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Many people played role in saving Sabine Hill

John Thompson • Updated Nov 11, 2017 at 11:28 PM

ELIZABETHTON — Sabine Hill, one of the most important early houses in Tennessee, is now open to the public thanks to an extensive — and ongoing — renovation.

The public can now see what the state got for the $295,000 purchase price for the house and the $1.1 million renovation.

Certainly the rich history of the house was the key part of the acquisition: the house had been threatened with demolition to make way for a condominium development.

Sabine Hill was built by Mary Patton Taylor, widow of Brig. Gen. Nathaniel Taylor, a War of 1812 militia leader who was posted at Mobile, Alabama, at the time the British attacked Gen. Andrew Jackson at New Orleans.

The house has statewide importance as an early seat of the Taylor family, which produced two governors of Tennessee who ran against each other in the most remarkable gubernatorial race in the state’s history. The family also produced a governor of Georgia; a U.S. commissioner of Indian Affairs; a federal judge for the Eastern District of Tennessee, whose actions in integrating a public school preceded Little Rock; and a nationally known newscaster for National Public Radio.

The house also has value as an early example of Federal-style architecture in the state.

The state bought an important artifact, but the money the state has put into the restoration of the home is what really matters. While several private citizens realized the historical value of the home and spent their own funds to help preserve it, it took the financial resources of the state to renovate —  and even the state had to wait through a difficult financial time to bring its resources to bear.

But the state didn’t just commit to a structural restoration of the house.

Jennifer Bauer, manager of Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park, said, “It was the intent of all involved in this process that this should be a model historic preservation project. Extensive research and a high-quality restoration of the property and home were paramount in the process of bringing the Taylor home back to life.”

Bauer said the highly specialized craftsmen worked on the project with skills and materials that would have been used in the period the house was built. An example is in the paint used: It was decided only after layers and layers of paint were removed to determine the original paint scheme.

The architectural firm chosen to lead the project was Sparkman and Associates Architects, a company known for its restoration accomplishments. The project’s architect was Susanne Tarovella, but she said she worked as part of a team with Frank Sparkman.

Tarovella echoed Bauer in describing the work done by the master craftsmen.

“It is truly one of my favorite projects I’ve ever done, both because of its rich history and beautiful detail and the dedicated team that worked tirelessly to get the restoration right,” Tarovella said.

The Tennessee Senate also praised the effort in a proclamation, saying “extensive historical research and a high-quality restoration of the property were integral to bringing the Taylor home back to life.”

That research not only ensured the renovation was historically accurate, it resolved some historians’ questions about the house. A dendrochronological study of timbers used in the construction of Sabine Hill helped dispel the belief that construction on the house began before  Taylor left for the defense of Mobile in 1814.

Researchers from the University of Tennessee Department of Anthropology studied tree rings from 26 logs and timbers exposed during the renovation. The work by Henri D. Grissino-Mayer, Elizabeth Schneider, Maegen Rochner, Lauren Stachowiak and Meagan Dennison showed that the first trees cut down to build the house, and used in the foundation, were harvested in the spring of 1818. The last trees used in the house were harvested in the spring of 1819. These dates were after Taylor had died in 1816.

The craftsman and researchers helped make the restoration as historically accurate as possible, and their efforts were greatly aided by former owners of Sabine Hill whose commitment to preserving the old home played a key role in the research.

Two owners who owned Sabine Hill for only a year may have saved it from being destroyed in the name of development. John Molder of Elie Properties Development in Johnson City had acquired an option on the property and announced a plan in 2007 to build 46 condominium units on the 4.8-acre site of Sabine Hill.

To give the state time to acquire the property, two local leaders stepped in. Helen Wilson, a longtime member and leader of the Elizabethan Historical Zoning Commission, and Sam LaPorte, a former mayor of Elizabethton, joined together and split the cost to buy Sabine Hill for $295,000 in 2007. Their plan worked — the state purchased the property from them in 2008.

Another owner who made a significant contribution was James Reynolds, a mechanical engineer employed by North American Rayon Corporation, who bought the home in 1949. He and his family held it until 2003.

Reynolds used his skills as an engineer to repair and renovate the then-150-year-old house. During the Nov. 1 dedication service for the newly restored Sabine Hill, Bauer said that without the work Reynolds performed, the house would not have been standing in 2017.

He corrected many faults, including repairing a cracking and shifting foundation, repairing chimneys and walls.

Another contribution Reynolds made was that whenever he had to replace an original part of the house, he did not throw the unusable piece away. He stored these pieces in the barn or shed. During the recent renovation, craftsman were able to use the parts Reynolds had stored to recreate a duplicate. The new transom over the front door is one example.

While Sabine Hill has been opened to the public, there is still work to be done, including paint renovation work and furnishing the home in early 19th century style.

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