June 30, 2012 10:29:32 PM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
Fifty years after Robert and Donna Snow struggled through undergrowth to catch their first glimpse of the weathered beauty that would become their life's passion, Robert Snow can still recite even the smallest details. It is no wonder, perhaps, since that October morning in 1961 changed the course of his life, and was the salvation of Waverley Mansion.
"As we came around a huge oak tree we stopped dead in our tracks -- absolutely breathless, mesmerized. We scarcely spoke," Snow wrote of that day in a journal, one of many he kept during restoration of the antebellum gem in Mississippi's Clay County.
Anyone truly interested in Southern architecture is aware of this graceful home, a mainstay of Columbus' Spring and Fall Pilgrimage tours, as well as open for daily tours year-round. It has been showcased in publications from Architectural Digest to Colonial Homes and hosted visitors from around the world. But few know how near this structure now designated a National Historic Landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places came to being lost, before fate intervened.
Robert Snow will never forget.
The house itself, with its dramatic octagonal cupola and cantilevered balconies, had been a compelling piece of Southern history since it was commissioned by Col. George Hampton Young in the early 1850s.
It was once the heartbeat of a massive plantation with its own cotton gin, lumber mill, gristmill and commissary. But the home fell quiet after the death in 1913 of the colonel's last son.
For almost 50 years after, it was virtually empty, each passing year exacting a toll. In time, visitors to Waverley's once-glorious grounds, where exotic peacocks had roamed, were mainly partying students from Mississippi State University and Mississippi State College for Women, and ghost hunters.
A chance conversation
By the time a traveler stopped at the Snow's antique shop in Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1961, describing "an old, abandoned house, the most marvelous architecture" he had ever seen, decay and time were having their way with Waverley.
"Within 15 minutes of him telling us about it, I'd said, 'Let's go up there and have a a look," Snow reminisced Tuesday. The active 86-year-old, his daughter Melanie, and a visiting friend sat in wrought iron garden chairs on an intimate patio shaded by the 160-year-old house. Sepia photographs, long-saved magazines and Snow's hand-written journals covered the table nearby.
Within two days of the traveler's tale, the couple had crossed the Tombigbee River on a hand-drawn ferry near West Point, trudged through the woods, and found themselves standing awestruck in front of the faded treasure. Broken shutters and vines clung to the peeling exterior. Much of the wooden porch had collapsed, its marble steps scattered in the yard. Birds flew in and out of the windows.
"I climbed up on the porch and stuck my head through a broken red Venetian glass pane around the front door, and I told my wife, 'Honey, we've got to buy this place,'" Snow said, his eyes animated.
"My wife said, 'You are crazy!'" he continued. "I told her, 'Let me help you up and take a look.' She looked and didn't say anything at first, and then she whispered, 'Oh ... it is so beautiful.'"
That very day, the couple tracked down and approached executors of the Young estate. They returned to Philadelphia, where Robert spent that first night "scared to death they would not sell the house." Donna would later joke that she spent it scared to death they would.
The first breath of revival blew through Waverley's famed cupola when the Snows took ownership in early 1962, all thanks to that chance conversation in the antique shop.
Creatures of the night
For several months, Snow and a gardener, Leonard Fulton, commuted on weekends to clear the worst of the debris. They camped in sleeping bags in the rotunda, watching squirrels stirring in the chandeliers and other critters keeping watch.
"The birds and squirrels pretty much cleared out right away, but the bats had an incredible homing instinct and it took forever to get rid of them; there were thousands," Snow emphasized.
Melanie Snow recalled finally moving into the house with her parents and three siblings in the spring of 1962.
"I was 7, Allen was 11, and little Cindy was 5," she said. "We moved in with no plumbing, no electricity, no phones in the area."
The four children took their conditions in stride, however, and eventually joined in the reclamation.
On the arm's-length list of tasks was cleaning a decades-long catalog of "Sam loves Suzys" (fill in a host of other names) on virtually every flat surface, souvenirs left by a parade of teenagers.
"My mother used to laugh that she knew every love affair for the past 50 years," smiled Melanie.
She treasures her dad's prolific journals and still marvels at entries like the one that reveals wiring the whole house for electricity was done for a sum of just over $700.
Restoration would span the next three decades, rooms completed one at a time and most often with the family's own sweat equity.
Nancy Carpenter, executive director of the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau, considers Snow a dear friend.
"Robert Snow is one of the hardest working men I've ever known, and the epitome of a true gentleman, always welcoming everyone with warmth. We're so fortunate to have a National Historic Landmark right here, where the family and staff open their arms seven days a week to guests year-round," she remarked.
"They did a beautiful job researching it," said Columbus architect Sam Kaye, who recently received the Mississippi Heritage Trust's highest honor, the Al and Libby Hollingsworth Lifetime Achievement Award for outstanding service to historic preservation.
Kaye photographed Waverley for a college project while he was an architecture student at Auburn University and described the home's survival as "serendipitous."
"From a standpoint of architecture and an example of lifestyle from the early 19th century, it certainly is an excellent example. If it had not been for the Snows, the house was probably not going to be there."
The pilgrim business
Welcoming visitors to the home began when the curious, upon hearing someone had bought the old place, began coming to see for themselves. It continues to this day.
Before her sudden death in 1991, Donna Snow was always the gracious hostess at the door, extending hospitality to all who came. And they did come -- Russian ballerinas, the Archduke of Austria, the vice president of Estee Lauder, famed author James Michener, historical romance writer Lavyrle Spencer, governors and international dignitaries and so many, many others.
One of Snow's favorites was Guy Lombardo, whose music the homeowner had so enjoyed in the past.
"He came to play a concert in West Point, and can you believe he invited us and introduced us as his guests?" the distinguished patriarch asked, enjoying the memory.
It was just one of the enduring moments shared with Donna, whose spirit still fills the house she loved and worked so hard to preserve. A portrait by Emmitt Thames in the grand dining room shows the lady of the house in a favorite gown, a corner of the yellow parlor drapes behind her. They were her last handmade contribution to Waverley's continuing resurrection.
"All those years, there was Donna at the front door, welcoming everyone as she would an old friend ... " Snow expressed in the foreword of a Heath Childs' "Waverley: Memories of a Mississippi Plantation."
Their dreams came true at Waverley, Snow said. The house lives on. Even the peacocks have returned.
Whatever sacrifices were made in the process were more than made up for by the "wonderful influx of people that came to our door from around the world," he shared. "Some were famous and many the salt of the earth, but each in his way made us feel that all of our work here had been worthwhile."
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.