarah Brownrigg Haughton and her husband, Lafayette Haughton, were recently received by the Novotnys from a direct descendant of Sarah Brownrigg. Sarah's father, Richard T. Brownrigg, was the original builder of Temple Heights and the quarters behind it.
Photo by: Chris Jenkins/Special to the Dispatch
September 15, 2018 10:03:25 PM
"Watch it here," cautioned Kathy Novotny, taking a sizable step up into the small wooden structure. Inside the dim exterior, beams thought to be more than 180 years old crossed the low ceiling typical in many buildings of the 1800s. Almost two centuries later, this one is undergoing extensive rehabilitation.
"This place matters," said Novotny, with a passion that drives the considerable work going into saving what was once slave quarters at Temple Heights on Ninth Street North in Columbus. It stands behind the circa 1837 four-story antebellum home built by Richard T. Brownrigg, who came to Columbus from Edenten, North Carolina. The little outbuilding is far less grand, but it is historic. References indicate it predates the main house by one to two years.
Dr. Mark and Kathy Novotny purchased Temple Heights, a Columbus Pilgrimage Tour home, in 2016. To them, preserving the smaller structure is important, just as it was to previous owner Dixie Butler and her late husband, Carl Butler. They acquired Temple Heights in late 1967; it was in great need of renovation. At any point in the half-century since then, it might have seemed simpler to demolish the quarters in the back. But the Butlers, and then the Novotnys, felt otherwise.
"Especially for some African-American families, sometimes it's hard to find genealogy and hard to find a place where (your ancestors) came from," said Novotny. "It is extremely important that we preserve a place where someone can go back and see a piece of that history."
That matters to Morris Henderson of Richmond, Virginia. Born in Columbus in 1955, he moved away as a child, but returned in 1992 for a few years to help care for his mother. It was only then, as an adult, that he discovered his connection to the antebellum site and met the Butlers.
"My family story is intricately connected to Temple Heights," Henderson said by telephone from Richmond. "My great-great-grandfather was a servant there. From what we can tell, he may have come (with the Brownrigg family) when they originally came from North Carolina, with his mother in 1832 to 1835. He grew up there; he took the name of Brownrigg."
Henderson remembers the moment he walked into the small house for the first time, in the 1990s.
"It was an overwhelming sense, a connection, something that gave me a sense of grounding," he recounted. "I found something that told me I could do whatever it was I had to do, because they had survived something far more difficult than anything I'd have to go through in my life."
Henderson's interest in history was so keen, he participated in a Pilgrimage tour at Temple Heights, giving presentations to the public.
Novotny said, "When you discover one of your ancestors' houses is still standing, it's a powerful thing. ... We're doing everything we can do to save it. The people who lived in it were the people who lived here, too. We want to tell the stories of how they got here and what they did. Those are the hands that built America."
The little wooden house has had several incarnations in the past near two centuries, some as a tenant rental.
"There was once a lady who milked all the cows that used to be in the neighborhood, and she lived there while she was employed to do that," Butler said. "We really didn't realize how old the house was until we started doing some work in it."
When they did uncover signs of its dated origins, "that changed game plans overnight," Butler explained. They had anticipated putting in a loft, but all that was revised after Ken P'Pool, recently of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, inspected the quarters and determined it to be of significant age.
"I'm delighted the Novotnys are working on the house. I think it's wonderful," said Butler.
Major work underway is guided in part by the expertise of architect Belinda Stewart of Eupora. Her firm, Belinda Stewart Architects, PA, specialize in historic preservation and in rehabilitation.
"That sometimes involves some changes, but always using the original character while also bringing updates so it can be used for current functions," Stewart explained. "With Pilgrimage, we want this outbuilding to be able to tell its story, so you don't want to change it too much."
Novotny said, "The house has been many things, and now it's destined to be a place where people who are researching African American history can come, where guests can come for a ballgame, whatever it needs to be -- which is what it's been through history. We're going to adjust for our modern lifestyle, and we're going to keep the footprint of the house as close to the original as we can."
The biggest challenge has been seeing what's there, Stewart said, determining the original bones of the structure and condition of all its elements. Already substantial work has been done to the foundation. Siding has been removed in order to evaluate original details.
"We're looking for hints and clues," Stewart said.
The goal is not to make everything flawless.
"We don't necessarily put everything exactly level and exactly plumb, because all buildings have a history," the architect explained. "If you have stability and make things more in line, everything doesn't have to be perfect."
The Novotny family looks forward to next spring's Pilgrimage Tour, when progress on the quarters will be open for the public to see. Kathy Novotny is enthusiastic, too, about a timely addition in the main house -- a pair of portraits that arrived in the past week, of Richard Brownrigg's daughter, Sarah Brownrigg Haughton, and her husband, Lafayette Haughton. They were gifted by Marilouise Butterfield Ervin Jackson of Oakland, California, a descendant of Sarah Brownrigg. The timing, while so much effort is being put into retaining another part of Temple Heights' history, seems significant to Novotny.
"In this house, we don't talk about furniture, we talk about the people who lived here," she said.
For those like the Novotnys, the Butlers, Henderson and Stewart, the stories have meaning.
Stewart's desire to explore them through architecture was inspired early by an interest in history. "And probably even moreso by my interest in stories," she said. "I realized that buildings and places are the tangible things that reflect them. It's really important when we do a project to help pull those stories out. You can't really separate a building from its stories. You can celebrate both."
Henderson is gratified to know work is underway on a place so connected to his ancestor's past. He acknowledged current controversies that have led to acts such as removal of Confederate statues.
"I don't think that we gain anything by trying to deny and destroy history," he said. Instead, he sees more benefit in developing a balanced view from all sides.
"I hope we will continue to see the value in making sure the entire story is told, so that we can have a perspective that would lead us to understand that things were not as good as they could have been, and that, in some cases, were not as bad as some say they were. ... I'm very pleased that the owners at Temple Heights are going out of their way to preserve history."
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.