Bicentennial estate

– Madison’s historic Thurleston house marks its 200th year –

In the past two centuries, countless lives have come and gone from this area, but the Thurleston house is still standing, grander than ever. The historic antebellum home that sits on 35 acres in Madison and is known for its luxurious gardens, turned 200 years old this year.

The Thurleston house, named after a castle in the borderlands of Scotland by one of the early owners who believed they were descendants from the royal Lauderdale family, joins an elite rank of houses in Madison reaching the 200-year mark, including Heritage Hall (1811), Finney-Land House (1806), Rogers House (1810), the Bearden House (1810), and the Hollis-Burney House (1818).

As Madison grew, so did the Thurleston House, which underwent several additions, remodels, and décor revitalizations as the house passed through five different families as owners. The house now comprises 8,500 square feet with four bedrooms and five-and-a-half bathrooms.

Elegant and traditional, the many rooms loom large with 12-foot ceilings and oversized doors and windows. The house also features a formal dining room, a quaint breakfast room, modern indoor and outdoor kitchens, 10 fireplaces, sophisticated studies, a mini library, a fully-finished basement, a pool and Jacuzzi, and nearly a dozen plush sitting rooms. Even the nooks and crannies are filled with antique sofas surrounded by books and artwork. Hard pine wood floors line the house beneath massive oriental rugs, adding outstanding color and design to several of the house’s majestic foyers and sitting rooms. The entire home is decorated with fine Americana antiques, classic furniture, and artwork produced both locally and from across the entire South. The eclectic collection mirrors the diverse history of the Thurleston house.

The current owners, Clarence and Kathy Whiteside, have maintained the property’s historical integrity while creating lush gardens across the estate since the early 1980s.   Kathy, a retired master gardener, describes the gardens as being “lovingly created” by her and her husband.

“It took me 20 years to make what was in my head happen here,” says Kathy. “We have had so many wonderful experiences in this house. This is where we raised our children. This is where our daughter had her wedding. This is where we hosted many events for the City of Madison and the Cultural Center.”

For years, the Thurleston House has been a prime attraction for Madison’s annual Tour of Homes. The Whitesides have also opened up their home for various film projects over the years, including the popular 1990s television series “In the Heat of the Night,” starring Carol O’Connor, “The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All,” a made-for-TV movie starring Donald Sutherland and Diane Lane, and even a segment for a Japanese program. The Thurleston House also drew then First Lady Laura Bush in for a tour when she visited Madison during George W. Bush’s presidency.

“It’s been an incredible life in this house,” says Kathy.

Now, Kathy and Clarence are preparing to say goodbye to the Thurleston House and find the next steward to keep the house and its traditions alive.

“We are putting the house on the market soon,” says Kathy. “I have grieved for the last four months over this decision, but I am also relieved because it is time for us to downsize. It will take someone very special to take on this house. You have to work hard to maintain old houses like this or they fall into ruin.”

Throughout its long history, the Thurleston house has been expanded, updated and even relocated as it was passed down from generation to generation among five different families, says Kathy.

“The fact that in 200 years, there have only been five families in this house is incredible in and of itself,” she adds.

Built in 1818 by John Walker, the house originally served as the Piedmont Plain farmhouse on a piece of land between Indian Creek and Little River. Walker’s sons used a mule and log to move the modest five-room farmhouse to its current location in 1841.

According to Susan Hitchcock with the Morgan County Landmark’s Society, “After passing through several hands, and serving for a time as a boy’s school, the house became the property of Elijah E. Jones, who added the massive front gable in 1848. A new house emerged under the guidance of architect Benjamin Peeples, more than double its original size.”

The Butler Family took over the Thurleston estate in the 1860s when Col. David E. Butler and his wife, Virginia Walton Butler bought the house. One of the couple’s daughters, Bessie Butler inherited the house and cultivated a magnificent garden, beginning a tradition the property carries on to this day. It was Bessie who claimed her familial ancestry traced back to the royal Lauderdale Family who lived in the “Thirlestane” Castle of Scotland’s countryside.

“I was never able to confirm if the Butler family was truly connected to the royal family there, but Bessie believed they were and named the house after that castle,” says Kathy.

Related or not to the Lauderdales, the house still exuberated a royal feel. Kathy even keeps a drawing of the Thurleston Castle alongside a poem written by Sir Walter Scott about the castle in one of the hallways.

Bessie took it upon herself to cultivate lush gardens to further the prestigious style of the Thurleston House. In 1930, the Atlanta Journal described Thurleston’s gardens “to be one of the most beautiful sights in Georgia.”

Bessie Butler told the newspaper, “I have evolved a wonderful, hardy garden. In March the jonquils, the forsythias and the spireas bloom; in April the iris come, when there are thousands of feet of the Bowers of Louis; in May and June we have the lilies and roses and the rest of the year the hydrangeas and the lovely hardy sweet peas, all on the same walks and beds, all perfectly hardy and thriving, without work, water or enriching.”

Today, the gardens have been meticulously maintained and expanded by Kathy and Clarence Whiteside. Thurleston’s landscape consists of thriving woodlands, a children’s garden, a vegetable garden, fields of wild flowers, a cutting garden, and other garden rooms. According to Kathy, native plants abound, as well as a collection of antique roses and many unusual, hard-to-find plants, trees and shrubs. Rock walls, a wet weather pond with a waterfall, a fire pit, and arbors and trellis’ accent the diverse plant life across the property.

“We just went by each little piece of earth to create what we have today,” says Kathy. Because of her painstaking care of the immense grounds, fostering breathtaking regal gardens across 19 acres of the estate, the Thurleston house has become one of the most sought-after private homes to tour and photograph.

But the Whitesides didn’t just revive the lush gardens, they entirely revamped the interior from top to bottom and even added on to the house.

“When we got this house, everything was so dark. The wallpaper was forest green and depicted a hunting scene throughout the house. The floors were painted darkly and there was light coming into the main floor.”

But Kathy and Clarence changed all of that. Light pours in from a gigantic 10 x 9-foot window installed above a grand staircase leading down into the main foyer and living room areas by the front entrance. The walls are covered in champagne and gold colored wallpaper and floors have been restored to the original light pine wood finish.

After more than 30 years of creative loving care, the Whitesides are moving on to the next chapter of their story. As the grim and glorious cycle of life carries on, the Whitesides are ready to pass the torch on to the next family willing to carry on the rich legacy of the Thurleston House.

“It has been an honor and an awesome responsibility,” says Kathy. “We are hoping the next person to take on this house will love every inch of it, just as we did.”

Written by Tia Lynn Ivey

Photographed by Josiah Connelly




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