Judy McKnight can’t say exactly how it started, but she and her husband Michael’s home since 2006 — the grand Italianate estate called The Meadows — became her obsession.
Originally situated on 950 acres of land, and purchased in 1823 by the Blake family of South Carolina, who paid $10,000 in gold for it, the Henderson County mansion was built around 1860 as a seasonal home.
Blake patriarch Daniel and his son Robert were part of a 19th-century diaspora of Charleston’s wealthy who sought relief from the Low Country’s brutal summers in the mountains of Henderson County. Some of these transplants made a lasting impact in the area: Daniel co-founded St. John in the Wilderness Episcopal Church in Flat Rock, and donated the land for Calvary Episcopal in Fletcher.
The Meadows is 6,300 stupendous square feet, set today on 2.5 acres of overgrown, boxwood-rich land. It boasts 12- and 14-foot ceilings, eight fireplaces, and approximately two-feet-thick stone walls. The building is said to be made from rock harvested either from nearby Couch Mountain or Hooper’s Creek, and, from historical records, is presumed to have been constructed by slaves.
“Our decision to buy it came after much discussion between us, many hours of research, and an information-gathering trip to the bank,” explains Judy. “We’d just finished building a house in the nearby Livingston Farms development, so practically, it made little sense. But there was something that kept beckoning me. The house haunted my dreams.”
Her bank contact initially discouraged her, saying the then-owner would never sell. The owner passed away, however, and a pivotal 3am discussion followed, in which Michael woke Judy to declare that they needed to take the plunge.
“We thought, if we don’t buy it now, its beauty and stories will be lost forever. We realized we’d never have a chance to own a house like this again,” Michael recalls.
The McKnights envisioned the Meadows as the perfect event venue to complement their successful business, Chef Michael’s Catering. “We didn’t intend to live there,” explains Judy. “But,” she continues, referring to the recession, “you know what was happening in 2007.” The couple had trouble getting full financing for their ambitious, unprecedented business model, which included event filming at the Meadows.
“We had to decide which house was more important to us,” says Judy. The move didn’t involve great distance, but did require significant sacrifice. The fast-and-furious sale of their Livingston Farms home left them in a short-term-rental situation that ended before the Meadows was entirely move-in ready. So the family inhabited a 440-square-foot room in the historic house for a challenging six months. “It was freezing,” Judy recalls. Bats sometimes dive-bombed the family in the middle of the night.
“We had dressers over there, beds over here,” she says, pointing to different corners of the room. Absent plumbing in their living quarters, “we drained our tub water from a hose connected to a kidney-shaped landscaping pool we put outside,” she reveals. [The house’s two working toilets were in other rooms.] During this period, Michael worked hard to make the other rooms habitable: he started out with no trade experience and learned as he went. He sanded and refinished vast swaths of rich heart-pine floors, re-stained miles of woodwork, and set to work repairing 25 of the 40 picturesque bay and four-over-four windows. He taught himself how to plaster the old-fashioned way (no drywall back then) — until a winter wind ripped away parts of the cedar roof and it stormed indoors, ruining the new walls.
Faced with decades of water damage, general degradation, and piles of junk, the couple knew their workload would continue to be dauntingly massive. Judy says some people had “busted straight through walls” in an attempt to find hidden panels and other antique features.
Michael explains that the substructure was a complete maze, with each room sitting atop its own separate stone foundation. He had to perform so many investigative trips while slithering on his belly — to assess pipes and other crucial support components — that Judy gave him a pair of hunting coveralls for Christmas.
“Still,” Michael shares, “we saw the Meadows’ potential and great bones. It was, and still is, a tremendous amount of labor, most of which we are doing ourselves.” Biltmore Estate-style, they had annual parties, complete with live music, where they’d celebrate the opening of a newly restored room.
The vision and toil paid off: the home, already on the National Register of Historic Places for its rare Italianate architecture (not many Southern mansions of this style survived the Civil War), is currently on the short list to be considered for historic-landmark status.
If it gets the designation, the house will eventually transition into the event venue of the couple’s dreams. Already, it is the site of historical tours and author signings.
The Meadows has seen diverse owners in its lifetime: the Edgerton family purchased it in 1937 (the McKnights have entertained two of the now-elderly sisters who were raised there); the town of Fletcher owned it for a time; a textiles manufacturer, The Kellwood Company, used it as a showroom in the 1970s (sadly removing the home’s ornate central staircase); and the owner previous to the McKnights had dreams of converting it into a museum.
Fast-forward ten years, and the couple’s sons are now teens. About half of the Meadows’ rooms are meticulously restored, comfortable, and beautiful to behold, thanks to Judy’s penchant for acquiring both antiques with provenance and bargain finds she scouts via online auction and thrift-store hunts.
“I’ve acquired furniture and objects gradually, but when I think something’s going to work, I get it,” she says. The home is filled with elegant furniture, whimsical and bold artwork, and refinished pieces in the Chinoiserie mode, transformed by decorative painter Lyna Farkas.
As for the family’s adventure of the last decade, they claim they wouldn’t change a thing — the blood, sweat, and tears of the restorative labor, or the delight in living and entertaining in a place of exceptional beauty and rich history.
Michael sums it up this way: “From day one, we’ve believed this house isn’t really ours, but the community’s, and we are the current caretakers — part of a long line before us.”