A Vision on the Prairie
Rustique and refined, Nancy Imes’ Windy Hill displaces time and place
Story Jan Swoope | Photographs Matt Garner
If it’s true that houses tell stories, and surely it is, Windy Hill is a visual page-turner. Rising up from wildflowers, woods and Prairie grasses on 2,000 acres of quiet countryside southwest of Columbus, Nancy Imes’ extraordinary home looks as though it could share legends centuries old, as if its weathered stone, quarried from the single face of a mountain, must have sheltered the same family for generations. Its spell is not accidental.
The 15-year-old home and its surroundings are revealed gradually to visitors approaching by a long, winding, private drive bordered by crepe myrtles. The hypnotic crunch of wheels on crushed stone is the only sound, no highway noise, no intrusion. As first the chimneys, dovecote then roofpeaks of the Norman farmhouse-style exterior come into view, Mississippi seems to fall away by degrees, replaced by the notion of a European landscape.
This jewel “in the middle of nowhere” reflects so many of the elements that fuel its owner’s lively spirit — an intense appreciation of nature, world travel, intriguing finds and livable spaces. Windy Hill is classic, yet contemporary. Impressive, yet welcoming. And there is an “ahh” around every corner.
When Imes asked award-winning architect Ken Tate to build Windy Hill, she assured the Auburn University alumnus, “If you do exactly what I ask you to do, I will never make a change. When I make up my mind, I make up my mind.” Her clear vision was a cornerstone in the massive project that broke ground in 1994 and was completed in 1999.
“We had kind of a perfect dream team,” said Tate, whose office is in Covington, La. The triumvirate of Imes as homeowner, Tate as architect and his wife, Charme Tate, collaborating as interior designer, had all the right alchemy. “I’ve been working 30 years, and I would say seven or eight projects came together like this,” Tate said.
Imes’ vision for the new home was of a retreat comfortably rambling more than formal. She wanted it to embrace big family gatherings and celebrate her passion for gardening. There was plenty of work to do even before the first stone was positioned atop a remote rise, where prevailing breezes eventually inspired the name Windy Hill.
“It took us a year just to prepare the land to build the house,” Imes pointed out, explaining that 10 feet of Prairie dirt was replaced with better soil to support the heavy structure and nourish the many gardens planned.
During the building process, something quite unique occurred — Ken Tate had the idea of a storyline for the emerging manor.
“Windy Hill is like a good novel that begins in the middle of a story, then slowly reveals events that occurred long before the main action takes place,” he has said of the project. “I didn’t know what the story was until I was halfway through the design.”
He knew his client wanted a house that looked like a French farmhouse on the outside, with more refined details inside. She also wanted picturesque gardens, similar to those English landscape designer Gertrude Jekyll created at the turn of the 20th century. As Tate put the elements together, he found himself creating a story about three different generations of a family: late-Renaissance French farmers who built the original structure; wordly late-18th century descendants who remodeled the interior; and late-19th century romantics who restored the house and embellished the gardens. Once Tate knew the story, it began to dictate the design.
The narrative of a house that evolved over time accommodates some appealing juxtaposition. The rugged stone façade, for instance, gives way to a grand entrance hall that ascends to a trompe-l’oeil dome painted to resemble the sky. The entryway’s limestone paving underfoot was salvaged from a French chateau. To the left, a formal drawing room in pastels shimmers in natural light from a leaded glass box-bay window framed in roughhewn timbers. Contrasts of rustique and refined like these echo throughout.
Everywhere, fine craftsmanship, organic materials and creative design details meld to create a patina of time and rich history. Timber-framed vaulted ceilings, silk draperies hand-painted in London and an antique Portuguese bed are only a few examples. Interior paneling made from old-growth Russian pine was crafted by English master carpenters who came to Mississippi to install it. Mennonite woodworkers in the Prairie used age-old joinery techniques to frame the wood-pegged timbers of the rear loggia that looks out across a sweeping croquet lawn.
Ken Tate will never forget driving to the Mennonites’ workshop to check on the loggia frame’s progress during one of his frequent stays in Columbus. To his surprise, the artisans had given the wooden structure a test run, to be sure everything fit as it should.
“There the loggia was, standing in a corn field! It was a sight to behold. Only in Mississippi,” the architect said with a laugh.
Imes and Mother Nature are on very good terms. Greenery and gardens are part and parcel of Windy Hill’s charisma.
“I’m a gardener; I love it, I really love it,” said the green-thumbed homeowner.
Celebrated landscape architect René Fransen of New Orleans helped design exuberant plantings and herbaceous borders that surround the house with texture and color in every direction. The profuse rose garden, with its cedar arbors, brick walkways and spacious greenhouse, has for years been a garden club favorite. It is, however, about to undergo a transformation.
“I’m putting in dahlias; they hold up so much better and make beautiful cut flowers,” said Imes.
The roses, she said with wry wit, are not reciprocating the care lavished on them. “If they don’t sing for their supper, they don’t stay here.”
The South garden — or wild garden — is an enchanting sanctuary, where flagstone paths lead to stream-fed koi ponds and perceptive visitors might fancy wee folk peeking out from beneath a leaf.
A favorite spot is the high-walled cat garden, created with a touch of whimsy. There, Imes’ beloved Himalayans — Biscuit, Peaches and Muffin — are protected from predators and take catnaps beside an antique French cat fountain.
Inside, Windy Hill is a fitting setting for furnishings and decor Imes has collected during a lifetime of travel. But there were compromises involved.
“The house didn’t like my Chinese stuff. It doesn’t like white, it doesn’t like pink and doesn’t like silver,” she explained. “This house is funny — it likes brass. You have to listen to a house.”
For all the home’s size, Imes can often be found in its smallest room, an intimate space with reading chairs, fireplace and Prairie vistas. It was once called a conservatory. She calls it “the little room.” Through French doors on both east and west sides, she can watch the sun, moon and seasons keep their appointed rounds. In the little room, she can plan the next occasion, when her six grown children and their families fill the rooms with conversation and laughter.
“This is a fun house to live in. It will do anything I ask it to,” said the matriarch. “The longroom, or family room, has space for all of us when we sit down at Christmas when we’re all together. And the back terrace is 95-feet long; I can feed everybody there.”
It was Imes’ vision that ushered such an accommodating estate into reality, and set it in the middle of “some of the prettiest land in Columbus.”
“It really is so much fun, and I love living out here. I’ve had a lucky life,” she said, meaning it. And that’s a fitting sentiment for any home’s story.