A Craftsman’s Dream
03 Dec 2020
A furniture maker’s slow transformation of a 218-year-old “little slice of time”
By Ray Owen » Photos by Mollie Tobias
An hour southeast of Southern Pines is Purdie Place, a plantation house set on a high bluff overlooking the Cape Fear River in the little town of Tar Heel. Since 2018, a great renewal has taken place at the house through the restoration efforts of Andrew Ownbey, a traditional woodworker and lover of history.
The home was built sometime around 1803 by James S. Purdie, who made his fortune through the labor 28 enslaved workers bleeding pines of their resin for turpentine, tar and pitch. Purdie served as sheriff of Bladen County in the 1780s and was a private in the Continental Line during the American Revolution.
Purdie Place is a stately brick edifice with double galleries facing the river and road sides and a rare exterior stair on the riverside porch. It is one of a few remaining plantation houses that once dotted early maps along the river.
Ownbey purchased the property through Preservation North Carolina, a statewide organization that protects historic sites. A preservationist, furniture maker and antique dealer, he is widely recognized for his expertise, serving on the boards of Friends of the Museum of the Albemarle and Hope Plantation and lecturing for the Society of American Period Furniture Makers.
“I got into antiques and history through my dad,” says Ownbey. “He was an Antebellum and Civil War Era history buff and the most influential person in my life as a child. When I was around 16, I met a man named Randy Harrell who became my mentor. Randy took down old buildings and put them back up and I was just amazed.”
“It didn’t really grab hold of me until I was in my mid 20s. It was almost overnight. My wife looked at me one day and it was like ‘what’s wrong with you?’ I couldn’t get enough. It was fun and it kept me away from reality, away from what I did for a living at the time.”
Formally trained in heavy diesel technology, Ownbey spent 14 years as a technician. Mechanically minded, the work came easy for him, but it got to a point where he despised his job and so he chose a different path.
“I started collecting furniture from the area,” says Ownbey. “I began going to auction and estate sales and meeting collectors. At first, they saw me bidding and started asking questions about ‘this kid in his 20s’ running them up. It’s funny thinking back, them wondering how I knew about this stuff.”
“I’m more a laborer than an academic,” he says. “Scholars typically aren’t the people doing the actual work. I never use the word ‘self-taught’ even though I don’t have a lot of formal training. Someone always showed me, whether it was copying something or studying furniture I took apart. In any case, I didn’t invent any of these processes.”
“I don’t fit the mold of my generation,” Ownbey continues. “Interest in history is fading fast among my age group, not only written history but tangible history, things you can touch and hold. My generation doesn’t appreciate those things, they only go for a look. I go a lot deeper than a superficial ‘it’s old and looks good’ kind of thing.”
“My friends think I’m different, they all laugh at me but they like it. Honestly, I have a lot of friends that really appreciate what I do. They come to the house and ask a lot of questions, but could care less about owning a piece of history. I do have a few friends who have bought old furniture from me.”
“I always wanted an early house but couldn’t afford one. In my 20s, we started having kids and bought a craftsman bungalow. I began moving any little 18th or 19th century buildings I could find to restore beside our house. I ended up saving structures nobody else would have ever touched. Looking back, I’m glad I did, otherwise they’d be gone.”
“When you save history, you’ve saved a little slice of time that represents a way of life,” says Ownbey. “The tangible object reflects the one that made it or the one who commissioned it. As a conservationist, I get to save something that somebody else created. It’s not mine. I’m just the steward, the caretaker. I’m only here for a brief period in the grand scheme of things.”
“As for Purdie Place, it was home to a number of people of importance, especially veterans of the Revolutionary War and the American Civil War. It was also home to a senator and a congressman and a Confederate Congress member named T.D. McDowell. The McDowells don’t get much credit but they essentially ran the estate through the Antebellum Era.”
“Before we found this house, if I was to make a list of everything I’d like to find in an historic property, Purdie’s got it. The style is early with Flemish bond brick construction, double porticos or porches, nine-over-nine windows upstairs and down, good sized rooms but not a mansion, and it’s back off the road but not too far from civilization on a 45-acre tract of land.”
“There are layers of history when you view it from an architectural standpoint,” says Ownbey. “But the beauty of the house is as much the setting as it is the house. When you come through the gate and it opens up, there’s an air of history here. It’s a little bit isolated. You just feel like you’ve stepped back in time when you come through the gate.”
“The house was in reasonably good condition and had been essentially shut up for about 20 years,” says Ownbey. “The power was still on but nobody lived here. Everything was mildewed and just dirty. We did about two or three weeks of a really deep cleaning of the house and it brought it back to life.”
The infrastructure required a complete overall, plumbing, heating and air, and things like that. There were some major structural issues to an addition that was brought up and attached to the left rear of the house as a modern kitchen. There was a lot of water damage where the roof had leaked, but the main brick section of the house was in fantastic condition.
The surprising thing is not much is known about the house even though it’s a county landmark on the National Register. Ownbey has probably uncovered more questions than answers: “I certainly wonder who walked through the doors, standing in the hall, seeing the thresholds so worn. I think about all those who came and went and probably will for the rest of my life.”