“One of a kind” is an overused expression, but when Jeff Hathorn used the term to describe Windy Hill it’s worth noting.
For 35 years, Hathorn has been an auction manager for Target Auction, a company that specializes in the sale of upscale properties.
“Over the years, I’ve seen some amazing properties all over the country,” Hathorn said. “Windy Hill is unique. It’s timeless.”
On Thursday, Windy Hill will be open for bids, with a minimum bid of $1.5 million required, although Hathorn said he has already received a qualified bid for $1.75 million. The estate of the late Nancy Imes has set a reserve bid amount that will not be disclosed to bidders.
Windy Hill is the 11,000 square-foot French Normandy-inspired estate of Nancy Imes, who passed away in March 2021 at age 92. Nancy Imes was the wife of former Dispatch publisher Birney Imes II, mother of former Dispatch publisher Birney Imes III and grandmother of current publisher Peter Imes.
The estate occupies 128 acres in the Prairie area of Lowndes County. Adjacent tracts of 184 acres and 325 acres will be offered exclusively to the homebuyer at $2,500 per acre.
The home, which was completed in 1998, reflects the refined style and broad travel of its owner. Working with renowned architect Ken Tate, his wife, interior decorator Charme Tate, and celebrated landscape architect René Fransen, Nancy Imes created a home where no detail was neglected. Its lush gardens, courtyards and porches make the exterior as ideal for entertaining as the interior, something that was a priority, said Birney Imes III.
“No matter where she was, Mother created space for family,” he said. “This house was no exception. She was generous and gracious in how she shared it and its gardens, not only with family, but with the community, which she welcomed inside and out. It is a large home with expansive grounds and gardens, a wonderland, really. Her favorite greeting when we came to visit was, ‘Don’t let the cats out.’”
The cat is out, in a manner of speaking, as far as interest in the property goes, Hathorn said.
“We’ve had interest from all over the country and it’s easy to understand why,” he said. “It took (Imes) five years to build and that tells you what kind of attention to detail went into it. Everything is top of the line, using the very best materials.
“We’ve been giving tours for several weeks now and the interest level for the property is very high.”
Below is a piece former Dispatch lifestyles editor, the late Jan Swoope, wrote about the property for the summer 2014 issue of Catfish Alley magazine.
If it’s true that houses tell stories, and surely it is, Windy Hill is a visual page-turner. Rising up from wildflowers, woods and Prairie grasses on 2,000 acres of quiet countryside southwest of Columbus, Nancy Imes’ extraordinary home looks as though it could share legends centuries old, as if its weathered stone, quarried from the single face of a mountain, must have sheltered the same family for generations. Its spell is not accidental.
The 15-year-old home and its surroundings are revealed gradually to visitors approaching by a long, winding, private drive bordered by crepe myrtles. The hypnotic crunch of wheels on crushed stone is the only sound, no highway noise, no intrusion. As first the chimneys, dovecote then roof peaks of the Norman farmhouse-style exterior come into view, Mississippi seems to fall away by degrees, replaced by the notion of a European landscape.
This jewel “in the middle of nowhere” reflects so many of the elements that fuel its owner’s lively spirit — an intense appreciation of nature, world travel, intriguing finds and livable spaces. Windy Hill is classic, yet contemporary. Impressive, yet welcoming. And there is an “ahh” around every corner.
When Imes asked award-winning architect Ken Tate to build Windy Hill, she assured the Auburn University alumnus, “If you do exactly what I ask you to do, I will never make a change. When I make up my mind, I make up my mind.” Her clear vision was a cornerstone in the massive project that broke ground in 1994 and was completed in 1999.
“We had kind of a perfect dream team,” said Tate, whose office is in Covington, Louisiana. The triumvirate of Imes as homeowner, Tate as architect and his wife, Charme Tate, collaborating as interior designer, had all the right alchemy. “I’ve been working 30 years, and I would say seven or eight projects came together like this,” Tate said.
Imes’ vision for the new home was of a retreat comfortably rambling more than formal. She wanted it to embrace big family gatherings and celebrate her passion for gardening. There was plenty of work to do even before the first stone was positioned atop a remote rise, where prevailing breezes eventually inspired the name Windy Hill.
“It took us a year just to prepare the land to build the house,” Imes pointed out, explaining that 10 feet of Prairie dirt was replaced with better soil to support the heavy structure and nourish the many gardens planned.
During the building process, something quite unique occurred — Ken Tate had the idea of a storyline for the emerging manor.
“Windy Hill is like a good novel that begins in the middle of a story, then slowly reveals events that occurred long before the main action takes place,” he has said of the project. “I didn’t know what the story was until I was halfway through the design.”
He knew his client wanted a house that looked like a French farmhouse on the outside, with more refined details inside. She also wanted picturesque gardens, similar to those English landscape designer Gertrude Jekyll created at the turn of the 20th century. As Tate put the elements together, he found himself creating a story about three different generations of a family: late-Renaissance French farmers who built the original structure; worldly late-18th century descendants who remodeled the interior; and late-19th century romantics who restored the house and embellished the gardens.
Once Tate knew the story, it began to dictate the design.
The narrative of a house that evolved over time accommodates some appealing juxtaposition. The rugged stone façade, for instance, gives way to a grand entrance hall that ascends to a trompe-l’oeil dome painted to resemble the sky. The entryway’s limestone paving underfoot was salvaged from a French chateau. To the left, a formal drawing room in pastels shimmers in natural light from a leaded glass box-bay window framed in roughhewn timbers. Contrasts of rustique and refined like these echo throughout.
Everywhere, fine craftsmanship, organic materials and creative design details meld to create a patina of time and rich history. Timber-framed vaulted ceilings, silk draperies hand-painted in London and an antique Portuguese bed are only a few examples. Interior paneling made from old-growth Russian pine was crafted by English master carpenters who came to Mississippi to install it. Mennonite woodworkers in the Prairie used age-old joinery techniques to frame the wood-pegged timbers of the rear loggia that looks out across a sweeping croquet lawn.
Ken Tate will never forget driving to the Mennonites’ workshop to check on the loggia frame’s progress during one of his frequent stays in Columbus. To his surprise, the artisans had given the wooden structure a test run, to be sure everything fit as it should.
“There the loggia was, standing in a corn field! It was a sight to behold. Only in Mississippi,” the architect said with a laugh.
Imes and Mother Nature are on very good terms. Greenery and gardens are part and parcel of Windy Hill’s charisma.
“I’m a gardener; I love it, I really love it,” said the green-thumbed homeowner.
Celebrated landscape architect René Fransen of New Orleans helped design exuberant plantings and herbaceous borders that surround the house with texture and color in every direction. The profuse rose garden, with its cedar arbors, brick walkways and spacious greenhouse, has for years been a garden club favorite. It is, however, about to undergo a transformation.
“I’m putting in dahlias; they hold up so much better and make beautiful cut flowers,” said Imes.
The roses, she said with wry wit, are not reciprocating the care lavished on them. “If they don’t sing for their supper, they don’t stay here.”
The South garden — or wild garden — is an enchanting sanctuary, where flagstone paths lead to stream-fed koi ponds and perceptive visitors might fancy wee folk peeking out from beneath a leaf.
A favorite spot is the high-walled cat garden, created with a touch of whimsy. There, Imes’ beloved Himalayans — Biscuit, Peaches and Muffin — are protected from predators and take catnaps beside an antique French cat fountain.
Inside, Windy Hill is a fitting setting for furnishings and decor Imes has collected during a lifetime of travel. But there were compromises involved.
“The house didn’t like my Chinese stuff. It doesn’t like white, it doesn’t like pink and doesn’t like silver,” she explained. “This house is funny — it likes brass. You have to listen to a house.”
For all the home’s size, Imes can often be found in its smallest room, an intimate space with reading chairs, fireplace and Prairie vistas. It was once called a conservatory. She calls it “the little room.” Through French doors on both east and west sides, she can watch the sun, moon and seasons keep their appointed rounds. In the little room, she can plan the next occasion, when her six grown children and their families fill the rooms with conversation and laughter.
“This is a fun house to live in. It will do anything I ask it to,” said the matriarch. “The longroom, or family room, has space for all of us when we sit down at Christmas when we’re all together. And the back terrace is 95-feet long; I can feed everybody there.”
It was Imes’ vision that ushered such an accommodating estate into reality, and set it in the middle of “some of the prettiest land in Columbus.”
“It really is so much fun, and I love living out here. I’ve had a lucky life,” she said, meaning it. And that’s a fitting sentiment for any home’s story.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]