When Rives and John Houser discovered Thomasville, they found a charming community with beautiful old homes and a penchant for preservation.
During the late 1800s, Thomasville was a world apart from most other Southern rural towns. Touted as "the best winter resort in three continents" by Harper’s pace of big-city life. Traveling from Chicago, Boston, Weekly magazine, it served as a mecca for wealthy northerners seeking to escape the chill of winter and and points in between, visitors arrived by rail to enjoy a sportsman’s paradise and a thriving community filled with stately plantations.
Thomasville’s days as a celebrated resort ended long ago, but very little has changed in the past 100 years. Handsome 19th-century homes edge shady, oak-lined streets, while the countryside serves as a renowned pleasure ground for quail and fox hunters. It was this old-fashioned gentility that attracted Rives and John Houser 20 years ago. The preservation-minded couple lived in Jacksonville, Florida, at the time, and discovered Thomasville while returning home from an opera performance in Atlanta.
"We came in, drove around, and found this house buried in trees," John recalls. A week later, the Housers surprised themselves by returning to the area and buying the Dillon House, an 1898 Classical Revival home in the Dawson Street historic district.
The Housers had fallen in love with the gracious proportions of the interior. Highlighting the floor plan is a massive central hail that opens to the primary living and entertaining areas. "It’s the widest hall in all of Thomas County" Rives claims. "They used to have little dinner dances in the hall, with music on the porches." The house wasn’t without problems, however. An old potbellied stove stood as an eyesore in the hail, and the exterior lacked architectural detail.
"The house was essentially a farmhouse," John says. "We liked the plan, but it was very plain." To offset the simplicity of the structure, the Housers dressed up the exterior with dentil molding and an elegant front door flanked by side lights. Though John is a civil trial lawyer by trade, he carved much of the woodwork that embellishes the interior of the home. "He’s a Renaissance man," Rives proudly explains. "He learned to carve, and he’s done all kinds of marvelous moldings."
Today, nobody would mistake the Dillon House for a modest farmhouse. Filled with the Housers’ outstanding collection of 18th-and 19th-century antiques, American paintings, and fox hunting memorabilia, it is a tribute to the town’s elegant style of living.
From 1870 through 1900, Thomasville reigned as an exclusive winter playground for some of the wealthiest people in the nation. They came to hunt, play golf, and soak in the natural beauty of a town nestled in the pine-filled woods of southwest Georgia. "B.F. Goodrich, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Alexander Graham Bell–you name them, and they wandered through here," says Tom Hill, curator of the Thomas County Museum of History.
Established in 1826, Thomasville plodded along as a sleepy little village for 40 years. But the town was blessed with several virtues that would put it on the map–a mild climate, the railroad, and a local doctor who wrote a pamphlet extolling the area as a health resort. People suffering with pulmonary ailments soon arrived to take in the pine-scented air, and pleasure seekers weren’t far behind. Between 1870 and 1900, a building boom produced 15 hotels and 25 boarding houses. "While the rest of the South was in abject poverty, we were having millions poured into the city," Hill explains.
The most remarkable fact about Thomasville is that its citizens welcomed northern tourists only five years after the Civil War ended. Tom Hill recounts the words of one local observer who attributed the town’s success to simple business acumen: "We soon found out that a Yankee was worth two bales of cotton, and twice as easy to pick."
The soil around Thomasville is among the richest in the country, and the area had long been a repository of grand cotton plantations. After the Civil War, however, the price of land plunged to $3 an acre–a bargain for tourists who were whiling away the, winter season in hotel rooms charging from $4 to $11 per night.
Wealthy industrialists of the time, including Ohio’s Howard Melville Hanna, snapped up acreage and transformed plantations into family retreats.
Thomasville’s days as a famous resort ended at the turn of the century, when Florida became a premier winter destination, but it has yet to lose its charm. In the 20th century townspeople hosted Dwight D. Eisenhower, who visited five times during his presidency and Jacqueline Kennedy, who spent six weeks at a local plantation following the assassination of her husband.
Today’s visitors stroll through the restored downtown area and take leisurely drives through historic districts lined with 19th-century homes. Popular sites include Pebble Hill, a 3,000-acre property that served as a hunting plantation for the Hanna family, and a rose garden featuring more than 500 flowering plants.
When architect Allen Shumake first saw his Dawson Street bungalow, he assumed that it was a 19th-century house. It does feature quarter-sawn heart pine floors as well as mantels, doors, and windows from the antebellum period. "Even the framing of the house is 1850," Shumake says.
The bungalow was actually built around 1921 out of materials salvaged from an antebellum home. Honoring this history, Shumake and his wife, Gina, have furnished the interior with antiques from the 18th and 19th centuries, 1920s pieces, and modern-day reproductions crafted from heart pine.
Mercer Watt grew up in Virginia and, "always wanted to have a Virginia house." To create the atmosphere of the Old Dominion in Thomasville, Watt and her husband, Vance, turned to the late EdwardVason Jones, the renowned architect who created period rooms for the White House and the U.S. Department of State. Jones’s solution was to design a gracious Georgian home based on the late-8th-century William Finnie House at Colonial Williamsburg. He also aided the Watts in furnishing the interiors and selecting old longleaf pine for the doors and flooring.
Perhaps it’s fitting that the first screening of Gone With the Wind occurred on the grounds of Melhana Plantation–it is now a gracious inn that would have made Rhett and Scarlett feel right at home. Developed in the 1820s, Melhana was originally part of a much larger plantation that prospered before the Civil War. Its glory days, however, began in 1896, when Howard Melville Hanna purchased Melhana. The wealthy Ohio oilman expanded the main family residence and his son, Howard Melville Hanna, Jr., added Georgian Revival outbuildings to the property during the 1920s and 1930s. The Showboat movie theater built by the younger Hanna previewed Gone With the Wind because a wealthy area resident had helped finance the film.
In 1994, Charlie and Fran Lewis purchased 40 acres of the Hanna retreat and transformed the property into an inn. Today, guests can relax on the veranda, stroll manicured grounds shaded by live oaks and magnolias, or enjoy an afternoon of riding, tennis, or croquet. Gourmet Southern dinners are served at the inns Melhana’s Restaurant. Call (888) 920-3030 or (912) 226-2290. www.melhana.com.