By Carmen Cristo
Two years ago, Mark and Kathy Novotny purchased the historic Temple Heights in Columbus, Miss., making them the sixth owners of the home built in 1837.
“We just love history,” Kathy said.
The home’s storied past begins with General Richard T. Brownrigg, a North Carolina transplant from a prominent family. He was a land speculator, ferry service owner and mayor of what was then called West Port. The Brownrigg family owned a plantation across the river, but driving into town in the cakey Mississippi mud was an arduous task. In an effort to make his wife more comfortable, General Brownrigg built the townhouse to look identical to her childhood home in North Carolina, which the Novotnys were able to visit. Portraits of Mrs. Brownrigg’s parents still hang in Temple Heights. Her mother had the honor of signing the statement of protest now known as the Edenton Tea Party.
“We are extremely lucky that we are only the sixth owners of this house,” Kathy said. “Every person who has lived in this house has served either their country, their state, their community or humanity in some major way. They have made their mark.”
The second owners were the Harrises, whose patriarch was involved in national politics and was an attorney for Native Americans. During their time at Temple Heights, they turned the house to face the direction it now faces and added the porches and columns, making it a Greek Revival home on the exterior.
From there, the home changed hands a few times, each family leaving behind some small indication of their stay. The daughter of Jane Fontaine—prior owner and what Kathy calls a “Declaration lady”–was so excited by her engagement that she carved her name into a front window with her diamond.
The most recent owners, the Butlers, kept the house from being demolished and lived in it for more than 50 years. Kathy credits them with saving the home and restoring it to its former glory.
The home is rumored to be haunted by previous residents, but Kathy believes instead that it is “spirit-filled”–that the presence of these families continues to welcome guests.
“When people walk in this house, the first thing they say is how comfortable it feels. I believe maybe the presence of those who lived here before carries on. Everyone who lived here loved this house so much that they stayed a long time,” Kathy said.
The three bedroom home is 3800 sq. ft. and four stories tall. The property is actually home to three antebellum properties as the original outdoor kitchen and slave quarters still stand. It’s on the National Register of Historical Places and one of only two Mississippi state landmarks in Lowndes County.
“Our job is to preserve,” Kathy said.
Since moving in, the Novotnys have made updates to the porch and implemented central heating and air. One of their next projects will be structural repairs to the slave quarters so that they can be toured.
“We consider those who lived in the slave quarters people who lived here,” Kathy said. “This year, we are going to be telling stories of how they got here and what they did. We look forward to people being able to go inside to see how tight it was for ten people to live.”
When they purchased the home, most of the furnishings came with it. The period furniture tells the story of the home’s life and residents. It is colorful and inviting. The Novotnys “live like the Victorians,” with a more casual space dedicated to cooking, eating and relaxing both indoors and outdoors.
As the owners of Temple Heights, the Novotnys count it their duty and privilege to share their home with the community. Temple Heights is a stop on the annual Columbus Pilgrimage home tour. This year’s tours will run each day from April 5 – 14.
“We live here for us, but we open it up as a community service,” Kathy said. “Tourism is extremely important to Columbus, and we want to do our part, but this is our house before anything else. It’s very comfortable to live in. It’s a fabulous house.”
The Novotnys hope to carry on the lasting legacy of former Temple Heights owners—a tradition of community service and creating a home that is welcoming to all.