The Haven is the perfect place for someone who wants a house with a story behind it.
So says John Beard, a Realtor and antiques collector who is working to sell the cottage on Second Avenue North, nestled in a shady lot just across from Trotter Convention Center and sitting on a hill which, 170 years ago when the home was new, would have overlooked downtown antebellum Columbus.
“It would do for someone who loves old historical homes with rooms that have a character and a story behind it,” Beard said.
And that story is unique, he said. Outdating many of the local Greek revival-style antebellum homes built by white planters, The Haven was commissioned — and possibly actually built by — brothers Thomas and Isaac Williams, freedmen of color.
The home is a raised cottage with a wooden frame built atop a brick basement, a style that would have been found along the South Carolina coast. Though subsequent owners added to the home throughout the 1800s, that Carolina Low Country style is still the preeminent feature of the house.
“Architecturally, it’s interesting in that regard,” local historian Rufus Ward said. “But the real interest or real importance of it is that it was a freed black family that lived there in antebellum times.”
That family bought the property on Second Avenue south just east of the river in 1843 for $2,400 and built The Haven — probably themselves, said Ken P’Pool, deputy state historic preservation officer with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
“It would not have been unusual for the Williams’ to build their own house and use examples that they had seen, and perhaps built, while they were in South Carolina,” P’Pool said.
Much of Columbus’ adult population in the 1840s was from the Carolinas, he added, meaning the Williams’ may have hired someone else to do the building in the same familiar style. But there was no doubt both Thomas and Isaac were skilled builders, he said — Isaac a laborer and Thomas a blacksmith who ran his shop out of his home.
It’s the only house built by and for freedmen before the Civil War still standing in Columbus that either Ward or P’Pool know of. Such structures simply didn’t last the way homes by wealthy plantation owners have, Ward said.
“It’s very uncommon for those houses to have survived,” he said.
African American builders
The only other Columbus structure either Ward or P’Pool know of built by a freedman was the first bridge over the Tombigbee on Fourth Avenue — and the engineer who built it, Horace King, was actually still a slave during construction, they said. The bridge is no longer there.
But the bridge can’t be alone, P’Pool said.
“We know that many of the houses were constructed by trained, skilled slaves,” he said.
In fact, one of the biggest contracting firms in the state in the 1850s and ’60s owned a crew of 100 African American slaves.
“One of their slaves, a fellow named John Jackson, was trained in what they call mechanical skills or mechanical drawing,” P’Pool said. “He was essentially the architect. Now, John Jackson didn’t work in Columbus … but that gives you an idea of the kinds of construction skills that many of the slaves had. They were not just unskilled workers. They were very skilled builders in many instances.”
But for homes built by and for freedmen, neither P’Pool nor Ward know of any outside Natchez aside from The Haven. It’s possible an “exhaustive study” of old land records from the antebellum period could reveal more, P’Pool said, but there was a pretty small population of freedmen in antebellum Columbus to begin with.
The Williams brothers
As for the Williamses themselves, they moved to Texas in the early 1850s, renting out the Columbus property through an attorney, P’Pool said. When The Haven was sold to a man named Adam Gass in 1858, it was sold as part of Thomas’ estate.
“I don’t know if (Thomas) moved away for health purposes or whether he had business opportunities elsewhere, but he held onto that property until his death, onto that house,” P’Pool said.
Ward’s explanation for why the Williamses may have moved is bleaker. It’s possible that as the country inched closer and closer to the Civil War, a free black family in Columbus found itself less welcome.
“I do know that in the 1850s and in the years leading up to the Civil War, a lot of attitudes were changing toward free blacks,” Ward said. “Where early on (the Williamses) might have been accepted … with the conflict (over slavery) it may be that they did not have the reception they formally had. That’s just my guess. I don’t know.”
Recent Haven history
In the years following the Civil War, later owners added an entire east-facing section to The Haven. The cottage gathered a collection of furniture and other antiques. A walk through the home’s interior shows everything from old playing cards to antique bed, trunks, armoires and oil paintings to a plantation desk dating back to the 1870s that still contains a ledger book from 1886.
Frank and Esther Troskey bought and restored the home in 1974. Their son, Phil, called it a “labor of love” that took six months to renovate and where his parents lived out their years, even putting the house on Columbus’ annual Pilgrimage tour until his mother’s health became bad about a decade ago.
“I have good memories of this house,” said Phil, whose daughter dressed in a hoop skirt and helped her grandmother guide tours during Pilgrimage when she was about 10 years old.
But mostly what he remembers is his parents’ love for the house.
“When they saw that house, (Frank) kind of fell in love with it immediately,” Phil Troskey said. “… Just because he likes history and he loved the way the house looked on the outside and he wanted someone to preserve it.”
Frank Troskey, 92, now lives in Florida with another of his children, while Esther died several years ago. The house has been on the market for about two years for $175,000 — a good deal, said Beard, who has priced the antique furniture in the house alone at $25,000 or more.
But it takes antebellum homes a long time to sell, Phil Troskey said. Not many people are willing to take on the challenge of owning one. Even Beard admits the house’s age makes it hard to heat, cool and paint.
But old homes shouldn’t deter history lovers from owning them if they’re interested, P’Pool said. The National Register of Historic Places provides homeowners with guidelines on home upkeep and how to live in the homes comfortably while still preserving its historic authenticity.
“It’s really one of the most historic houses in Columbus,” Ward said. “…And it’s a gorgeous home. It’s a real nice place that hopefully somebody will buy it and restore it.”