Crestmead Mansion returns to historic grandeur after devastating fire

Wednesday, July 25, 2012 | 7:56 p.m. CDT
Ann Betteridge has worked for the past four years to restore her family's historic home in Cooper County after fire struck in 2008.

PILOT GROVE — Ann Betteridge peers into a small room at the back of her house, Crestmead Mansion, a historic plantation home that has been in her family since the early 1900s. The room was one of only a few left standing after fire ripped through the house four years ago.

Today, that room is Betteridge's favorite place to visit.

"I like to just go up there and sit and think, 'this is the actual room as it was,'" she said. "... I like that we were able to save the original back part of the house. It was just smoked, so it has the original frame, floors, upstairs."

It was a cold and bleak night when fire broke out in the mansion on March 3, 2008, destroying more than half the home. Restoring Crestmead has been an arduous but gratifying process, one that has brought together friends, neighbors and relatives dedicated to saving the pre-Civil War mansion. For Betteridge, it's about preserving family history. A former school teacher, she has spent nearly her all her savings and untold hours working on the home. Crestmead has become her passion.

Today, the house transports visitors back to the 1800s, appearing almost the same as it did before the fire. But work remains to be done. Furniture is in storage, waiting to be cleaned and restored. Many pieces are lost forever.

Perhaps that's why the upstairs room gives Betteridge comfort. A small, narrow staircase, still charred from the fire, leads to the room, which is located over the kitchen and is part of the original 1837 house. Although it survived the fire, it shows signs of how close it came to destruction.

Lining the room are "primitives," or small household items, including tin cups, washboards and old iron toys. A small iron train, blackened by the fire, sits on a shelf.

"A fire is devastating and not like trying to restore an old building, but I knew there was so much history left (in the house) that I didn't want to lose what was left," Betteridge said. "I'm thankful we were able to restore and other people appreciate the restoration."

Betteridge applied for a federal government grant to fix the house, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, but she was turned down. That left the family with only the insurance settlement and their own money to finance the restoration.

That hasn't stopped Betteridge. And she's had a lot of help from her husband, Bob Betteridge, and her brother, Dan Beckner of Springfield.

Beckner said he respects his sister for the hard work she has put into Crestmead.

"It takes a special person, especially at her age, to find the energy to do all that work and the restoration," Beckner said. "They have just gone together as a family and decided to put it back like it was. In many cases the house they have now is better than the one they had. I have so much more respect for my sister."

Ann Betteridge wants the house to be as close as possible to what it was.

"That was my hope, to get it back as much like the original as we could with what we had," Betteridge said. "It's what we've mostly been able to do."

Rooms in the restored mansion are in the same layout as before; architectural diagrams submitted to the historic register helped make that happen.

"The size of the rooms are the same as before. The woodwork is copied off of the woodwork before. Some was saved, but not enough," Betteridge said. "We couldn't put everything that was saved back in, so we had to replicate it."

Restoring a family legacy

The original construction of Crestmead began in 1837, using Greek Revival architecture. In 1857, an addition using Italianate architecture inspired by the Renaissance greatly expanded the front of the house. 

Before the fire, the house was missing what has now become one of its signature features. Rising above the mansion is a 10-by-10 room with windows on all sides. Known as the observatory, its purpose on the original house was to allow the owners to watch their fields. 

In about 1905, shortly after the Betteridge family bought the house, the observatory was mostly removed. Because water was leaking into the house through the windows, they decided to shorten the room and leave only one small window in it.

With the help of Jason Rapp of Boonville, however, the observatory was restored in the rebuilt house. Betteridge recalls the experience:

"We had the original pictures, and we knew how it was," she said. "I thought, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful to have the observatory.' The carpenters told me that if I would just have one foot less in height, one carpenter said he would donate all his work hours. He wanted the observatory, too."

The restored dining room also is a source of pride for Betteridge. All its furnishings were there before the fire, and Betteridge noted that the cabinet doors are the originals. She had to be stubborn to save them. Construction crews wanted to tear the cabinets out.

"I said 'I would like for them to save those cabinets" and most of the workers said 'No, that's not possible.' I called a (former) student who was able to take them off and clean them all up."

On the night of the fire, Betteridge recalled, neighbors somehow were able to remove the china cabinet in one piece — and with the valuable dishes still inside — without breaking a single item.

The china cabinet was only one of many pieces of furniture Betteridge and her neighbors saved that night. Most of the furniture from the first floor escaped major damage, and was later restored by hand to remove smoke and water damage.

"We don't have as many regrets down here as we do upstairs," Betteridge said.

While much was saved, much was also lost, especially from upstairs. The fire destroyed the upstairs portion of the 1857 addition. Furniture was lost, and the old iron toys fell through to the first floor, withstanding the heat.

Lost in the fire were many documents and family photos, including the house's original land grants, through which the federal government granted ownership of the property. One of the documents was signed by President Andrew Jackson.

"They (the land grants) were the original, 'cause different owners had passed them down. I stayed in the house trying to put the fire out … until the TV was exploding and the fire was going up the curtains and all, and I walked right by them on the wall," Betteridge said.

"Whenever there's a fire you don't think of things. It's these original documents that are something that I miss."

Betteridge also lost her vast doll collection, which included many dolls that were passed down to her by her mother.

"I collected dolls," she said. "That was my kinda passion that I shouldn't have, 'cause I spent a little too much money, but there was about 300 or more in one of the rooms upstairs."

While her original collection was lost, Betteridge's family has helped her start a new one. "The family at Christmas and all started giving me a doll, so I've got a few dolls collected since then. … But I miss my dolls."

Family donations

Many of the rooms in the new Crestmead mix restored pieces, such as a secretary carried across the country on a covered wagon from Kentucky, with family heirlooms and period antiques.

After the fire, relatives stepped in to replace furniture that was lost. Beckner donated family pieces and his own work to the house, including 19th century gas lamp fixtures that were converted to use electricity and items he created himself, such as drapes and window treatments.

"These family things, that I had … these things will be kept in one location, in a lovely setting, with family members, and at least they won't be scattered," Beckner said. "It means a great deal to think these things will be enjoyed and together in one spot."

Beckner also worked to recreate period drapes for the downstairs parlor.

"I'm not really an interior decorator, I just dabble in it," Beckner said. "We had some challenges, but I was particularly proud of the parlor. The fabric was floral and has a very Victorian old-fashion look to them."

There's a new addition to the house that also stands out for Betteridge. It's the bed she found at a Sedalia antique store. As soon as she saw it, she knew she had to have it at Crestmead.

"I thought: 'Well I can't afford that,' but with no one knowing it, I put some money down," Betteridge said. "When I went to Sedalia I put some more money down. Finally, I had enough that I could buy my old antique bed. It's a beautiful old bed."

Preserving the past

The energy to restore runs in the family for Betteridge and Beckner. Both tackled historical restorations in years past.

"It's an ongoing thing that she and I enjoy working together on," Beckner said.

Betteridge knows the restoration of Crestmead isn't perfect, but it has preserved a family treasure that can be passed down for generations.

Cindy Bowen, president of the Boonslick Historical Society, praised the family's work.

"It would be really wrong to let something like that disappear, it's the history of Cooper County," Bowen said. "I think the will of Ann Betteridge moved that along and made that happen."

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

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