Travel Tuesday – Home Town Edition

Welcome to Travel Tuesday! It’s good to be back. Today I’m going to share about a trip I made related to HGTV’s Home Town, which is set in Laurel, Mississippi. But first, for some background.

Home Town is one of many renovation shows on HGTV, but it really is a standout. When it first premiered a few years ago, I was aware of it and watched here and there, and by just this slight exposure, I wasn’t carried away with the show. However, my mom started watching it a couple of years ago and highly recommended it because of the historical aspect of many of the renovations. Seeing the first season on Hulu, I decided to give it another try.

And I’m so glad I did! The show is led by Erin Napier, who trained as an artist, and Ben Napier, who has a history degree. There’s a lot going on, but it fits together so well. First, there is the renovation aspect, and you can tell that as far as the contracting work goes, no corners are cut. I learned a lot from the show.

Then you have Erin with a special talent for choosing colors and art. She is unashamedly a maximalist with her design style—there are rugs and chairs and baskets, and pictures, and coats on pegs, and boots by the door. She calls it real life, basically. And she’s right, of course. Erin has a love of old things and antiques and leans into a very unique Southern design style that is so appealing. 

Then there’s Ben, who gets it historically and brings a lot of strength to the renovations. He is actually very funny, with perfect comic timing. A carpenter, he designs beautiful things for all of the houses they do.

The show has a lot of heart. Its focus is on community, and they dig into the love and wholesomeness of small towns. It’s a celebration, really, of what goes on every day in towns across America that we all cherish so much: people helping each other and living mostly in harmony. I occasionally look in on Erin and Ben on Twitter, and Erin a few months ago retweeted a comment by a viewer that rings so true about the show, something to the effect of: “While all we see on TV is division and disunion, Home Town highlights that in actuality, in the real lives of Americans, we live our lives with love for our neighbors.” That resonated for me, and I imagine it will for a lot of you as well.

So between Hulu and the HGTV app, I watched all of the seasons and was even inspired for a few things in my house! In the South, we have a great tradition of making something out of what we have. One might almost say we thrive in limited circumstances where a touch of innovation can bring about remarkable effects. For instance, Erin, discovering that a basket light would cost hundreds of dollars, bought a five-dollar light kit and a big old basket and made one herself. As for me, that made my wheels start spinning. I have a room in my house for my nieces and nephew that is inspired by old nurseries of historic houses. I was wanting a checkerboard for them to play with when they get older. Walking through an antique store, I found a wooden wall hanging featuring a very unique design with a checkerboard and bought it for about eight dollars. At home, I popped the hanging kit out of the back, bought a set of wooden checkers from Amazon, and voila! Here is my creation:

My mom and her friend Beverly, both fans of the show, were planning a trip to Laurel last October and asked if I would like to go—and of course, I said, “Yes!” And here begins the travel portion of this Travel Tuesday post!

So obviously, from Middle Tennessee to the southern portion of Mississippi is a bit of a haul (six hours). We left around lunch time and arrived in time for supper, which we enjoyed at the Bird Dog Cafe. The restaurant was one of the Home Town projects, a dream of two brothers that was brought to life by transforming an old house into a really cool spot. Here are some pictures:

It was here that we had our first Home Town sighting: one of the owners that I recognized from the episode was there and spoke with us. The atmosphere was very cool. Particularly, I loved a Hemingway-eque library they have created as a hangout. And all of the old features that were preserved were really cool. 

The next day, we swung by the Laurel Mercantile, which is owned by the Napiers and some friends who appear in the show. It was a neat little store. I bought two prints by local artist Adam Trest (whose house the Napiers renovated and whose artwork appears in many episodes). Beverly bought a print of one of Erin’s paintings for her kitchen. Here are my pieces, which I love:

We next visited Ben’s workshop. If you watch the show, you know it’s a massive concrete warehouse near the train tracks. Inside, they have the workshop area glassed off so you can watch them working. We spotted Randy, who works with Ben in the workshop and also is very funny with excellent timing. I have to say, we were a little disappointed with the gift shop area which, given that it is the giftshop of a carpentry shop, we expected to have a few token items customers could buy that were made in the back, but there weren’t any. My recommendation: some cheeseboards or cutting boards would go over very well!

Moving on, we went to a lot of the boutiques, visited many of the town’s murals, and drove around its revitalized streets. At the end of the day, while there are some truly neat and pretty things, it’s still a small town; seeing it doesn’t knock your socks off or anything. But the atmosphere of hope and kindness in this town really does. 

I had wondered how the town was coping with the attention and tourism the show brings and wondered if it was all welcome to them or not. One could imagine a certain bitterness or sense of invasion of privacy, or the mere tolerance of vacationers a lot of tourist towns settle into. But in Laurel, I sensed only gratitude and welcome. The business owners (many of whom I swear we were getting to know during our short time there) are thrilled that you are there. They are happy to chat with you about the show and want to know about your own hometown.

The restaurant scene was really exceptional for such a small town. One that stands out is Pearl’s Diner, which is featured on the show. This is a family-owned business that serves a really excellent country cooking/soul food spread, the kind you get around grandma’s Sunday dinner table. There was a queue forming at the door before it even opened, and it was still going strong when we left. So as you can imagine, it was that good!

At the gift shop I mentioned, one of the employees, upon finding out that we were from near Nashville, said jokingly, “The real stars live here.” There is a lot of pride in the town and a true sense of community. One can easily imagine why people move there looking for that from all over the country. 

And as for us, did we see any more of the stars? We did spot Ben’s friend, Josh, who is a regular on the show, going into the workshop as we drove through going to supper. We didn’t happen to see Ben and Erin, but we did have one really cool sighting.

My mom and Beverly wanted to stop in a children’s boutique to shop for their grandkids, and we found a really cute one, Lollybells. The owner introduced us to her little teacup dog, who slept in a bed on the counter. While we were there, a man came in with a Great Dane named Zeus (it stuck with me because my cousins once had a dog by the same name). Apparently Zeus and the teacup dog are great friends, and Zeus’s dad brings him in to see his friend often. And so this horse-sized dog and this little bitty dog lit up with delight to see each other and interacted so sweetly. It was cute. We left some things to be monogrammed and got to see Zeus again when we returned. And then…Zeus’s dad got his own episode on Home Town this season. I was so delighted to see the big dog again. It is Season 6, Episode 11 (“Architect’s Linear Loft”).

Home Town has begun to spin off beyond its original roots. There is a series called Home Town Takeover, in which HGTV and Discovery and all sorts of companies teamed up with the Napiers to do a quick reno in a small town chosen from many entrants. Wetumpka, Alabama was chosen, and it was very heartwarming to watch that community, as well as famous designers and such from all over the country, find the good in the town and elevate it.

A funny story about Wetumpka… We took a family trip to Florida last July, and I happened to be riding home in the car with my mom and dad when we hit some really bad construction work. We could sit there for hours, or we could take an alternate route a little out of the way and keep moving. Looking at the map, I told my dad, “You know, if we go the alternate route, we will go through Wetumpka. There was this show…” And so we did. We got to see the Big Fish house that they renovated. Here is a picture:

Big Fish House

Wetumpka is neat, but it is obviously still struggling, highlighting the importance of these projects and the little bit of work that is done here and there when it can be.

HGTV had so many applicants for the Takeover show that they have run another series called Home Town Kickstart, where HGTV stars go to six small towns and do just enough to hopefully get momentum going. They go to Buffalo, Wyoming; Winslow, Arizona; Cornwall, New York; LaGrange, Kentucky; Thomaston, Georgia; and Minden, Louisiana. 

I am not a sentimental person generally, but in all of these shows, I usually sit there weeping like a really sappy person. I think it’s because I’m from a small town, and it is so endearing and gratifying to watch all that is best in a small town be highlighted—the support and community and love. And there is a note that rings true to it all; no one is showing off or posturing. While there are many living situations that work for different people, the small town life holds meaning for many, from all walks of life and in every season of life. It always hits home also just how great the need is in most small towns, especially those that have fallen on hard times. But to see their people keep persevering because they love what they have built will resonate for so many.

In some of my posts, I’m fairly hard on the television/film industry for certain art/literary choices they make. Here (while this is a little different) I want to note that HGTV and everyone involved in these projects deserve a great deal of credit. They are making a real difference in people’s lives. Small towns are the backbone of the country, and they are highlighting everything that is good in them. They shine a light on role models who open their homes to at-risk youth, who kept first responders’ children free of charge during the pandemic, who run shelters in their homes for victims of domestic violence, who serve their communities selflessly as police officers, who encourage art, who foster a sense of community with their businesses, who are beloved by their neighbors but have suffered in their own personal lives, and who just get up every day and love their families and neighbors.

In a world where division is the narrative, these shows show a stark contrast and highlight just the opposite. Watching these shows, it always makes me think of the Bible verse: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” And surely that is worth preserving.

Newport, RI Mansion #4

The fourth house museum stop for our Newport, RI trip was The Elms.  Get ready for some beautiful gardens and general splendor!

4. The Elms

The Elms was our next stop, and it did not disappoint. Welcome to the foyer!

I really liked the scheme of the house: white, gold, marble, and black iron. The inspiration was the 18th Century Chateau d’Asnieres in France. Sarah and Edward Julius Berwind, of the coal fortune, built The Elms in 1901 so that they could host on a larger scale.

The Elms is famous for its gardens, so let’s have a look at those first:

I really loved that bench, and there were fountains, pavilions, and statues galore.

There was what I call a “sunroom” to bring the outside indoors. This included possibly the word’s plushest lawnchair.

The inside was equally lovely. Here are a few of the rooms, which definitely give you the impression of French grandeur (except for the green library, which was more homey). Look at those gorgeous ceiling medallions!

Did you spot both pianos?

I seemed to have collected pictures of a lot of different bedrooms, so I’m thinking there may have been more rooms available for viewing at the house than at the other houses. Here are a few of the bedrooms. (Never mind my sister gazing dreamily at that fainting couch.)

Oddly enough, I remember the portraits acquired by this house the most. This portrait of Elizabeth Wharton Drexel Dahlgren Lehr is quite famous. My sister bought a jewelry dish with this portrait on it while we were in Newport. Elizabeth’s first husband was the son of the famous Admiral Dahlgren (who, as a side note, is discussed by Shannon and her father in Northern Fire!) Her first husband died young. I remember her sad story of her second husband telling her on their wedding night that he had only married her for her money. (Note, this is not the owner of the house. I can’t remember why her portrait is at The Elms – maybe she is a relative?)

Another notable portrait at the house is that of Maria Cosway, an Englishwoman who had, shall we say, a more than casual acquaintance with Thomas Jefferson while he was Minister to Paris. This portrait was painted by Cosway’s husband. I’m not sure how the Elms acquired this original either. Here it is:

Does anyone remember how the Elms acquired either of these fascinating paintings? Comment below if you do!

Stop back by next week for our final mansion. I’ll also talk about some of the other stuff (including a lot of eating) that we did in Newport!

Photo of Maria Cosway: The Preservation Society of Newport County, https://www.newportmansions.org/learn/collections/fine-and-decorative-arts/paintings.
All other photos: Tara Cowan or Hannah Cowan Jones

Newport, RI Mansion #3

The tour of Newport continues with Rosecliff today!

3. Rosecliff

On the third day of our trip, we went to Rosecliff, which is perhaps less famous than The Breakers and Marble House (even though it has been in several movies!). But I think it is actually my favorite of the Grand Dames along Bellevue Avenue because Rosecliff is *slightly* understated in comparison to the two houses we discussed previously.

Of course, it all started with an heiress. Theresa “Tessie” Fair was the daughter of an Irish immigrant who had hit it big in Nevada silver.  She met her future husband, Hermann Oelrichs, playing tennis in Newport.  (We actually had lunch one day at this tennis club/casino, which is still there!)  He was pretty wealthy himself, and together they purchased the property along the Cliff Walk and built Rosecliff.  [Just as a side note, Tessie’s sister married Alva Vanderbilt’s son (Alva, of the Marble House fame).]

Tessie couldn’t wait to start giving lavish parties at Rosecliff, and she certainly had the ballroom for it.  This is probably my favorite room in all of Newport.

One of the things I loved about Rosecliff is that it relies on artistry more than flash.  You can see that the ballroom walls are just white, but look at the ornate plaster and molding.  And the mural on the ceiling isn’t garish in the least; it is just the sky, like you’re looking through a glass ceiling.

Take a look at the art encapsulated in this fireplace in another room.

Here are a few more rooms.

The exterior was very elegant.  It puts you in mind of Marble House and the White House a bit.  It was fashioned after the Grand Trianon at Versailles.

I’ll leave a few more pictures below.  Spot the circular library table with books, and the modern bathroom.  I loved those.  Also, the staircase – wow! Enjoy!

All photos: Tara Cowan or Hannah Cowan Jones