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New owners to restore Mountain Lodge

FLAT ROCK — The new owners of historic Mountain Lodge plan to nurse the 1820s house back to life before using it as a summer residence and opening it up for a Historic Flat Rock fundraiser.

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Historic Flat Rock Inc. bought the property in a sale approved in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Columbia, S.C., and immediately sought a buyer who had the ability and will to spend the money — close to $1 million — needed to stabilize and preserve it. Historic Flat Rock Inc. officials believe they hit a homerun with the buyers — Julien Smythe, whose Flat Rock roots date to the early 1900s, and his wife, Lori.
For Julien Smythe, spending summers in Flat Rock is a return to his boyhood visits to the Many Pines estate that connects his family to the North Carolina mountains. Smythe is the great-great-nephew of Ellison Adger Smyth, the founder of Balfour Mill in Hendersonville and the second owner of Connemara, known today as the Carl Sandburg home. (Later generations added an "e" to the family name; no one is sure why but it does give some guidance to the correct pronunciation — not "Smith.") Julien's great-grandfather, Augustine Thomas Smythe, purchased Many Pines in 1906.
One other connection made the buyers seem like destiny. Joe Oppermann, a historic preservation architect and member of Historic Flat Rock Inc., is married to Langdon Smythe Oppermann, Julien's first cousin. The couple owns Many Pines; Oppermann is guiding the renovation for the Smythes.
"We have been in the area for the better part of 15 years and Julien has been up there since he was a young boy," Lori Smythe said in an interview from the couple's home in Houston. "I came late to the game, 20 years ago. We've been up there 12 or 13 times in the last 20 years. I just love it. I'm not a mountain girl but for me it has a great peace to it and it feels like home."
A kindergarten teacher, Lori Smythe knows what it's like to see a young child transformed in a year's time. So it is with the Mountain Lodge, which had fallen into disrepair. The Smythe's could see the potential to return the house to its historic grandeur.

Emblem of Flat Rock heritage

One of the most significant remaining emblems of the migration of wealthy Charleston, S.C., landowners to Flat Rock, Mountain Lodge was built by Susan and Charles Baring in an English style that included servants' quarters, a kitchen house, gatekeeper's cottage, a deer park and a chapel. The first chapel burned and was replaced by the present day St. John in the Wilderness. Susan Baring died in 1845, leaving Mountain Lodge and 3,050 surrounding acres to her fifth husband.
IMG 9922After it purchased the home in the bankruptcy sale, Historic Flat Rock turned to the Smythes.
"They're going to be the perfect owners of it, I think personally," said Rick Merrill, a Realtor and Historic Flat Rock leader who helped negotiate both the purchase and sale of the home. "I can't think of a better fit. They've grown up tied to Many Pines, and that is one of the few intact plantations in the Flat Rock area. They've got an appreciation of things historic. I think that's important. And they've got the means to do the deal. A lot of people would be daunted by this project. They're not. They're gung ho."
Lori Smythe agreed that the overgrown yard, chipped paint and leaky roof might intimidate the faint of heart.
"Why did we buy Mountain Lodge? That's a good question and yesterday I was wondering that myself," she said. "We both love historic homes. We have owned a historic home here in Houston. We're not daunted by the prospect of renovating the home, in particular because of having Joe Oppermann's expert advice. Had we not had his backing and expertise we might have thought long and hard before we bought it because it is a major project and it's out of state. Doing renovation long distance is a little bit harrowing."

Fixing the damage

While Oppermann oversees the house restoration, a retired U.S. Forest Service arborist is helping the owners manage the hemlocks and plan to revive the tree-lined drive.
"The thing that is paramount is to stop any further damage," Smythe said. "The first order of the day is to get the dead trees off the property, tame the massively overgrown foliage and most important get the leaks in the roof fixed. I expect that those three items will be in the works by Thanksgiving.
"Once we've stopped the bleeding and prevented any further degeneration of the property, we're going to go in and replumb the entire house, rewire as needed and do the cosmetic work that has been required for several years. It's been distressed. We're not making any structural changes because we very much respect the age of the house. We love the outside of it. We're just trying to preserve it."
"We intend to make this process thoughtful," she added. "We're not in a hurry to have it done. We're very much in hurry to get the house fixed so no damage is done. You learn a lot about the house by living it — how best to serve it, and I know that sounds dorky, but you learn its bones, learn its character."
IMG 9919Albert's cottage.The couple plans to have an "overseer and caregiver" as a tenant in the big house and also will rent out the smaller house in the front yard known as Albert's cottage.
"We only have the opportunity to be summer residents at least for near future, and we will want someone to be to the place," she said. She and her husband have 16-year-old twins and a 9-year-old. "I really do want people to know that the house is going to be inhabited."
She and her husband have received advice and offers of help whenever they have visited Flat Rock.
"Every time we come in I can't tell you how many people say, 'Let us know how we can help you. We know good workers,'" she said. "It's amazing how many good people are there. We want to get involved and be more than summer residents. I'm already looking into ways I can volunteer."
Historic Flat Rock Inc. bought the property for $555,000 and sold it to the Smythes for $453,000. The sale comes with a preservation agreement that protects all but around 4 acres of the 23.7-acre property. The Smythes wanted to carve out enough room for homes for their children in the future, Merrill said. Although the property has an appraised value of $1.45 million, work to make it habitable would cost more than $850,000, a bankruptcy trustee said in court filings. It was important to Historic Flat Rock to sell the home to someone committed to the project.
"We're losing money on this deal but at same time we 're saving the old house and 20 accres from ever being developed or torn down," Merrill said. "The board voted unanimously to accept this deal. We didn't have a single dissenting trustee. We're looking forward to a party in the earlier part of the summer as a fundraiser when it's stable enough to have masses of people."