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The Building of the Coxe Mansion

Construction must have begun on Will Henry Coxe's Gothic mansion soon after he purchased the Salem Road lot in November 1857, for young Emma Finley noted in her diary an excursion to view the house in August of 1858.

Local  historian John M. Mickle (1860-1942) commented that the Coxe estate was the grandest in Holly Springs. Originally covering fifteen acres, the grounds extended eastward to Chesterman Street and down Chesterman half way to College Avenue. A fine cast-iron fence with massive entrance gates ran for a hundred yards across the Salem frontage. Manufactured by Wood & Perrot of Boston, it is identical to one at the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Much landscaping was done, Mr. Mickle noted,  almost wholly in the way of trees and shrubs.  Small cedars, kept properly timmed, formed hedges for the drive.   The architecture of the large stable/carriage house (which he remembered)  conformed with the Gothic style of the house, as did the kitchen and servants quarters in the rear of the house.  The place had its own gas plant for lighting the mansion itself and the other buildings, including the stable.

Inside the mansion, the double parlors on the west had Carrara marble mantles and the other downstairs rooms, slate mantles that were marbleized. The downstairs hardware was  silver.  Among the most notable features was the first bathroom in Holly Springs with running water (pumped by hand).  Mr. Mickle also recalled that a system of call bells from all rooms was also arranged, with old-fashioned bell cords.   A hundred years later, traces of the bell system were still in evidence on what had been the back outside wall of the mansion in the Dean family's card room.

Two early images of the Coxe estate have been preserved.  The first is an oil painting showing the mansion, the stable/carriage house and the servants house.  The second is a twentieth century wood block print that later owners in the Dean family commissioned Holly Springs artist Netty Fant Thompson to make from a daguerreotype in the possession of Coxe descendants. The two images complement each other and confirm the original appearance of the mansion and its surroundings.

Extending across almost the entire front facade was a flat-roofed structure of porches with a central porte cochere. Supported by cast-iron columns (very like the ones at the Bonner-Belk house,  Cedarhurst, a house undoubtedly designed by the same hand), the structure was topped by a parapet of wooden tracery.  The wood block print shows that the west balcony too was of frame construction.

The stable/carriage house (located behind the 1870s cottage at 395 E. Salem Avenue) had a large arched opening echoing the arched windows and doors of the mansion, above which was a large circular aperture like those in the gables of the mansion.  The roof line was outlined by the same tracery as that of the mansion and capped by a similar finial. To the west rear of the mansion was the servants house, with gables, narrow Gothic windows, tracery, and finials matching those of the mansion.  All buildings were a salmon color.

The sophistication of the design raises the question of the identity of the architect. The Coxes may well have been drawn to the Gothic mode during their extensive travels in the east, where  Gothic mansions and cottages had become popular. The Gothic style had been introduced in America by Andrew J. Davis in the 1830s and popularized by Andrew Jackson Downing's The Architecture of County Houses, published in 1853.

Other books like The Model Architect (1852-3), by Philadelphian Samuel Sloan, and  Villas and Cottages (1857) by Calvert Vaux, Downing's partner and successor, also featured complete Gothic house plans and sections on Gothic details. In the second Sloan volume, the illustrations for the "Gothic Villa," design Forty-Fifth  and "A Gothic Front" bear a striking resemblance to the Coxe mansion.

The Sloan firm was active in the deep South in the 1850s.  Samuel Sloan of Sloan and Stewart of Philadelphia was design architect for the Bryce Hospital in Tuscaloosa, begun in 1852. His partner John Stewart was the construction architect, and Fletcher Sloan, Samuel s younger half-brother, was sent to Tuscaloosa to be building superintendent.  By 1857, the construction had bogged down, and Fletcher Sloan took on other work as architect.  He is credited with several Tuscaloosa houses of the 1850s.  The Sloan and Stewart partnership was dissolved in 1857.  Stewart is credited with designing Robert Jemison s Tuscaloosa house in 1860.
Two Columbus, Mississippi, buildings the First Methodist Church (1861-68) and the Topp mansion,  Rosedale  (ca. 1856) were based on designs in Samuel Sloan s book.  It is quite likely that Fletcher Sloan was involved in these projects, as well as in the Coxe and Bonner mansions in Holly Springs. In the 1860s, Fletcher Sloan settled first in Memphis and later in Bolivar, Tennessee.  His firm Willis, Sloan, and Trigg were the architects for the courthouses in Bolivar (1868), Holly Springs (1870), and Oxford (1872).  Before it was restored, the painting of the Coxe mansion at the time of its construction bore the difficult to decipher signature of the artist, consisting of just a few letters.  I wonder now whether it was  Sloan.
We do know definitely the craftsmen employed in the construction of the mansion.  Franz Wilhelm Rittlemeyer, a Prussian carpenter, was brought to Holly Springs to work on the Coxe house. Census records show that he had lived in Tennessee (probably in Memphis) from 1853 though 1857. 

On 30 Dec. 1857, he purchased lots 21 and 22 in what was called the Frazier Subdivision on what is now Van Dorn Avenue. He first built the cottage to the east of the fine Italianate frame residence (now known as  Hillside ) that was long the Rittlemeyer home.  The 1860s census shows that living in the Rittlemeyer household were four other carpenters, three from Prussia and one from Breman.  Living next door was the Kentucky-born brick mason John Long, whose descendants continued in his calling locally until the middle of the last century.  His grandson told the late Charles N. Dean that John Long had been in charge of the brick work on the Coxe mansion.



      Longwood in Natchez was designed by Samuel Sloan. At the outbreak of the Civil War his Pensylvania workers dropped their tools and headed North to join the Union Army.    
 © Copyright Airliewood 2006