William cuts an almost mythic figure in Newnan: a courtly presence, spoken of by townspeople with a kind of reverence. The son of a mill owner, he grew up in a neo-Tudor house that his father had built overlooking a lake, on 280 acres just outside of town. The grounds, designed and manicured by a prominent landscape architect, have the feel of an English country estate.
An only child, William began college at Dartmouth, and graduated from Yale. Not having to work for a living, heset off on a life of travel – skiing in Austria, touring in London (where he had his portrait made by royal photographer Cecil Beaton), lunching with a prince in Rome.
“I have a friend,” he says, “Anne Cox Chambers, who owns the newspapers and everything – she’s enormously rich. She has a house in the south of France, and I went over every year for about ten years to see her in the house, and to take her on a trip to see the villas in Rome.” William told his friend that he’d grown tired of his family home. “I loved the place – the setting was lovely! – but I didn’t like the neo-Tudor house. She said, ‘Move a house you like onto the place!’ I guess that gave me the idea.”
Having nurtured his interest in the arts, William noticed a Neoclassical house in Milledgeville, Georgia. The house had been built in 1820, in Georgia’s then-capital, while the land was still being wrested from the Cherokees and the Creeks. During the Civil War, it had served briefly as headquarters for one of Sherman’s generals. When William found the house, in the 1960s, it had been vacant for decades: untouched, it was a pristine example of Federal architecture. “I confess, I fell in love,” he says.
“My father had died; Mother was here, in the original house. When I asked her how she felt about tearing down the house she’d lived in for many years, she said, “Sounds like fun! Let’s do it!” This project – replacing his family home with a piece of early Southern history – became William’s life’s work.
A student of history, he went about filling the house with appointments that were original to the early Republic. From auctions in New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Boston, he acquired grand New Hampshire landscapes by Bierstadt and Durand, two lyre-back chairs attributed to Duncan Phyfe, a terra-cotta bust of Marie Antoinette. In his study, he spends much of his time reading in a Sheraton chair owned by the Revolutionary War hero John Stark (“I’ve reupholstered it several times.”) On his desk stands a framed photograph of himself with President Bill Clinton.
Now in his 90s, never married, and with his mother gone, William lives alone. He employs a staff of servants, many of whom are relatives of the people who once served his mother: a driver, a team of gardeners, and a uniformed maid who cooks and serves him breakfast, lunch, and dinner. (He retains a white-jacketed man to assist with dinner parties.) He owns another house, in New Hampshire, and an apartment in Manhattan, where he also has a staff. (“I write seven paychecks a week,” he says.)
After two hip surgeries and with the advancing of years, William’s life of travel has been curtailed. What preoccupies him now, he says, is this Georgia estate, and what will become of the immaculate piece of history he has so painstakingly assembled. He’s not sure if the money he has left will be enough to preserve it all, or if it will vanish after he’s gone.