Tale of two houses reveals residential one-upmanship
By: By VIVI HOANG The (Nashville) Tennessean
LEWISBURG — Alice Collins dreamt of building the loveliest house on the block on her modest plot of land at 216 West Church St., just off the square.
It was just after the turn of the 20th century, and even that close to the town center, Collins found herself surrounded by farmland. Next door at 220 West Church, for instance, a woman named Eliza Irvin lived in a small home with a menagerie of chickens, dogs and cats. Collins sniffed at Irvin and her animals; they didn’t quite fit into her visions of society and sophistication.
Nevertheless, build the loveliest house on the block Collins did, constructing a magnificent Victorian home in 1910 with a wraparound porch, gingerbread trim and even a turret.
What Collins didn’t know was that while she was rich, Irvin was richer. And Irvin soon got tired of her haughty neighbor looking down her nose at her.
“What is the ultimate insult when someone’s pride is in their house?” says Melody Spence, the teller of this real-life tale. “It’s to do it, but do it better.”
Not just better. Bigger. Soon after Collins’ castle went up, its larger doppelganger followed. Irvin moved her own home and erected an exact replica of her neighbor’s dwelling — except every room was one foot wider and one foot taller.
Irvin cast a literal shadow on Collins.
“She could stand in her kitchen window and look down on the other woman,” says Spence.
Apart, the two homes were simply stately old domiciles.
Together, they make a fitting fireside story.
The West Church Street pair passed hands several times but sat next to each other for nigh a century, a source of town pride for their uniqueness.
Irvin died in 1921, and her prize eventually ended up in the bank’s possession and then, in 1988, Spence’s. Spence took one look at the wrecked space and knew it was where her florist, gift shop and children’s boutique was meant to be.
She and her husband, Mike, worked for two months redoing the filthy interior, uncovering the original hardwoods and restoring the house.
Spence goes all-out for the Yuletide, her favorite time of the year, draping the bubble gum-colored house in bows and icicle lights, a Christmas tree in near every room.
Like Irvin, Spence also has an affinity with animals. She keeps doves, chinchillas and sugar gliders at her shop. Her Yorkies, Lexi and Loxi, come with her to work every day. At her private home, she keeps miniature horses, silky chickens and emus on 5 1/2 acres.
The Collins house ended up Deborah Huber’s. The Lewisburg resident remembers always peeking in its windows after church as a small child. She loved that house, and when she was 18 and newly wed, the house was in the process of being demolished. She begged her mother to buy it.
“It really was one of the grandest houses in Lewisburg,” Huber says fondly.
Eventually, she turned the abode into Deborah’s Catering and Events, with a restaurant and wedding chapel, holding nuptials, receptions, reunions and anniversaries on its historic premises.
“It served such a good place in the community,” Huber says. “They’ve never had anything since.”
Because fire stole the elder of the twin homes away. The inferno happened late one night in early summer of 2005. Firefighter Bob Davis was sitting in the bay of the Lewisburg Fire Department that night when he heard a sudden pop a few blocks away and the sound of glass shattering. An orange glow began to grow in the distance.
Firefighters from Lewisburg as well as outlying rural areas swarmed to Huber’s house. By the time they arrived, the entire back of the house was engulfed, and flames licked at the neighboring home.
“’We got two houses fixing to burn,”’ Davis remembers thinking. “It was by the grace of God and some hardworking firefighters that the other house didn’t go, because there wasn’t eight feet that separated them.”
Davis stayed from 10 that night until 6 the next morning to extinguish the fire, which was later determined to have started from an electrical overload. The Collins home burned to the ground.
And so the town, as well as Huber and Spence, mourned the loss of the Collins house.
“The houses were landmarks because they were like two sisters,” says Davis, now 59 and a fire inspector. “It was a significant loss. You’ll never be able to replace it.”
But Huber has moved on — she’s now an employee of Sherman-Dixie — and Spence has her hands full with the coming Christmas season. The objects inside A Victorian Melody gleam with the patina of age, many of them tagged with a handwritten note about from whence they came.
“I try to give a history, where it came from,” Spence says. “I just think it would be so grand to live in that era.”
A Victorian Melody: www.avictorianmelody.com
Information from: The Tennessean, http://www.tennessean.com
Published in The Messenger on 12.12.07
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