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Matters of the Manor | By Jason Tyson

The first in a series.

Everyone in Fayetteville calls it Stone Manor. To the Tyson family, it’s a time capsule, a mystery in plain view. It has always been an anomaly among its neighbors, a European chateau next to showy magnolias of Southern mansions. But time has taken its toll. Inside, the once grand murals are beginning to fade. Kudzu’s slow creep had long ago covered a lower backyard garden. And as of this summer, it all officially belonged to Stone Manor LLC, namely John and Kirby Tyson, the author's parents. It would be up to them to dig through both dirt and paperwork, unearthing and uncovering what is surely a small fraction of the stories – great and small – surrounding Stone Manor.

Each time one mystery is unraveled another is revealed. My parents became the keeper of these secrets the moment they turned the key. For 90 years, one family owned and lived in the house perched on the slope of historic Haymount Hill. The manor house and grounds overlook the downtown skyline of Fayetteville and are within walking distance of two parks, museums and Highsmith-Rainey Memorial Hospital. Grace Sikes Pittman bought this piece of land in 1918 and set about building a house like no other. By the time the grand Tudor was complete four years later, Mrs. Pittman and her husband, Dr. Raymond L. Pittman, were entertaining friends, family and dignitaries. Generations of Pittmans continued to live there well into the 21st century and then suddenly, it was anyone’s guess who would own it next. With the house up for auction, a bidding war sprang up between locals and their lawyers, and even a New York businessman got involved. At the last minute, John and Kirby Tyson, a judge and a downtown property investor, entered a bid, never expecting to win. Everyone asked my parents, life-long Fayetteville residents with four grown children, what they planned to do with such a large house. And at first, they were still figuring that out for themselves. Now, they are considering three options for Stone Manor: office space, a city club or maybe even selling it to a new owner. But no matter what happens, my parents couldn’t stand to see the famed house decay. And the first place to start was the garden. Or should I say gardens. At first glance, the backyard seemed to be one overgrown canopy, a gnarled lair of kudzu, vines and overgrown trees and shrubs, an effective camouflage for not one but two gardens. It took weeks and dumpster loads of debris before workers found a set of steps leading down into a garden that would reveal a fountain and stone wading pool. Hidden beneath were rose bushes, azaleas, English Ivy, large pecan and fig trees, a bamboo forest, prickly plants, bulbs and wild flowers. At first, it looked more like Miss Havisham’s decayed dwellings than the grand masterpiece of years ago. Peeling away those layers resembled both botanical and petrological archeology. Gardeners and landscapers were called in to help restore the grounds and install new plants. Rocks, stones and bricks were also found in abundance, including the unmistakable brownstones salvaged from the nearby Fayetteville Arsenal, remains from General Sherman’s “scorched earth” march into Fayetteville in March 1865. The yard and gardens contain winding slate walkways, uncovered by tracing the trail and digging under the grass. This trail winds from the front yard, down the brick walkways and forms a split that takes visitors to a set of steep brick steps leading to the lower gardens. Wade Parker Jr., a grandson of Raymond and Grace Sikes Pittman, remembers exploring the yard as a child. “It was like stepping into another world,” he said. “There were all sorts of things going on at that house, and some of my fondest memories are from there. “There used to be two greenhouses, one which adjoined the house and was used to cultivate orchids,” Parker said. “The other had a pond inside of it and was temperature-controlled by steam pipes.” Parker said one of the concrete ponds contained goldfish, brim and bass, while the other was used as a drinking basin for the chickens and ducks that were kept behind a metal wire fence. “My grandmother put bass she caught into one of the ponds, and I used to feed them,” he told a newspaper reporter. Workers also uncovered a dilapidated gazebo, extended by decaying pergolas, used to separate the backyard from the rear gardens. Two massive concrete flower pots were repaired and restored to their original state and locations. The pots were so heavy, a forklift was used to hoist them back into place. Yellow portulacas, commonly known as “moss rose,” were selected and planted inside the five large front concrete containers that flank the granite wall along Hay Street. From the outside, Stone Manor was slowly returning to its former glory. Inside was another story. The 10,000 square-foot, six-bedroom, five-bath manor house had yet to be touched. My parents explored every inch of it, from the immense attic stuffed with long-forgotten clothes boxes to the antiquated servants’ quarters in the basement. Each floor presented new restoration challenges and opportunities. My parents wanted to be careful caretakers of the six fireplaces, the antique Baccarat chandeliers and, especially, the hand-drawn murals. The more time they spent studying the murals, the more they wanted to know about the man who spent more than 10 years of his life drawing them. They had only the barest details about the Russian-born artist, but what they knew intrigued them. Next: The search for answers about artist George Novikoff leads the Tysons to a church in Philadelphia and beyond, to a war-torn country.

When John and Kirby Tyson became caretakers of the historic Stone Manor, more than a house awaited. The Tysons rediscovered a series of tiered gardens, once lovely and now brought back into view.

Jason Tyson has worked as a journalist, editor and trivia writer in North Carolina and New York. He spent three years at the Wilmington Star-News and was on assignment at Martha Stewart Living Magazine. He recently completed a master’s at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, where he worked as a reporter. He is a Fayetteville native.