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Renovated, Refurbished Historic Home: Tiara


By Leigh Ballard         

Bob and Mary Jean Smith of Collierville, TN are no strangers to beautiful and history-rich homes. They live in Bob’s family home in historic Collierville where he has lived since he was 6 years old. Together they share a keen understanding of style, design and history of older homes, having for many years maintained their landmark on Poplar Avenue. But when the unique historical home called Tiara came up for sale in La Grange, Tennessee, they just couldn’t resist taking on another project.

Tiara was built in 1845 by Franklin Dwight Cossitt, a member of the same Cossitt family who built the Cossitt Library in Memphis. He and his family resided in the house until 1863. Like many homes in La Grange, the house served briefly as a hospital during the Civil War.

The name “Tiara” comes from the beautiful cupola which sits atop the home. A tornado in 1900 ripped the cupola off the roof and blew it fifteen miles away, where it landed in Hickory Valley, TN. It was recovered and restored to its original position as a crown atop the antebellum home. Now, in the Smith’s renovation, the “tiara” provides natural light for the second floor landing at the top of a winding, solid walnut staircase. There are nineteen windows in the tiara, and a long pole can be used to open them. Mary Jean says, “Originally those windows served for ventilation in the days before electricity. We open them sometimes and it is really noticeable how much it cools the house with the cross ventilation of the other windows upstairs.”

The house has very high ceilings throughout, almost fourteen feet in most of the house. The front entry opens into double parlors, “the Lady’s and the Gentleman’s parlors,” Mary Jean calls them. From these parlors, one can exit onto a porch through jib windows. The windows, which are already tall to match the high ceilings, can be raised all the way up leaving a short wall under the sill. This “wall” is actually divided into small doors which unlatch and open like cabinet doors, allowing a person to pass through the space to the porch just as if the window were a regular door.

Almost every room has a fireplace, complete with lovely carved wooden mantles, some original to the home, and some which Bob created. Originally there were ten fireplaces, but some were lost to total ruin and decay. Most of the collector’s style antique furniture was in the house when the Smith’s bought it. It has been refinished and reupholstered and is used all over the house. In the library there is an unusual piece of furniture, a folding Murphy bed, which had to stay in the room during the renovation. “It was too heavy to move!” Mary Jean said. Some old paintings and even a very old style photographic portrait of a baby were on the wall, and those have also been reframed and saved. No one knows who the baby might be.

Architecturally, the renovation was a seven-year engineering feat. Mary Jean gives Bob all the credit for the work. “Bob did all the renovation, and he is a genius at figuring out how to do things. He designed all the bathrooms and closets. He had to steal from bedroom space without ruining the rooms, because, of course, when the house was built there were no bathrooms or closets. People were taxed by the number of doors they had, so they didn’t have too many!” Now there are four bedrooms and four bathrooms upstairs plus another bedroom and 1 ½ baths downstairs.

In addition to reorganizing the living space, making the house livable again was another task. Bob started from the ground up. “I was a little perplexed at first, “he said. “The house was clearly not level, but when I shot the grade from corner to corner, it was only out of level about an inch. But from the inside, the floors were high and low every where. I realized what had happened: the piers all around the outside edge, which were set on clay and exposed to rain for years, had settled evenly in the soil. The center, which had always remained dry, did not settle. There was a 5-inch difference in the middle!” It took him the whole first year just to get the house shored up properly with forty two new piers and completing other work, including straightening bowed walls.

Then there was the kitchen replacement. Originally, the kitchen had been separate from the house. Sometime in the distant past, it had been dragged close to an outside wall and attached with boards. That was torn off, and a new kitchen was built on the footprint of the one. Mary Jean used matching light fixtures from the hallway as hanging lights for the kitchen. “They are stamped with the year 1898,” she said. “Even though the house is older than that, they came with the house and I wanted to keep them.”

All of the floors are original to the house, too. Much of the wood had to be taken up in the leveling process, and then it wouldn’t fit back into place. It was sent to Memphis where it was re-milled, cleaned and stained. It is back in place, installed upside down, because Bob was afraid the original top side would look “too new” now!

The Smiths are using Tiara as a gathering place for their large family, and it is also available for limited lodging for groups or events. They plan to make Tiara available during the National Bird Dog Field Trials and for events like music recitals, book readings, dinners, corporate retreat weekends, and intimate weddings or rehearsal dinners.  The bedrooms are themed; there is a “Bride’s Room,” and two other rooms are decorated in foxhunting and bird dog themes. Another room overlooks the rose garden with 400 rose bushes.

Tiara has been a labor of love for the Smiths. With their fascination for history and heritage, they will tell you it was gratifying and fun work. “We found some very interesting surprises with all our tearing down and digging up,” Mary Jean said. “But we didn’t find any hidden silver!” she laughed.

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