This Old House

With help from a new preservation group, a Fayette County landmark may get a fresh start.

One August afternoon in 2007, Mark Parrish was helping a friend get his men's clothing store ready to open on the town square of Somerville, Tennessee. As folks stopped in to chat, Parrish met other residents and business owners, and he asked a couple of old-timers, "So what's with that white elephant down the street?"

Soon the Memphis builder and rehabber was learning all about the Hannum-Wirt-Rhea-Morris house — and for months he's been on a mission to save it. As president of the Fayette County chapter of the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities, Parrish must convince the state APTA — by January — that his organization can transform the house into the Fayette Cultural and Community Center.

First, a brief history of the building, which is one of only four original structures still standing in Somerville. According to Parrish, it was built in 1832 as a residence by Patsy Hannum, whose father founded Fort Nashborough on the site of what is now Nashville. Hannum's house had walls constructed of massive beams secured with wooden pegs; the walls were finished with lath and plaster. Though the home started with two rooms, by 1850 it had been expanded into two stories with eight rooms, all with a mix of styles, including a touch of Dutch trim molding. Over the years, it boasted various owners, some of whom raised families there. By the 1930s, however, it had became a boarding house and slowly deteriorated. When the last owner died, his heirs donated it to a now-defunct chapter of the APTA.

Parrish became part of the home's history when he chose to try and finish what that chapter started in 1994. Over 15 years they had stabilized the structure's foundation, installed Sheetrock, ductwork, and wiring, and saved all original mantels, molding, and doors to be refinished. But gradually, as key people grew weary of the project or died, the restoration efforts died too, and the house was turned over to the state APTA, which had plans to sell it.

When Parrish approached the state organization in 2007 in hopes of reclaiming the house and rehabbing it, their response was, "We've heard all this before." Yet, with backing from state and county movers-and-shakers, Parrish persuaded those leaders to give his new APTA chapter a chance. "In January," he says, "we'll need to show them we're a viable entity that can care for the house, and use it for the community."

That means building the chapter's membership and monetary base with grants and fund-raising projects — among them a series of donor dinners with a celebrity chef and entertainment by local musicians. Though Parrish estimates that the home requires about $180,000 to be fully rehabbed, he thinks $10,000 could finish the front parlor and, as he says, "get the doors open."

Depending on the outcome of the January meeting, visitors may eventually stroll through the Fayette Cultural and Community Center. They'll see the front parlor restored to how it looked in the 1830s. They'll have a cup of java in the coffee shop lined with books donated by the neighboring Somerville-Fayette Library, which will also work with the APTA to develop history exhibits and videos. Couples will hold wedding receptions there, and organizations can use the center for meetings. Says Parrish: "With a county as big and growing as fast as Fayette, meeting space is always in demand." The center will be handicap-accessible and have a catering kitchen.

Dr. Hugh Crawford, who now lives in California, remembers visiting the house when his grandparents, the Rheas, lived there, and he's been committed to saving it. He calls Parrish a "godsend" for working to give new life to an old landmark.

Parrish's reaction to the house is almost visceral: "Right out there was a stagecoach line," he says, gesturing toward a side street off Highway 64. "The soldiers came down that road from Shiloh. They say Meriwether Lewis came past here at one point. I think about that, and it gets to me. I have chills running down my spine."

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