The Town House
Published 9:51 pm Tuesday, March 28, 2023
Seventy-five years ago, on March 15, 1948, Hal J. Lyon, president of Lyon Realty Corporation, was celebrating the opening of his most recent venture – The Town House. On the previous weekend, huge crowds attended its grand opening. The Town House was housed in the former Robert A. Pretlow mansion at 205 High Street – built in 1903; in 1948, it was purchased by Lyon and converted into a combination inn and restaurant. Some people were already calling it “Tidewater’s most distinguished hostelry.” The formal opening came at the climax of six months of planning, preparation, and renovation. According to a report by The Tidewater News, the artisans and decorators had done a good job, a superlative job, as attested by the ejaculations of delighted surprise heard from the hundreds of persons who on the previous Sunday afternoon streamed throughout the historic structure.
Inspiration for the radical changes in the former Pretlow residence was Hal Lyon himself who conceived the idea of an inn second to none in the south and who had the initiative and courage to make his idea a reality. It was he who planned the alterations in the building’s interior. The final result was approximately as he had conceived it. What the guests beheld was a hostelry with the flavor of an inn of the 19th century and the comfort and convenience of the 20th.
The exterior of the building remained essentially the same. In order to effectively use the former mansion as a restaurant and inn, its interior underwent many alterations; but the historic integrity of the overall property was not significantly altered. The dining room was expanded to accommodate as many as 60 persons. The eight bedrooms were decorated individually with different colors and period antiques.
Z. Turner Construction Company of Suffolk along with several other regional sub-contractors — including Franklin’s J. F. Sandlin & Son, electrical contractor, and Sechriest & Mulder, sound systems contractor – were responsible for the conversion of the property for its intended use. Landscaping was done by James Campbell of Campbell’s Native Nursery of Sedley Road and Greenbrier Nurseries of Norfolk County.
The Town House was in existence from 1948 until well into the early 1960s. It was closed for a good period of time, it became dormant and fell into disrepair.
From 1992 until the spring of 2006 the house was owned by Norman and Pearl Buisch, residents of Waterloo, N. Y. In an interview with The Tidewater News, in 2005, Norman Buisch said he had made arrangements to sell the property.
The building was purchased in the Spring of 2006 by Ernest Hefferon, of Suffolk, who was in the house-restoring business. Following an engineering study on the structure, he began cleaning it up. By April, work crews were well into full-blown renovation. Hefferon had originally purchased the building with the intent of restoration and sale. In the process of the renovation, though, he decided to keep the home and move into it with his wife.
However, on July 25, 2006, the house at 205 South High Street – the former Pretlow House / Town House – saw its final day; as its restoration was nearing completion, it caught fire and burned beyond repair – apparently from smoldering wood that had been burned to remove some paint. The mansion had seen grand and better days. Franklin firefighters were called to the structure at about 3:45 p.m. but by the time they arrived the second floor of the home was engulfed in flames. The firefighters did their best to beat the fire down but, by 4:30 p.m., it was clear that the building had been damaged beyond salvation. While they succeeded in dousing the fire, the structure was too unsafe to leave standing and was ordered razed.
That wasn’t the first fire the home had suffered but there was no recovery from this one. “There was a fire about 3 years ago,” said Franklin Fire Chief Vince Holt at the time. “We were able to get inside and put it out.”
Before the Tuesday fire, a new roof was evident, and Hefferon said that most of the interior work was done. “We were almost there,” he said.
The exact cause of the fire had yet to be determined. Hefferon said there was no electric service to the building, but he believes roof and flashing work being conducted on the home may have had something to do with the fire. According to Heffron, work crews were working on the roof over the newly finished rounded porch, and they were working with a blow torch. Neighbors reported that work crews had been done for a while before they noticed fire and smoke.
“I was so excited to see them restoring the house,” said Dean Wagenbach, across-the-street neighbor. “All those years, the house sat in disrepair”, he said. “And it was exciting to see the house coming back to life. It’s really sad. The house was a landmark.”
CLYDE PARKER is a retired human resources manager for the former Franklin Equipment Co. and a member of the Southampton County Historical Society. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.