At Home in Old Oxford

Thanks to loving owners, the past and present mingle at this antebellum abode.

Will and Patty Lewis had always felt a bond to the stately white house in downtown Oxford, with its sweeping grounds and distinctive architecture. Will even told the owner that if he ever thought of selling, he and Patty would like the opportunity to buy it. Opportunity knocked in 1979, when the Lewises were living in Will's former "bachelor quarters," as Patty describes it. That pecky-cypress bungalow located near the University of Mississippi was straining at the seams after the couple married and started raising three children there.

Today, the handsome Neoclassical residence they've called home for nearly 30 years — the Neilson-Culley-Lewis House — clearly reflects the Lewises' loving touch, with its eclectic mix of new and antique furniture, stunning artwork, and historic accents.

Set at the end of a row of cedar trees on land that once covered an entire city block, the house was built in 1857 as a smaller L-shaped structure by one of Oxford's earliest settlers, W.S. Neilson, who owned Neilson's dry goods store on the town square. He and later generations of his family occupied the residence throughout the Civil War and on into the next century. Over the years, the Neilsons sold sections of land "to family members who built smaller cottages and bungalows up and down the street," says Patty.

Now occupying four acres, the Lewises' home rises graciously above its neighbors, and even with commerce bustling just around the corner, the grounds still have a secluded feel.

As a boy, Will had admired the home. "I grew up not far away and I always thought it was a nice place," he says. Another connection strengthened his interest: Will's father went to work at age 17 for Neilson's Department Store and later became a partner with J.E. Neilson. Today Will and his grown children own the store but kept its original name. "It's an institution in Oxford," says Patty.

Alterations to the property began around 1915, when Dr. John Culley bought and maintained it through the Depression. "He built the garage and engineered this impossible winding driveway," Patty says with a laugh. Like many old houses of that era, the original kitchen was separate from the house, "located we think in the breezeway," adds Patty. So Culley brought the house into the twentieth century by adding an interior kitchen, along with a library and a master bedroom, thus changing the home's L-shape to a square.

The Lewises especially appreciate improve-ments made by later owners, Leah and Roland Adams. Patty recalls being inside the house for a party years ago. Walking through the front door, she noticed an "insignificant stairway up a side wall and a partition midway back in the main hall that just stopped you," she says. "It was not a pretty look."

The Adamses transformed the entry hall. They removed the old staircase, built a gracefully winding new one, and opened up the main hallway to create a commanding entrance. "Before the Adamses bought it," says Patty, "the house was never grand inside. Everything about it was simple." With the addition of wainscoting, crown molding, and other embellishments, the home's interior is as elegant as its facade. The Adamses also remodeled the kitchen, added a breakfast room, and revamped the home's side entrance into a butler's pantry, guest bathroom, and a utility closet.

Throughout the 6,600-square-foot, two-story house we see evidence of Will and Patty's love of local history and art. In the dining room, two cast-iron pedestals form the base of a glass-topped dining table, surrounded by lacquered Queen Anne chairs. The pedestals once supported the columns of Oxford's first courthouse, which was burned by federal troops. When the Lewises bought the house, it was more spacious than their first residence and they needed furniture for its many rooms. And even though Culley, who acquired the pedestals, had treated them a bit roughly — "He liked to entertain the Ole Miss athletic department," says Patty, "and he'd used them to fry fish — Will and Patty saw their massive beauty. They had them sandblasted, painted, and put to use as décor. Another pedestal is now a planter that graces the home's brick patio. And a cast-iron capital — the ornately carved crowning touch to one of the courthouse columns — serves as the base of the living-room coffee table.

In addition to historic artifacts, Patty and Will enjoy the variety of art that abounds in a university setting. "We faithfully go to student art shows and to art auctions," says Patty. "And we live right next door to Jason Bouldin, who's just the dearest young man and paints portraits and an occasional landscape."

Above a bench in the main hallway is an image of a neon-lit Monte Cristo Motel, "an interesting watering hole" located on Highway 51 in Grenada, Mississippi, with a restaurant that attracted wedding receptions and other events. Though it burned years ago, the landmark lives on in a series of painted photographs by artist Joe Pitts. "It was never easy to buy his work," says Patty. "He wanted to be sure you'd be an okay owner." Toward the back of the entry hall is a Richard Kelso painting — a moonlit landscape of rice bins in the delta.

Dominating a wall above the staircase is Jason Bouldin's portrait of Patty Lewis — dramatic in a long black dress, short silver locks framing her face. "I told him if he ever gave up painting he could style my hair," she smiles. "He made it look wonderful." Also near the staircase is an old grandfather clock and a Knabe piano passed down from a great-aunt. Lifting its gleaming lid, Patty strikes a few chords, then says, "Like anything old, it needs to be reworked."

In the breakfast room with its bay window, wide molding, and soothing "olive-branch" green paint is a trio of watercolors — the courthouse in Lexington, Mississippi, where Patty grew up; a scene from Oxford's Double Decker Festival; and a depiction of Neilson's store on the square.

In the living room are two impressionist works by Frank Neal, who received his M.F.A. from Ole Miss in the 1980s. One is the interior of Parks Barber Shop downtown, the other a bucolic scene of cows grazing in a misty pasture. Showing its teeth on one side table is a ceramic pistol-packing "cowboy" crocodile — by Clarksdale artist Mara Califf — complete with boots, hat, and holster.

The library also has eye-catching art. One piece, arresting in its somber beauty, has been with Will since his bachelor cottage days — a tomb rubbing of a medieval cleric burned onto wood. Another striking piece is a small bronze sculpture by William Beckwith of Taylor, Mississippi. It represents Temple Drake — the protagonist turned rape victim in William Faulkner's searing bestseller, Sanctuary. A lithe figure with flowing hair, the sculpted Temple is standing on the train platform waiting for a beau to pick her up for a football game. "And if you read Sanctuary," says Patty, "you know she never made it."

In his novel, A Rose for Emily, Faulkner alludes to the Neilson family. A spinster befriends and eventually marries the foreman of an Oxford street-paving crew. When he dies years later, his wife can't bear to inter him, so she keeps him in the upstairs bedroom. "We think that Faulkner loosely based that story on an incident in the life of Miss Mary Neilson, of the second Neilson generation who lived here," says Patty. "When a paving crew came along, she took lemonade to the foreman, Captain Jack Hume. After a budding romance, they married." Unlike Faulkner's character, Miss Mary had her husband promptly interred. "Old houses have a way of producing stories," Patty smiles, "although they may be twisted or embellished over time."

Fortunately for future generations, W.S. Neilson's wife, Mary Caroline, kept a diary of the Civil War era, excerpts of which were retold in the 1934 novel So Red the Rose, by Stark Young, who was educated at Ole Miss and went on to be a drama critic for The New York Times .

Patty reads one passage, based on a diary excerpt, that describes Union soldiers marching into town:

"I possess a friend here in Nancy Thompson, a most spirited young miss of sixteen. In her home some of Grant's men ordered her to play 'Yankee Doodle' and she scorned to comply, so they tore up an Aeolian harp and a piano. I was there at the first when Grant's troops startled the town by pouring in in large numbers. Their first target was a little negro boy who was perched in a big apple tree at the Neilson place. The Neilsons say he dropped to the ground like an apple falling. And Quit Wilkins . . . standing at a woodpile watching them pass, was shot in the leg and will be a cripple for life; he is fifteen. There is a good deal of smashing, but I tell my Oxford friend just to wait, we shall have worse later on . . . ."

The diary also reveals why the Neilson house was spared the torch while many others were burned to the ground. "It was written in Mrs. Neilson's diary that the Kansas Jayhawkers [who were anti-slavery and pro-Union] set up camp in this yard," says Patty. "We think this is why the house, and thus the diaries, were saved."

Moving from past to present, Patty wends her way up the oak staircase and tells of changes she and Will have made to their home. Upstairs they took one old bathroom and a dressing room and created two new bathrooms from that space. The second story — with its sitting area where Will likes to read, and four bedrooms at each corner, originally for the couple's now-grown children — is "really a family gathering place," says Patty, "and perfect for guests as well. It's amazing, when you live in Oxford, how many people want to come see you."

In addition to those changes, the couple also updated the kitchen. They darkened its walnut cabinets and added granite countertops and Viking stainless-steel appliances. They also had new cherry flooring laid in the kitchen, using wood from a cherry tree felled in the yard. Other floors throughout the house are hearts of pine, and "we are slowly but surely going to get them refinished," says Patty.

On the back of the house, she and Will enjoy the long covered porch, which was constructed by the Adamses. Like the rest of the house, the porch boasts original art, including another portrait of Patty from "back in the day," says Will, by her old friend Miriam Weems.

Recently the porch's brick foundation buckled when a cistern underneath began to sink "and just kept sinking," says Patty. "We finally just had to drain it and have it filled in." They also expanded the parking bay and built a storage house near the garage that matches the main house.

Strolling across the patio and into the yard, Patty tells of how the property was once encircled by cedar trees. A few have died over the years, and at least one was used by craftsman Marc Deloach to make a pair of cedar tables. "Here's a walnut tree that one of these days will have to come down," says Patty. "Do you think I'm not waiting to use that wood?!"

Several old cedars still dot the grounds, along with enormous magnolias. The Lewises trimmed the magnolias' lower branches to give the trees shape and let in some light. Along the front of the house are century-old English boxwoods and hardy wintergreen shrubs. Towards the back of the acreage are bois d'arc — also known as osage orange trees — which shed fruit that "we used to call horse apples," says Patty.

Simple landscaping — or "hodgepodge" as she describes it — lends a relaxing, natural touch to the side yard, with its scuppernong arbor, old camellia and hydrangea bushes, and a Knock Out™ rosebush that blooms well into fall. Looking between the trees to what she calls the "back forty," Patty tells how 20 years ago her husband took what had been "just a drainage ditch" and created a greenspace. Today, one of their daughters has begun building a house there. "It's the kind of yard that just beckons little ones to play, so it's lovely for our grandchildren," says Patty.

Beckoning the older generation, and sheltered by mighty oaks and the scarlet-tinged leaves of an old dogwood tree, is a sitting area around a cast-iron goldfish pond and fountain built decades ago by past owner John Culley. The same owner who salvaged the courthouse pedestals also saved another part of that structure. He took the pie-shaped bricks that had formed the courthouse's round columns and placed them around the pond. Currently no fish dart about in the water, because Patty and Will took them to their grandchildren's home. "We haven't gotten them back," says Patty, "but we see lots of birds and squirrels out here."

Also in this peaceful retreat, with its wrought-iron furniture and urns that overflow with angel-wing begonias, more artifacts tell stories of Oxford's past. One is a plaque dedicated to veterans of foreign wars that previously hung at the Lafayette County courthouse. "My husband felt it was important to rework the plaque to include veterans who had served in more recent wars," says Patty, "and to include those of the African-American race with all the others, rather than listing them separately." Once the new plaque was in place, Will was given the old one.

Another quaint piece not far from the goldfish pond is one of the town's original gaslight fixtures that once illuminated the courthouse. When Oxford was wired for electricity, the light posts were dumped into a ditch where they languished for many years. "In the early 1980s," says Patty, "someone mentioned to William that people could purchase them. As I told you, he likes artifacts."

Clearly at ease and happy in her spacious, lived-in home, the lady of the house makes her way back inside to point out Romanian rugs, old books that belonged to Will's parents, and lovely details about the dwelling that give it charm and character.

At 151 years old, the Neilson-Culley-Lewis House — like any time-worn structure — demands sweat, money, and perseverance. "It's always asking, please do something to make me better," says Patty, "whether that means fixing a leaky roof or a sinking cistern." The home's extensive clapboard exterior, she adds, requires painting every five to six years, although she hopes a new solvent that strips old paint to bare wood should help the fresh paint last longer.

Even with considerable maintenance, an old home compensates its owners in manifold ways — especially if they appreciate its history, feel the past that dwells within, and hear the voices of other families who laughed and cried within its walls. "There are countless joys to living in an older home," says Patty. "You must have a nurturing spirit." 

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