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Mystery Man | By Jason Tyson

He spent the better part of 15 years painting Stone Manor, but much of his life remains a mystery. For someone who left a literal mark on one of Fayetteville’s most distinctive homes, it seems that he departed the Southern city so far from his native Russia as quietly as he arrived. The Tyson family wanted to know more. They embarked on a manhunt through public records, newspaper archives, old clippings and books. We first met the Tysons as they restored Stone Manor’s extensive grounds. Now, they take us inside.

When George J. Novikoff arrived in America sometime in the mid-to-late 1910s, he had already carved out a fairly eventful life for himself. A member of the White Army during the Russian Revolution, he fled the Soviet Union during the rise of the rival Bolsheviks. Novikoff was loyal to Czar Nicholas II, and he had been sent to the United States to inspect munitions purchased by the Russian government from American plants. Perhaps he did not know that as he crossed the Atlantic Ocean aboard a passenger ship he would never see his homeland again – his czar and the royal family would soon be executed. He certainly had no way of knowing that a good portion of his life in the United States would be spent in a house perched atop Fayetteville’s Haymount Hill. But then, little seems certain about the life of George J. Novikoff. The artist intrigued my parents, John and Kirby Tyson, from the moment they took possession of Stone Manor last spring. For 90 years, members of the Pittman family owned and lived in the grand manor house overlooking downtown Fayetteville. And then, suddenly, it was anyone’s guess who would own it next. With the house up for auction, a bidding war sprang up. My parents, a judge and a downtown property investor, entered a last-minute bid, never expecting to win. Everyone asked these life-long Fayetteville residents with four grown children what they planned to do with such a large house. Even now, they continue to study the options for Stone Manor: turning it into office space, a city club or maybe even selling it to a new owner. One thing remains constant – my parents do not want to see this famed house decay, especially the murals. It’s impossible to miss them: angels, animals, mythical plants and flowers winding their way through the already grand rooms of Stone Manor. Novikoff would eventually complete eight major murals here during the 1930s and ‘40s, including a motif painting in the breakfast room along with three smaller panels embedded in the wall of the main staircase landing. Even after 70 years, the murals remain surprisingly well-preserved. Novikoff painstakingly painted members of the Pittman family into the faces of his characters. He was clearly influenced by Russian, Asian and Middle Eastern artwork, plus the work of the classical painters who came before him. One example of his influences can be found in a mural located upstairs, where a fairy holds an arrow flying above a man of nobility wielding a bow. This motif is almost certainly related to a tale from “1001 Arabian Nights,” referred to as “Prince Ahmed and the Fairy” or “Prince Ahmed and Periebanou.” But arguably the most intricate artwork is in the breakfast room, where Novikoff depicted scenes influenced by the Far East using gold and silver paints. He showcased wild roosters, storks and a phoenix flying around strangely-colored plants and wildflowers (that he perhaps invented). The library to the east also contains mythical scenes of exotic castles and mountains. But the most well-preserved painting is in the east parlor, where Novikoff painted a dancer performing for a royal audience rumored to include the Roman emperor Nero. According to a history sheet of the home assembled by Wade Parker Jr., and given to auction bidders last spring, Novikoff also painted faux marble trim and borders on the fireplaces in the library and an upstairs bedroom. It’s possible that he also painted other trimwork throughout the house. Thanks to a handful of public records, signature dates on his artwork and interviews, we know that it took nearly 15 years for Novikoff to finish the work at Stone Manor. But the research often uncovered more questions than answers about his time in Fayetteville. We still do not know how Novikoff came to know the Pittman family or how he decided on his subject matter. We found works by Novikoff in both Baltimore and in Philadelphia where he painted iconography for St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, a stark contrast to the work that lives on the walls of Stone Manor. In 1933, Novikoff painted two murals for Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library that commemorate landmarks in printing, including a representation of Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of the world’s first printing press in 1439. According to Parker, it was after his time in Baltimore that Novikoff then moved to Fayetteville and lived in the new Prince Charles Hotel, which at the time was owned by Dr. R.L. Pittman, the first owner of Stone Manor. “I remember seeing him around the house during the 1940s,” said Jeanette Pittman, wife of the late Raymond Pittman, son of R.L. Pittman. “He looked like a man in his 50s or 60s.” American vital records from the early 1900s list several George J. Novikoffs or George Novikoffs. Novikoffs with varying birth and death dates have popped up among official records in New York, California and Maryland. One is buried in upstate New York, though a far more likely Novikoff is interred in Parson’s Cemetery in Salisbury, Md., near Baltimore. Another George Novikoff traveled to America through Liverpool in July 1912 on the famous RMS Lusitania. Nearly three years later, on May 7, 1915, the ship would sink off the coast of Ireland at the hands of a German U-boat and usher the United States into war. It is believed George J. Novikoff studied art in his native land, according to a published newspaper clipping sent to us by Peter Deveraux of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. It is also thought that he taught his craft in the 1930s to a thriving Russian community near St. Nicholas Church in Philadelphia. Russian ex-pats had settled in the nearby neighborhood and established an art school across the street from the church where Novikoff’s iconography can still be seen today. It is fortunate that most of Novikoff’s work remains well-preserved though a few of his murals at Stone Manor need touching up. Last summer, Raleigh art conservator David Goist was hired by my parents to inspect the artwork and assess the costs of restoration. While Novikoff is not necessarily considered a master in official art circles, his pieces indicate a talented artist whose colorful murals deserve any maintenance they require. Of course, the murals aren’t the only parts of Stone Manor deserving of attention. The rooms are time capsules in and of themselves. Embroidered and perhaps original silk drapes hang in each one. In the dining room, a button hidden in the floor and once used to summon servants still buzzes loudly when pressed. A tiled, windowed solarium can be entered from the west parlor where the stone granite that gives the house its name is on rich display. It was forever dubbed Stone Manor. Perhaps even more fascinating than the luxurious furnishings or opulent artwork, even the artist himself, is the family which built Stone Manor. For generations of Pittmans, the house gave sanctuary in times of joy and tragedy. It also gave them a birds-eye view of the city they helped to build. Next: The series concludes in June with a look back at the history of the Pittman family and a look ahead at Stone Manor’s future. But first, look for a special edition of CityView in May with an exclusive update on the continuing research surrounding the history of Stone Manor’s artist.