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State historic site preserves Victorian Age in America

Lapham-Patterson House stands the test of time

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POSTED: December 25, 2012 7:00 a.m.
Randy C. Murray/

The dining room at the Lapham-Patterson House in Thomasville is decorated for Christmas. The house continues to reflect the Victorian Era more than a century after its construction.

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Victorian-era homes are common in Thomasville, which is about four hours from Hinesville on Highway 84. One of these homes is the Queen Anne-styled Lapham-Patterson House, a National Historic Landmark and Georgia Historic Site.

Even by the late 19th century, much of Georgia still was recovering from the Civil War. Thomasville, however, was becoming a winter vacation spot and “health” resort for wealthy northerners who had not yet discovered Florida, according to Eugenia Harris, tour guide for the house. Known for its annual Rose Parade and the “Big Oak” (circa 1680 with a height of 68-feet, trunk circumference of 25-feet and spread of 165-feet), Thomasville is only minutes from the Florida border.

“Florida had not yet opened up,” said Harris, a retired school teacher. “Not only are our winters milder, they were told the pine-scented air was healthy. Wealthy northerners started buying up the old plantations and building nice homes and big hotels.”

She pointed to black and white pictures on a glass shelf in the “library,” which was decorated for a Victorian Christmas. The pictures were of the Piney Woods Hotel, with its 300 rooms, and the gigantic Mitchell House Hotel, which included a park. Harris said a renovated remnant of that hotel is in what is now downtown Thomasville.

One wealthy northerner who came to Thomasville was Charles Lapham, a successful shoe merchant from Chicago. At 19, Lapham suffered lung damage in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Even before marrying a banker’s daughter, Emma Conger, Lapham made trips to Thomasville. He felt “rejuvenated” after wintering in the “piney woods” of Southwest Georgia.

In 1885, the Laphams and their two children moved into their newly built 6,000-square foot, 19-room, and three-story cottage. Harris said it’s believed that architect Theodore J.P. Rommerdall built the cottage to Lapham’s “peculiar” specifications. There are no right angles anywhere in the house, and none of the long-leaf pine floor patterns are the same. Windows — and there are 53 of them — extend to the floor and open from the bottom and top. At least three of the windows are stained glass and cast a rainbow on the pine floors during winter afternoons. There are 45 doors, 24 of which open to the outside. None of the rooms are alike, and nothing in the house is symmetrical.

Harris said it’s believed that Lapham’s house reflected his fear of being caught in another fire. A fire extinguisher was stored in every room. She said some Victorians also thought an asymmetrical house was closer to nature and, therefore, healthier.

For a 19th century home, the Lapham house had gas lighting and hot- and cold-running water, plus two indoor bathrooms and clothes closets in all the bedrooms. With its bright yellow, fish-scale siding and burgundy metal roof, the house still stands out among other old homes on Dawson Street.

Harris said the Laphams suddenly left the house in 1894 and never returned. The couple reportedly separated 10 years later, with Emma agreeing to pay child support for their children’s education. Neither of their children married.

The second owner, James Larmon, owner of a Cincinnati barbed-wire fence company, barely stayed in the house two months. He died of heart disease while on a business trip in December 1894. His widow, Harriet, finally sold the house to James Patterson from Whiteville, N.C., in 1905. The Pattersons took up full time residence, rather than use it as a winter home.

The home stayed in the Patterson family until the city of Thomasville bought the property in 1970. After some renovation, the Lapham-Patterson House was dedicated as a landmark in 1975.

“A couple years ago, the state of Georgia and Thomas County formed a partnership (to re-open the house),” said Harris. “It’s a very quirky house. We don’t know if it was the architect or Mr. Lapham’s design, but we just love it.”

The Lapham-Patterson house is open Friday-Sunday. For information about hours of operation and admission cost, call Sue White, Lapham-Patterson House director, or Ann Harrison with the Thomasville Museum of History at 229-226-7664.

 

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