On this lot originally stood the home of Joseph W. Chalmers (1802-1855), who came to Holly Springs from Tennessee in 1836 and became an early lawyer in the new town and eventually was elected to the Mississippi Senate. Chalmers built his home on this site around 1840, and this house lasted until about 1855.
On November 1, 1857, the lot was purchased by William Henry Coxe (1824-1865), of the famous Coxe family of wealthy planters who originated from Georgia. The Coxe family began settling in Holly Springs around 1840 and built their plantation house at Galena, south of town. In 1842, the eighteen year old William Henry Coxe married Amelia Brailsford (d. 1857) in Georgia, and the young couple made the trip to Holly Springs to stay with the rest of Coxe family, which included four of William’s brothers. During the 1840s and early 1850s, three of William Henry’s brothers died in mysterious and sometimes violent circumstances, leaving William Henry and an older brother as the sole Coxe heirs. Tragedy struck William Henry himself in 1857, when his young wife Amelia Bradsford Coxe died.
Shortly after the death of his wife, William Henry Coxe began construction of his new Gothic Revival mansion in Holly Springs on the old Chalmers lot. The architect of the mansion is lost to time, but there is strong circumstantial evidence that it was Fletcher Sloan, of the firm Willis, Sloan and Trigg, who would later build the Holly Springs and Oxford courthouses. Some of Sloan’s plans for Gothic Revival manors are virtually identical to Airliewood’s final form. One of the craftsmen who worked on the house was Franz Willhelm Rittlemeyer, a Prussian carpenter who would later build the Italianate house Hillside. Construction of the house was completed by December 1858, and William Henry Coxe and his teenager daughter Eliza Victoria Coxe moved into the new mansion. Eliza was sent to a boarding school in Georgia, so William Henry had the new house to himself. He would frequently hold lavish parties at his home, even after the beginning of the Civil War.
In November 1862, Holly Springs was invaded and occupied by the Federal troops under General Ulysses S. Grant. Airliewood remained unharmed during Confederate General Earl Van Dorn’s famous raid against occupied Holly Springs in December 1862. After the raid, General Grant occupied Airliewood, at the personal invitation of Coxe, and the Grant family celebrated Christmas in 1862 in the home. The Grants remained at Airliewood until January 1863, when they left for Memphis. Between 1863 and 1864, Federal troops occupied Airliewood and its grounds and caused significant damage to the property, including shooting off the tops of the cast-iron fence and gate at the front of the property and destroying tiles inside the house.
After the end of the Civil War, William Henry Coxe lost much of his fortune, and on September 30, 1865, a depressed and drunken Coxe attempted to ride his horse up the main staircase at Airliewood, resulting in the horse falling on Coxe and killing him instantly. It was a sad ending to the Coxe legacy, and in 1867 Eliza Coxe Brewer (1844-1918), William’s only heir, sold the house to Colonel Dickson C. Topp (1807-1880), a lawyer who had moved to Holly Springs with his family after the Civil War. In 1870, the eastern half of the lot was sold to Absalom West, who built his Italianate cottage called West Hill on that lot. In 1880 Dickson Topp died, leaving the home to his widow Mary Winfield Topp (1819-1890). Mary died in 1890, and the property reverted to the bank who held the mortgage on the house.
In 1896 the bank sold the house to William Walker, who held the home until 1902 when the house was again lost to creditors. In 1902 the house was bought at auction by Dr. William Elliot, who conducted renovations on the decaying house, including hiring local architect William Anderson to create a new porch on the front of the house. In 1918, Walter Gray Thompson (1874-1928) bought Airliewood and lived there with his first wife Laura Thompson (1875-1924), and after her death, with his second wife, artist Nettie Glen Fant (1878-1960).
In 1929, the house was bought by Charles N. Dean Sr. (1873-1935), who was an important local businessman who would eventually become Mayor of Holly Springs. Dean married Jean Burns Dean (1893-1980), and the two had a son, Charles N. Dean Jr. (1927-1983) who was raised by his mother in the house after the untimely death of Charles Dean Sr. in 1935. In 1938, Jean Burns Dean named the house “Airliewood”, after the estate of her father. Between the 1950s and 1980s, Charles N. Dean Jr., who was an important local historian and historical preservationist, conducted extensive renovations on the house and was able to find and buy many of the old Coxe family furniture that was originally found in the house.
In 1996 the Dean family, who had lived in Airliewood for nearly 70 years, sold the house to Lester G. Fant III, who owned the house for a few years before selling it to Joe and Kathy Overstreet in 2002. The Overstreets conducted further renovations to the house, including adding a new modern wing on the house which seamlessly melds into the old antebellum house. In 2011 the Overstreets donated the house and lot to Rust College, a local historically-black liberal arts college, who uses the house today as event space and as the home of the President of Rust College.
Airliewood was originally built in 1858 for the sum of $60,000 dollars, which would be about 1.6 million dollars in today’s money. The Gothic Revival structure was one of the grandest houses ever built in Holly Springs. Throughout the years, Airliewood had been piped for gas power, had the town’s first running water system, and had a system of call bells installed throughout the house.
Airliewood is a Gothic Revival, two-story flanking-gable brick house with pink-stuccoed walls, scored to look like massive blocks of stone. There are three steeply-pitched front gables decorated with carved bargeboards, pendents, and finials. The windows have Tudor arches with hood molds. The current front porch was restored by the Overstreets, and closely matches the original antebellum porch. In the front of the property is a cast-iron fence with massive entrance gate which was created by the Wood and Perrot firm of Boston, and is identical to the fence at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Contrary to a local legend, the fence and gate was not constructed at the local Jones McElwain Foundary, originally located just a block or so north of Airliewood.
Special credit goes to Dr. David Beckley and Rust College for permitting the photography of this house, and to Dr. Hubert McAlexander who has written extensively on the history of Airliewood, and much of the preceding history of this house can be found in his works. Thanks also to Joe Overstreet for providing some clarification of the history of the house during the General Grant’s occupation.
Mr. Knecht, W.H.Coxe married Amelia Brailsford, whose ancestors were from South Carolina before they moved to GA.. The Coxe family were friends of the Gen’l Henry E. Williamson (my great, great grandfather) family throughout the years.
I remember visiting the plantation home at Galena as a child in the 1930’s. It was shaped like an “H”. The West wing was used as a ballroom and had many signatures written on the walls and the dates in the 1850’s and ’60’s. There were 2 or 3 one room slave quarters just South of the house that were still standing at the time.
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Thanks for the info Bobby! I’ll be doing a Lost History blog post on Galena at some point. Fortunately there are several pictures of Galena taken before it was destroyed. The Galena house was almost identical to the Crump Place, on Gholson Avenue.
Airliewood has always been considered one of the grandest houses in Holly Springs, and now it’s also considered one of the south’s most important landmarks.