After all the contracts were signed, he stood in a state of shock and wondered what he had just let himself in for, he said.
In late 2014, property developer Rob Fowler of Covington began hearing rumors that the old Stephenson house, then part of the estate of Sarah Stephenson Fullbright, on the corner of Clark and Emory streets was about to be sold to a national variety store chain for at least $200,000 below asking price.
“To build on the site, they would tear down the house and by my estimation lower the ground level about four or five feet to make a level lot,” Fowler said. “It was a great location [for them] with entrances on two sides.
Hearing about the chain’s offer, he decided he would take another look at the property.
“I had been looking at the property for three or four years, and it was going for about $600,000,” he said.
The white house with the columned porch and the carriage house in the backyard stands on a hill overlooking Emory and Clark streets. The paint was peeling. The porch balustrades needed to be removed, stripped and repainted. Some of the columns were rotting. Vines six- to eight-inches in diameter were strangling the trees and ivy was threatening to take over the visible ground.
Still, Fowler said, he remembered what the house had once been like in the early to mid-20th Century, when the Stephenson family lived there. He could see what it could be if restored.
So, he put in an offer equal to the chain’s offer, but without contingencies other than an inspection for structural engineering issues. The only problem that turned up – the foundation of the carriage house in the southwest corner of the property had sunk, and would need to be repaired.
The structural engineer looked at the 100-plus-year-old house and said it was sound. “It’s very old, but the roof didn’t leak, though the front porch did,” Fowler said. “I said, ‘Let’s give it a go’.”
Then, he said, he “wondered what I got into.”
“To do illogical things takes a little insanity,” he said.
Coming up with a plan
Work on the house didn’t begin immediately.
The project “was so huge at first, we started one thing,” he said. Over that first winter, a landscape architect prepared a plan for the grounds. In February of this year, grounds crew cleaned up the overgrown lot, paring back where necessary and replacing the ivy covering the hill with monkey grass.
Work also began on the exterior. The clapboards were prepped and painted white. The balustrades were removed, one at a time, sanded and repainted, before being replaced. The rotting columns have been repaired.
“We still need to paint an entire side,” Fowler said. “I’m thinking the next step would be the carriage house. It’s vulnerable today.”
Then, he said, would be to build four landscape terraces on the property, which runs all the way back to Dried Indian Creek, he said. “You could spend the same amount of money the house costs on the landscape.”
Inside, the circa 1900 house has many of the features found in early 20th Century American homes: hardwood floors with parquet inlays, stained glass windows, a living room with a fireplace on one side of the wide, dog trot hall. Keeping with Southern traditions, the ceiling of the porch showed signs of having been painted at least twice, one in sky blue and one the soft blue-green called “haint” blue.
Fowler said when the time comes to sell it “to someone who wanted to love it,” he wants to make sure it will remain a family home and not be torn down.
“We’re going to keep working until it finds itself a new home,” he said.
A tribute to times gone by
For the 78-year-old Fowler, it seems, the task of seeing the Stephenson home restored is inspired by his age and his memories. “We’re searching for; a time where we felt whole and connected,” Fowler said.
The motivation to buy the house sprang from those memories, and was similar to saving historic downtown Covington. “To have the Stephenson house become a Dollar General – it was incongruent,” he said. “There would be a loss of history and graciousness.”
“When you walk into a community, you can feel it, know it, touch it,” he said. “When you drive in, you can’t.”
Historic downtown Covington is a walkable community, he said. “I want it to be like it was — that’s my dream — but it ain’t. How do we keep a little bit of what it was as it transitions into something more viable? Let’s save a little bit of what we are. We’ve got downtown, we’ve got the Stephenson house, we’ve got Floyd Street.”
He acknowledges said many people struggled and lived through hardships. Diversity was not celebrated or respected. Other residents of the county, he said he realized as he got older, had different backgrounds, different heritages, different stories to share. “Those roots will define you in many ways,” he said.
“We embrace our history, the good and bad,” Fowler said. “We begin to search our souls; we look for what drives us. I think some of us in our lives have more passion or excitement about what it’s all about which it drives us towards things we shouldn’t, but may inspire us to do more.
As part of the restoration process, Fowler has been researching the history of the Stephenson family, and said he was amazed at how entwined his family tree was with the Stephenson and Calloway [an another old Covington family] families. John Lee Stephenson was one of the original members of the board of the Bank of Covington, owned and operated by the Fowler family.
“Ernest Lee Stephenson was very supportive of me. I’ve had people like him who ‘mentored’ me – cared about me,” he said.
Like the Fowlers, the Stephenson’s were among some of the earlier European settlers in Newton County. The first Stephenson, John of Orangeburg County, South Carolina, came to Newton County shortly before he married Mary McDonald in 1828. Their third great-grandson, Ernest, married Margaret Budd of Oxford, Dec. 20, 1930, and was appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to serve as postmaster of Covington. He held the position from 1941 to 1965.
“Covington is my roots,” Fowler said. “I’m becoming one of the elders of the community, a tribal elder. They give good advice and don’t do any work.”