“We still don’t know if we were set up,” says a bemused Robert Currey as he looks back on the day his life began to change course 16 years ago. He and his wife, Suzanne, had been living in Atlanta without ever having a thought of moving. As the founders and owners of Currey & Company (a maker of lighting and furnishings for the home and garden), they were happily settled in the big city with two grown children and 36 years of marriage under their belts. Then some friends invited them on a day trip to see the Greek Revival mansion they had bought and restored in Sparta, Georgia—a little town about 100 miles southeast of Atlanta. Its population: about 1,300.
The couple spent the day eyeing the area’s strikingly rich legacy of antebellum architecture, erected back in a time when Hancock County was a booming cotton-growing hub. These days, it is one of the poorest counties in the state, facing steep unemployment. A number of the buildings downtown are unused or abandoned, veering toward decay, and derelict houses dot the local landscape.
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They came to one such home, which Robert described as “a 6,000-square-foot behemoth.” He recalls, “So we pulled over and went in. The owner, who was a house flipper from Atlanta, said his partner didn’t like Sparta, so he was trying to sell it.”
Naturally, the Curreys bought the rejected flip project. The “behemoth,” otherwise known as the Harley-Harris-Rives House, is a stately 1840s Greek Revival with original woodwork, all set on 4 acres, which were a wild tangle of wisteria and privet at the time. It’s an elegant, spacious version of a four-over-four, meaning it has four rooms on the bottom floor divided by a central hallway. It’s topped with the exact same layout—a symmetrical floor plan that was typical of the Oconee River valley. Built by a man who gave it to his daughter as a wedding gift, the home has sizable front and back porches as well as handsome square rooms that feature sliding walnut pocket doors. The whole house is positively brimming with air and sunlight, making it feel, in a way, modern.
But after 20 years of neglect, the historic structure was in abysmal shape—a fact that started to dawn on the Curreys when, during the first rainstorm after they became the owners, they watched water stream across the floor at their feet. “At that point, we realized that we had a real restoration project on our hands,” says Robert.
Fortunately, the Curreys are not the sort of people who do things halfway. With the help of a posse of experts, including Mark McDonald (president and CEO of The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation) and the late W. Lane Greene (a preservation architect who revived numerous historic houses in Middle Georgia during his lifetime), they spent six years restoring their home in the most painstaking fashion.
“To give you an idea,” says Robert, “every board on the exterior—except for the shiplap on the front porch—had to be taken off because somebody had pressure washed the house and then immediately sprayed it with oil-based primer, which glued all the loose paint chips to the wood. We got those boards down on the lawn with angle grinders and used surface sanders to grind off all of the chips. It took three people a year just to complete that.”
Somewhere along the way, the Curreys began spending all their time in Sparta. “I guess we should change our mailing address,” Suzanne remembers thinking. They also came to care about the community and got involved with the library board and the food bank. They opened their house to anyone who wished to meet in it—even to high school students who might want to get their graduation pictures snapped under a 1680s portrait of a dark-haired woman in a red dress (an heirloom from Robert’s family) or standing before an elegant doorway. The architecture itself, the Curreys figured, should also belong to the whole community.
“It’s funny,” says Robert. “I’m 78 and have had a great career. Now I’m in Sparta, starting little businesses. I’ve discovered how important it is to do everything you can for your community and the people who live in it.”
Over time, he and Suzanne took on additional projects. They built a large chicken house, snapped up the home next door and turned it into guest quarters, and decided to create an organic garden to feed themselves.
It grew to 4 acres, and the couple named it Elm Street Gardens. Soon, it was producing an unstoppable bounty of carrots, chard, eggplants, peas, kale, plums, persimmons, peonies, and more. Realizing they had grown enough to sell, they eventually hired three full-time gardeners, who began holding a farmers’ market on the property every Friday afternoon and then selling the rest at Saturday-morning markets in Atlanta.
Then, four years ago, the Curreys added again to their menagerie of buildings and businesses. The couple purchased a former cotton warehouse that had previously been languishing across the street. After restoring it and reading a few key books on mushroom farming, a subject they had never even considered, they transformed the building into three award-winning, climate-controlled greenhouses. They now harvest 500 pounds of shiitake, oyster, and lion’s mane mushrooms per week, which then get delivered to restaurants, mostly in Atlanta. Through the creation of this business, the Curreys were able to reach one of the most important goals they had set for themselves—the employment of more people from the Sparta community.
Not everything in their lives is about work. Eight years ago, Robert and Suzanne started hosting sprawling Labor Day picnics on their property, where as many as 500 people from the community sit together at borrowed tables decorated with Mason jars filled with bright flowers picked from the yard. They eat barbecue, listen to a local band, sing along, and get to know one another. “I love it,” says Robert. “I never did this kind of stuff in Atlanta. It makes me think that maybe this part of my life is actually going to be the most important.”