When Wiley and Cynthia George of Houston started looking for a country property, a listing on the National Register of Historic Places, as held by the Seward Plantation, was not one of the criteria.
“We wanted something with easy access to Houston that was at least 50 acres, preferably a mix of woods and pastureland with a house,” Cynthia said. “We also wanted to be within a 45-minute radius of Bellville where my parents have had a place since 1966.”
As they looked off and on over a nine-month period, Washington County with its rolling hills and history struck a strong chord, but they weren’t able to close a deal on any of the properties that interested them. During the same period, the Seward Plantation, which sits on 244 acres, was off and on the market. Because of its size, the Georges never really considered it. Then one day they took a hard look at the listing on LandsofTexas.com and decided to see the property in person.
On a fateful spring day when the bluebonnets and Indian paintbrushes were in full marketing mode, the Georges arrived at Seward Plantation. They were surprised.
“We weren’t looking for a historic property, but this place was simply incredible,” Wiley said. “The biggest surprise was how livable it already was.”
Even though the current occupants and part-owners and sixth-generation Seward descendants Hank and Peggy Ward had done an exceptional job of modernizing things such as the kitchen and stabilizing several outbuildings such as one of the slave quarters and the corn crib, the property represented a massive project. It would require a significant investment of time, energy and resources.
“Frankly, the prospect was overwhelming, so we had to some do soul-searching about whether or not we wanted to take this on,” Cynthia said. “Our heads and hearts had to be all in.”
Because there was a considerable amount of interest in the property, the couple didn’t have the luxury of time. As history lovers they brought passion and knowledge to the table. Wiley has an insatiable appetite for reading and absorbing history while Cynthia’s expertise is in art and antiques. She completed the Sotheby’s Works of Art course in London as well as serving as a docent at Ima Hogg’s home, Bayou Bend. Instead of immobilizing them, the potential of research invigorated them.
Along with Cynthia’s parents, the Williamses, Cynthia and Wiley decided to make an offer. The Georges and Williamses were the only potential buyers who wanted to keep the property intact and conserve the house and buildings. There was at least one other who made an offer.
“For us there was never any thought of scrapping the house or sub-dividing the land,” Cynthia said. “The thought of anybody else doing it was too sad to bear.”
The family agreed, so in June 2017 the Seward family entrusted their estate—and their legacy— to the Georges.
The Georges immediately immersed themselves in local history—and hot, sweaty, hard work. Cynthia spent 10 days at a time sorting through drawers, trunks and cupboards and organizing and assessing her finds. Wiley, who still practices law full-time, joined her on Fridays or Mondays.
“I saved all the dark, scary places like the attic, the basement and the back corners for him,” Cynthia said noting that they’ve only suffered one scorpion sting so far. “The first step was simply knowing what was here.”
The Georges made it a point to enlist the help of Hank and Peggy Ward, so they could get the family’s version of the property’s history. The Wards had already donated the significant historical papers to the Texas Collection at Baylor University, but reams of family correspondence, farm records and the like remained as well as a multitude of furniture and farm equipment—most of which had a story.
“Hank and Peggy have been fabulous to share what they know,” Wiley said. “We have become friends and are in very regular contact.”
One of Cynthia’s favorite finds has been the mid-19th Century gilded, hand blocked wallpaper that she discovered beneath three layers of newer wallpaper in the upstairs ballroom. She sent remnants to the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York City to get expert opinion and is currently trying to salvage pieces large enough to frame and use as artwork.
“The Sewards used to hold community dances and musical theatre performances in the ballroom,” Cynthia said. “I can just imagine the lights of candles and lanterns playing off the walls as people enjoyed the music. It’s a beautiful image.”
Another of the favorite finds has been the mid-19th century book that served as the inspiration for the Greek Revival style home. The house was built without an architect or plans.
“A child drew on the pages of the book,” Wiley said. “The figures have women in long dresses with bustles and men in frock coats. It’s doodling from a much earlier age.”
As they began to make sense of the contents, they began the process of stabilizing the house. The majestic porches were perilously close to falling off. The electrical and plumbing systems needed an upgrade. The exterior needed the protection of new paint. They hired Steve and Tohner Jackson, the father and son team from Industry and Brenham who work under the name Artisan Builders. While the duo tackles new construction, they have extensive experience working with historic structures including some of those at nearby Winedale.
“From the beginning our contractors have said, ‘The house will tell you what to do,’” Cynthia said.
Wiley interrupted, “I just hope it says, ‘Don’t spend too much money on me.’”
Laughing, Cynthia continued, “It’s been sage advice because as we’ve lived in the house it’s shown us that some of our early, immediate ideas weren’t the best. Time is our friend. I would hate to make a mistake, so we’re moving slowly, deliberately and researching as we go.”
The current work is the first phase in the couple’s 10-year plan. As far as the interior goes, they have no plans to move walls or change the existing footprint with the exception of eventually adding another bathroom. The Georges plan to restore one room at a time until they’ve made their way through the house. They’ve also got plans to restore the outbuildings, hopefully with the help of historic organizations and universities, and install landscaping. Already portions of the land that have become overgrown are being cleared and fences repaired where necessary.
“We don’t want to live in a museum,” Wiley said. “Our goal is to preserve the essential history of the Sewards and early Texas while creating a comfortable home for our family where we can create our own memories and family history.”
Cynthia added, “That’s our 100 year plan.”
To get a peek at the history held in the Seward Plantation house through the eyes of writer Lorie A. Woodward, who was present as the family trunks were opened for the first time outside the family, click here. To learn about the auction at Seward Plantation hosted by the Antiques Rover on June 2, click here.
by Lorie A. Woodward
photos by Cargile Photography