Located in the Midway community of Milledgeville, The Rockwell House was built in 1838 by attorney Samuel Rockwell. Perched upon 12 acres of land, including a small pond, the 7,000-square-foot house changed hands several times in its nearly 200 years. Then came the trio of Ross Sheppard, Will Walker and Jacob Hawkins, who purchased the home in 2019 and took on the massive task of restoring it and bringing it new life.
But there are no burgundy velvet curtains, stiff antiques or hoop skirts in this house. Sheppard and his fellow investors were careful to modernize the historic property in an inviting way, while preserving its architectural and design elements.
“One of the things that we wanted to do with the house from a design standpoint was intentionally veer away from what so many people expect to see when they come to an old South house and purposely not celebrate or try to recreate that sort of setting or feeling,” Sheppard said.
“We want to honor the things about this home and the time period in which it was built that are honorable, like the craftsmanship, the artistry and the architecture, while not celebrating things about the time that it shouldn’t be celebrated,” Walker added.
The house has a storied history, once belonging to Georgia Governor Herschel Johnson, who was the governor during the 1850s and ran as vice president to Stephen Douglas against Abraham Lincoln. He was also the leader of Georgia’s anti-secession movement.
The home’s longest owners were the Ennis family, who called The Rockwell House their home from 1915 to the 1960s. In 1971, the home was sold to Cecil and Joanne Ogden, and they began to undertake their own restoration project on the home – one that nearly burned it to the ground.
“Workers were stripping paint with a blow torch, which sounds crazy but it is a way that you can strip oil-based paint. But the people doing it didn’t know what they were doing and they set the central stairway on fire. You can still see some of the damage in places but thankfully it didn’t damage the structure of the home,” Sheppard said.
Growing up in Milledgeville, Sheppard said he was familiar with the house and watched it slowly deteriorate from the time he was a child living in Milledgeville to later an adult driving by it. So when it came on the market in 2019, Sheppard jumped at the chance to look at it.
The exterior paint was peeling and the yard was overgrown. Inside, there was a fair amount of fire damage that was never repaired, cracks in the plaster and a litany of other aesthetic issues that needed to be resolved.
“From the outside, it wasn’t quite to the level of Grey Gardens-esque, but it was close,” Sheppard said.
But once he stepped inside, he said he saw something special in the house and that the important elements of the house itself were not nearly in as bad of shape and the exterior hinted they might be.
While restoring a 7,000-square-foot mansion from the 1830s might seem like a daunting task – and it certainly was – Sheppard was no stranger to historic real estate. He is a real estate broker with Ansley Real Estate in Atlanta and has his masters from the University of Georgia in historic preservation, so taking on the restoration and preservation of the Rockwell House was something he had seemingly been preparing for his whole life.
Thus entered Walker, who works in marketin and Hawkins, who is the executive director of the Stanley M. Herzog Charitable Foundation. Together, the three of them took on the massive task creating the next phase of The Rockwell House’s life.
“We’ve all grown up in small town rural communities in Georgia,” Walker said. “Over the past 30 years, we’ve seen a disinvestment in these kinds of communities. We’ve seen a lot of attention go towards places like Atlanta or smaller metro areas in Georgia. And we’ve seen how places like this home have just been lost to history. They become dilapidated. They’ve had to be torn down. And so many of these places have architectural features like this home has that are priceless. They don’t exist in other places.”
Once all of the systems were brought up to code and the house was in good shape, they rented it to a few students studying at Milledgeville’s Georgia College & State University. But the coronavirus pandemic forced them to look into other options, and the closure of the town’s only historic bed and breakfast gave them a new opportunity to use the house as a rental for tourists and guests to the college.
Today, the 14-room house has four guest suites available for rent and can accommodate up to 12 overnight guests. The home can be rented by the room or the entire house can be rented for groups or families. The house and property are also available for rent for events, such as weddings and bridal showers. Although the house has seen an extensive kitchen renovation, the house stands as it was originally built, with 14-foot ceilings and 20x20-foot rooms throughout. The living room area features a self-playing piano and the front parlour has been left empty of furniture to accommodate parties and events.
The house is also a short drive to downtown Milledgeville, which features a hub of local restaurants and bars and a quaint downtown experience. And if you’re looking to add a creepy factor to your stay, the abandoned Central State Hospital campus that once served as one of the world’s largest mental hospital and now holds 25,000 unmarked graves is less than two miles away.
For more information on The Rockwell House or to book a stay, visit rockwellhousega.com.