January 11 was a day Janette Nicholson would like to forget. If you were anywhere around downtown Covington that day, it's probably one you won't forget either.
Nicholson was up until 2 a.m. the night before at a hospital in Florida after her stepfather had suffered a heart attack. Distraught at the present circumstance, she received a 911 call that her house was on fire. Only it wasn't her home in Florida. It was her beloved project here in Covington that was ablaze. It was her house on Monticello Street.
"I was actually in an elevator to go and see him at the hospital which is the reason it took them several times to reach me," Nicholson said. "The loss is devastating to say the least. Prior to the disaster, we were planning to return to our home the following week."
Nicholson's house, built in 1899 and adjacent to First United Methodist Church on Monticello Street on the outskirts of downtown, was nearly consumed by fire that day. Throngs of onlookers watched in amazement as flames billowed high in the air while firefighters battled to extinguish them. According to Nicholson, a lightning strike ignited the fire on the roof near the back of the home. It quickly spread and destroyed the upper level and burned for nearly two hours.
While the fire stayed mostly on the upper level, the damage was done. Wednesday, a demolition crew brought down what remained.
Nicholson didn't live in the old house but was in the midst of restoring it to its previous glory. Her mother did stay in the house but was away at the time. That softened the news a bit. But learning of her home's fate, then seeing the compelling video on The News' website, brought a quick realization that six years of work, not to mention roughly $250,000 in repairs and upgrades, were gone.
"I put my heart and soul in to creating my own ‘Gone with the Wind' home, which happens to be my mother's favorite book and movie," Nicholson said. "We filled it with beautiful antiques, oil paintings, beautiful furniture, including the red velvet curtains."
Nicholson's journey started more than seven years ago when she made up her mind she wanted to purchase a historic home.
"My mother, sister and I visited historical homes all over the South for many years," Nicholson said. "My dream was to one day own one. We went on a three-week road trip in 2005, bouncing from state to state in search of the perfect home when we found "Ivy Cottage"...named by the previous owner because of all of the Ivy that consumed the property."
Though Nicholson and her mother and sister visited Covington and Monticello Street at the beginning of their jaunt, they continued searching. She said she was drawn to the old home at first glance but wanted to keep her options open.
Ultimately, she was drawn back to Covington and knew it was the home she wanted. She purchased it in 2006 for $480,000 and a new chapter in her life began.
"It was the first house I looked at, and after seeing approximately 15-20 homes, it was the last," Nicholson said. "I saw the potential beauty in Ivy Cottage and fell in love with it."
Over the past six years, plenty of work has gone into the home. Nicholson would visit every three to four weeks for a stay and her dreams were slowly coming to life. Then, in the matter of two hours, those dreams turned to charred wood and a mangled interior.
Even though Nicholson admits she didn't want to come back and watch the demolition crew tear down what's left of the 112-year-old structure, she knew she had to.
"I wasn't sure I wanted to come out here," she said. "When I drove up, I could smell the (burned house). It's been really hard. I became emotionally attached to this house."
The smell wasn't the only reminder. Sitting on the lawn was the charred remains of an air conditioning unit - a sign of evolution so-to-speak since when the house was originally built, people depended on cross-ventilation for climate control during the sweltering heat and stifling humidity a Georgia summer can bring.
While describing what's left of the interior of the home, her voice softened when she pointed out where her offices used to be. To make things easier, she's been keeping a journal of the entire process. She says it's therapeutic. Still, she has a void in her life now as empty as the plot of land her visions of Tara once stood.
"It was like a death in the family. I'm not going to lie. It is very sad and is almost like a funeral to me," Nicholson said.
Standing behind the home Wednesday, watching an excavator break off chunks of wood that was crafted more than a century ago as if it were a child tearing off a piece of Laffy Taffy, Nicholson has yet to determine what the future holds for the now barren lot. She said she has thought about exploring the possibility of building a new home but won't make any decisions in the near future.
"I am in the process of getting estimates on a rebuild," she said. "There are many I am interested in - Southern Living House Plans - some that I think will be a wonderful asset to the community; however, I am exploring all options and will determine whether it makes sense to rebuild during a rough economy."
Nicholson said she'll be leaving town this weekend and splitting time between a townhome in Buckhead and Florida. She'll continue evaluating her options on the property while chronicling everything in her scrapbook. Though she's lost her slice of small town Southern living for now, she's looking forward to turning the page.
"We were always in a project. But I have no regrets and enjoyed every one of them," She said. "I will have lots of wonderful memories and pictures. It's time to say good bye and start my new chapter."