PROJECT RESTORE: Designer Tom Pharr didn’t realize saving Springfield might have ended up saving him

Published 2:46 pm Monday, May 16, 2016

Tom Pharr believes in second chances, and third and fourth ones, too, if necessary.

That goes for people — and houses.

Pharr created a new life for an old, once grand home in Vicksburg, which was only 30 days from demolition.

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New life, it has indeed. And so does he.

His home, Springfield, is like the story to date of Pharr’s life, filled with unintended moments, which weave together to form the most beautiful of designs.


‘It was meant to be’

“I never intended to do this project,” Pharr said from his seat in the comfortable parlor of Springfield, anchored on the corner of Cherry and First East streets in Vicksburg.

Antiques and art that mix perfectly with modern pieces in this old-yet-new home surround him.

Sometime back in 2008, Pharr got a call from Nancy Bell, who is with the Vicksburg Foundation for Historic Preservation. Bell told him about an antebellum home that was about to be demolished. It sat at 1831 Cherry St. and dates back to 1859.

“She called me because I had helped with the Beach Grove plantation house being moved. She called me because they had 30 days to do something.”

Pharr called his friend, renowned architect Doug Lum of Port Gibson. The Mississippi Heritage Trust has honored Lum for his work in historic preservation.

“Doug is a wonderful architect. We’ve worked on so many projects together, in Atlanta and here,” Pharr said. “Doug came out and helped me survey it, and we documented the house, and he put it in his computer, and we took it down and were able to store it in a warehouse.”

The pieces of the house, gently taken apart, were stored in what used to be the warehouse that once was owned by Cappeart Manufactured Housing south of Vicksburg.

“I remember opening the big doors of that warehouse and driving in and looking at the debris and stacks of doors and windows and flooring and just lumber and thinking, ‘Look at this mess! How am I ever going to get this back together?’”

Pharr didn’t think the home would fit on his lot, but “low and behold, it just fit. It was meant to be.”

Pharr began the creative process of designing the home.

“I looked to Charleston and Savannah and New Orleans architectural designs for townhouses that work. Most of them are piano nobile, that Italian style of raising them and the main level is the second floor with courtyard entrances on the first floor. That gives you a kind of security. No one can just come up and rap upon your door. You’re protected.”

On the first floor, Pharr built a four-car garage, along with a safe room for protection from tornadoes and the like, as well as an elevator shaft.

“The one thing Anchuca taught me is if you can make your property income producing, you’ve got to do that to help care for the place. So, I put a one bedroom, income-producing apartment downstairs with a separate entrance.

“I did it for resale. I had no idea I would be the one who would end up living in this house.”

Pharr called his home Springfield, after the neighborhood in which it is now located.

“When Newitt Vick designed Vicksburg, he named this area Springfield because of all the natural springs that were here and he noted that this area would be set aside for the professional class — the doctors and lawyers and merchants who worked in the area,” Pharr said.

When designing the home, he kept the professional in mind.

“I asked, what is it that the professional — the engineer, the doctor, the person who is going to buy this house — wants in this house? They want energy efficiency. So, I made sure this house has that. All the windows really face north and I have the big overhands on the eastern side and no windows to the west until you get upstairs, where the view is more important than the energy efficiency.”

And the view is spectacular, particularly at sunset, when the many hues of orange settle over the Mississippi River and Louisiana behind it.

In addition to energy efficiency, Pharr added instantaneous hot water and low voltage lighting, “all the things I thought engineers would go goo goo over,” he said.

Despite the many modern conveniences of the home, Pharr was careful to preserve the integrity of the original floor.

“All of the wood floors you see — and there are wood floors on all three levels — are the original floors. And that which isn’t the original floors, I took beams and wood from the house that was pine and cypress and milled them and made more wood floors. Even for the closets. I knew people wanted modern, but I knew they wanted the correct feel of the old neighborhood and to get a sense of it belonging.

“And I wanted the front of the house to be, to the inch, just like the original house. Every piece of cypress, every pane of glass is the same. I saved each pane. I had stacks of panes of glass with newspaper between them so I was able to put back the original panes of glass,” Pharr said. “Nothing was thrown away.”


The early years

Pharr was born and raised in Vicksburg, and when he needed a part-time job in high school, he went to work for May Burns, washing dishes at Anchuca. That’s what sparked his interest in architecture and history.

After graduating from Warren Central in 1981, Pharr headed to the University of Southern Mississippi to study architecture. However, he found he was more interested in the details — the placement of furnishings and art — of homes and commercial buildings, than their actual construction. He said Louisiana State University was the closest accredited school with an interior design program.

“I transferred to LSU and went into their program, which was within the school of architecture in the college of design. So, I got enough architectural education along with design to be dangerous as an interior designer. I’ve ended up designing more houses than I have interiors. But that is just kind of my passion. It has enabled me to do all the things that I enjoy doing.”

It was at LSU that Pharr’s career took on a life of its own.

“I think God sometimes has had me on the fast track of living,” he said. “When I was in college, I was desperate for some money to pay for college and I worked for some professors. The dean of the college gave me my first job in design and my very first client was John Schwegmann, who owned all the Schwegmann stores.

“She (the professor) was doing a big house and I was her assistant. I gathered up the materials and would go with her to presentations and put everything out. So, from my first dealing, I was spoiled because we had artists doing bronze railings for the staircase and artists working here and there. Then, they got me into designing the interior, helping with the interior of his jet planes. So, here I am in college, doing this kind of work. My professors would always tell me, ‘When you get out of school and start working, it’s not going to be this way. This is just an unusual set of circumstances.’ ”

Those unusual circumstances became a sort of life theme for Pharr. For practice, he began going on job interviews while in his junior year at LSU. He interviewed with Smallwood, Reynolds, Stewart and Stewart — an international design firm located in Atlanta — and they hired him as a junior to begin work a year later after graduation.

When Pharr arrived in Atlanta, he was one of about 250 designers on staff.

“When I got in there, I was the grunt employee. I was paid about nothing. It was just an honor to work there, and I worked probably 60-70 hours a week just to be able to afford to live in Atlanta.

“But they realized I really enjoyed architectural details. Ritz Carlton was one of their clients, so they would put me on millwork details for elevators, lobbies and things because I just loved Greek Revival design. I would do beautiful ink drawings and presentation boards. I loved doing that sort of thing,” Pharr said. “Again, I was lucky and got to work on some of the jobs that most people coming out of college couldn’t have dreamed of.”

Pharr was hired away from Smallwood Reynolds by one of the firm’s clients, commercial developer Group VI.

“They were doing a big new country club development with these developers called Eagles Landing in Stockbridge, Ga. They wanted a creative design build division, and so I went from being a peon designer for a big firm to being the president of the design division for this new company,” he said. “We were doing commercial tenant spaces and build outs like doctors’ offices and lawyers’ offices. It wasn’t residential design. I had never done residential design work.”

He didn’t know that was going to change in a big way.

“They had this thing called Street of Dreams. It’s a big to-do. All these developers for this country club community created a finished street highlighting all the architects and designers and the best of the best. Well, they had one house that the designer and architect pulled out. There was some kind of feud and they had a vacant lot right in the middle of this Street of Dreams.

“They asked Group VI, which was doing the commercial side of the development, about doing this house. They needed this house built and built fast and completed with all of the rest of them. No one would take this project on because they said there’s no time. I was so young — 24 — and I didn’t know there was anything I couldn’t do. They said, ‘Tom, can you design us a house?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’ I had no fear.”

Pharr set about his design, borrowing elements from historic homes he loved.

“I took elements of Beavoir on the coast and Longwood plantation in Natchez for my windows. It was a ranch house, but I had all my traditional elements and my portico and the interior.

“So, I’m 25 when the Street of Dreams opens and when that happens, my little house — they had the big awards banquet. Judges had come in from different parts of the country to judge the interiors, architecture, landscape and all that. My little house that I quickly threw together and designed won seven out of the 11 awards for the Street of Dreams including Best Interior Design, Best Lighting and Best of Show.”

When he returned to his office, the receptionist told him the phone hadn’t stopped ringing.

“ ‘There are so many people who want you to design their house,’ she told me. And I’m like, ‘I’ve never designed a house other than that one,’ but it got me thinking. I had just gotten a $5,000 VISA card in the mail. I had my little house in Virginia-Highland (in Atlanta) that I rented. And I thought, ‘Hmmm. I want to start my own business.’

“I talked to the receptionist and I said, ‘Would you mind if people call me, would you give them my number?’ And she said, ‘I sure will.’

“So, I got my office ready — my spare bedroom — and I said, ‘OK, now, I’m ready for the phone to ring. How do I make that happen?’ Well, the phone did ring. And my very first telephone call was from a young lady who I had no idea who she was. Her name was Toni Braxton and she was a singer.”

Braxton just signed a record deal with L.A. Reid in Atlanta and his company, LaFace Records.

“She had gotten a big amount of money, so she was moving from an apartment to her first house and she had seen my house and said, ‘I want this guy to do my house.’ So that was my first client,” Pharr said. “I went from the John Schwegmanns directly to Toni Braxton, who the first year I worked for her, won six Grammys and I don’t know how many other things. And then she jetted me to Los Angeles doing her condos there and everybody else in the music industry,” he said.

Reid saw Braxton’s house and asked Pharr to design a home for him.

“Then Puff Daddy — Sean Combs — in New York is having me do his Hamptons house and brownstone and restaurants and I’m just going all over the place.

“And I would take months off. I would work so hard on a project and get it completed and I would go climb the great pyramids of Egypt. I would go all over Africa. Then I would do a Marlon Brando. I would get on a plane and fly to Tahiti and not want to hear a phone, fax, anything.”


Enter Anchuca

“That’s when mother calls me and tells me Anchuca’s for sale. And I’m like, ‘what’s going on with Anchuca?’ And I’m 36 when she calls me. And I said, ‘It’s just falling apart? No one’s doing anything?’ I said, ‘What’s wrong with these people in Vicksburg? All these precious things and people have the ability, and no one’s doing anything?’ And I was talking with my sister about that, how people in Vicksburg just don’t appreciate what they have because getting out in the world, I would come back home, and I would realize the preciousness of it. And my sister said, ‘You’re from Vicksburg and you’re not doing anything.’ And I’m like, ‘You’re absolutely right.

“I was doing the 51st and 52nd penthouse floor for Reid in a building on the upper east side of New York at the time. He was planning his wedding on the island of Capri and he’s got me helping with that and going back and forth to Italy because they want everything just so. I’m dealing with that wedding and finishing up their apartment so when they get back from their honeymoon they have their place in New York finished, and the whole time I’m thinking about Anchuca. I’m thinking this is crazy. I can’t do this.”

Pharr tried to convince some of his deep-pocketed clients to take on the Anchuca project, but no one was interested.

“When I was on the island of Capri, there is a photograph that my assistant Larry Davis took of me. I turned to look at him and he took my picture and I have that photograph of the moment I decided to buy Anchuca. The photo is over at Anchuca. He said, ‘You must have been in deep thought.’ And I told him, ‘Well, I’ve decided to try to buy Anchuca.’ He said, “What? You have lost your mind. You have all this going on.’ And I said, ‘I know, but I’m tired of this.’

“I still want to do the side work, but I talked to my sister and told her I didn’t know what I could do or how I could do it, but that I just felt that it was what I should do.”

Pharr returned to Vicksburg and worked out a deal with Anchuca’s owner, Loveta Byrne, and purchased the property.

“That was 15 years ago. And here we are today.


Second chances

One of Pharr’s goals with Anchuca was to create something that would benefit and give back to his community, in much the way it benefited him as a teenager.

“I have had so many people work for me here. I have had high school students who started out as dishwashers, just like I did, and some are now general managers of Marriotts out on the West Coast. Some have gone into hospitality management, even managing the Ritz Carlton in New Orleans. I have people who have had difficulties in their lives, who have been through youth courts and had problems with drugs. These are just people with addictive personalities who want to straighten out their lives, but it’s difficult for them to find jobs.

“We are the home of the second, third, sometimes fourth and fifth chances. But I’ve had some failures in trying to work within that system. When people can’t even get a job at McDonald’s, I’m able to personally decide whether to offer that job. I have people who are retired like my aunt, Sandra Hollingsworth, who works in my office, and Saundra Gray, who are all 70 and older who don’t want to just sit at home. They love the interaction with people. When you look at the diversity of people — that’s what I think people don’t realize, what properties like Anchuca can do for a community.”

Pharr didn’t know it, but he would need a second chance himself.

In 2012, he discovered what he and his physician thought was a fatty tumor underneath the skin on his face near his left ear.

“I discovered it when I was shaving. It got a little bigger and bigger.”

He saw his doctor, who said the cyst was probably nothing, but recommended having it removed just to be safe.

Surgery was scheduled with Dr. Karen Pitman at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson.

“She got in there and they realized that my particular head and neck cancer had taken on the characteristics of the gland itself. So in all their scans and stuff, what they thought was my parotid gland, was actually a huge tumor. So, that surgery that was supposed to take just a couple of hours as an outpatient and I would get to go home, lasted 11 to 13 hours, something crazy like that,” Pharr said. “Of course, I woke up and my world had changed.”


Coming full circle

Pharr finished construction on Springfield in January 2009, “during the economic crash and the worst residential mess ever in the world.

“I put this house on the market and was so excited that somebody was going to get the new-old house with all the modern conveniences that I had just put my heart and soul into. I had been here every morning for a year and a half building it, working out every little detail. And then no one came to see it. My real estate agent tried to explain to me what was going on in the world and told me no one was looking at houses, that no one could get a loan and that banks were going crazy.

“If I had not made that income producing apartment…I started renting that apartment when the house was for sale and that gave me the money to pay on my note. I had it listed for $620,000, which is exactly what it cost me to erect it. Well, honey, nothing has happened. No one came to look at my house, and I was devastated.”

However, a Washington, D.C., company contacted him about renting the house to use as a Vicksburg office.

“Just when I thought all was lost and that I may just have to give this house up to the bank, they called wanting to rent it,” he said. “They were here for two years and paid me an incredible amount of money to rent it, and I was able to pay off half my debt in two years. It was like a gift.”

Pharr tried to sell the home again after the D.C. firm left town. While more people took a look at it the second time on the market, he received no credible offers.

Little did he know when he began construction on the home back in 2008, it would become his sanctuary and provide him a place for healing respite.

Pharr was living at the time in Anchuca, and had a gall bladder attack. It was during that examination that doctors found spots on his lung, which were malignant. Today, he makes weekly trips to New Orleans for treatment.

“That’s when I decided to take this house off the market and move into it. That would give them the space back at Anchuca, because I really shouldn’t be around all these people with my immune system. I needed a refuge and a sanctuary.

“I was close to Anchuca. I could look over at it. I was one phone call away. I still felt at home.”

Pharr, who was told at one point he has six months to a year to live, has now made it three years, and said he feels stronger than he has in many years.

He credits that to the incredible support of his family — his mother, Bettye Oakes and stepfather, Donald Oakes; his father, Thomas Edward Pharr Jr.; his sister, Natalie Pittman of Hattiesburg; and a host of other family and friends.

Pharr’s philosophy is one of gratitude and looking to the future.

“I’ve always been one to think it will be fine. It will be OK. But all this and how it came together, now I see it. If I had sold this house, I would have never had these last few years of living here and the peacefulness of it and the tranquility of it that has helped with my recovery.

“When I started doing chemo, my family and friends just surrounded me. My friend, Karla Barfield in Dallas, who grew up with me in Vicksburg, got in her car and brought me her juicer and I started juicing. When I had so many sores in my mouth I couldn’t chew and could barely swallow, I could get that straw in and get that nourishment. When they told me to expect to lose 20 to 30 pounds with the chemo, I lost nine, total.

“My mother has been great. She’s taken me to every appointment, she and my stepfather Donald.”

He said his cancer treatments have been difficult and he understands how some people could want to simply give up, “but I do it for them. I know I have to do it for them because they are the ones fighting with me, and they never give up on me.

“It’s part of the journey God has me on. When I look back at my early years, experiences he allowed me, that journey, and to fast track my life in such a way it’s enabled me to come back now and continue the good works here. As long as you get up and do good everyday, everything works out all right.”