Preserving our past for our future: The Chesser-Williams House

Submitted by Catherine Long

You may know or have wondered about the wooden house that sits along the side of Braselton Highway between Old Peachtree Road and Gravel Springs Road. This structure is the Chesser–Williams House, which has been moved to the campus of the Gwinnett Environmental & Heritage Center. The house will be part of a group of buildings associated with Gwinnett County agriculture from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The preservation of this distinctive house began in 2008 with its donation to the Gwinnett Environmental & Heritage Center Foundation by Jerald and Sue Williams of Buford, Georgia.

The Chesser–Williams House has exquisite art work placed on the exterior and interior of the house. The parlor features beautiful stencil painting that has a magnificent medallion motif on the ceiling and the room is outlined with an apple pattern. Over the mantle is a free hand painted landscape portrait that shows a pastoral scene. Additional painting was placed in the hallway of the home and features the same apple pattern. Research by independent scholar Maryellen Higginbotham has revealed that this house is one of seven structures from Texas to North Carolina that may have been painted by the same German itinerant painter. Similarities in the colors and artistic patterns have been noticed in these paintings. It is the hope to be able to provide an identity to this talented individual. With any luck the name may be discovered during the restoration process.

Chesser Williams House Lord Aeck Sargent

Photo from Lord Aeck & Sargent website, here.

Through the creation of a living history site, representative of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, history will be explored through period gardens, a Monitor-style barn, spring house and other outbuildings, the Chesser–Williams House will be used as an exhibit piece that highlights the agricultural and industrial history of Gwinnett County. Several of the topics to be explored are art, agriculture, textiles, food ways, recreation, and southern culture. In addition to educational and exhibit programming, visitors will take guided tours by docents in period costume. The Chesser–Williams House will provide an opportunity to engage students in analyzing, researching and participating in hands-on educational programming that increases their appreciation, knowledge, and preservation of our cultural heritage. This treasure of Gwinnett County will serve as the epicenter of the Center’s cultural and heritage education program.

With the efforts of several public and private organizations this project has continued to move forward and get closer to its goal—to educate Gwinnett County students on the importance of its agricultural history and how it continues to evolve in today’s world. Part of the mission of the Gwinnett Environmental & Heritage Center seeks to present the interaction and interrelationships of lifestyles and cultures, past, present, and future and how they relate to the living world around us. Collaborations with others will allow for the creation of the Heritage Keepers Club for students who can help preserve Gwinnett’s heritage through several projects including the gathering of oral histories, organizing an Adopt-A-Site program and additional ideas. This initiative will assist in the education of the next generation of leadership for the field of historic preservation.
During the research portion of this project, students from the University of Georgia and Georgia State University conducted historic structures reports and interpretive plans for staff to utilize in the program planning of this resource. History and Culture Program staff also works with local high school students, as part of the QUEST Internship Program, to teach about the work of museums and Gwinnett County’s rich history. Additional opportunities are forthcoming and will continue to grow as the message of heritage education is shared with students of all ages.

The project has received recognition from the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of 22 projects in the United States that received a Cynthia Woods Mitchell grant in 2010. This prestigious award allowed further analysis to be conducted on the beautiful artistic painting in the house. The significance of the painting to this vernacular structure has been commented on by noted expert Frank Welsh that “The decorations on the exterior (of the Chesser–Williams House) are so unique that they may be the only surviving example of exterior painted decorations in the state of Georgia and possibly the South.” A second grant was awarded by the Watson–Brown Foundation (2010) to assist in the preservation of this structure. What an exciting opportunity to support the preservation of one of Gwinnett County’s most exceptional historic structures and share it with the community!

The Gwinnett Environmental & Heritage Center offers educational programming at several other historic sites throughout the county including the Lawrenceville Female Seminary, Isaac Adair House, McDaniel Farm, Freeman’s Mill, the Yellow River Post Office at the Hudson–Nash Farm and in the future the Chesser–Williams House. If you would like to see a short video on its movement on Thursday, November 29 please click here.