Famed Chapman House changes hands
The stately Apalachicola home of famed 19th century botanist Alvan Chapman, painstakingly restored a decade ago with plans to be revitalized as a museum, is under new ownership.
At a Sept. 1 closing, The Chapman House Museum Inc., of which Helen Tudor serves as president, sold the 82 Sixth Street house to Chapman House Inc., for $950,000.
The new owners from Oxford, Mississippi, real estate investor Patrick Ferguson, and his wife Lauren, a real estate broker, are excited about the prospect of keeping the house open in some fashion to the public, but haven’t yet hammered out details of the form that will take.
“We purchased the Chapman House because of its sheer beauty and historical significance,” said Patrick Ferguson, 36. “The former owner has done a marvelous job with the restoration, bringing the property back to its original design, and we plan to continue this process and to bring life back to the house and the gardens.
“We do not have any definite plans for the use of the property moving forward but we are excited to have the opportunity to be a part of its history,” he said.
Handling the sale was veteran real estate broker Helen Spohrer, with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Beach Properties of Florida. She said due to the circumstances surrounding Tudor’s decision to put the house on the market earlier this year, it could be considered a distressed sale, meaning the property had to be sold more quickly than is typically the case.
Spohrer estimated a lengthier marketing period might have yielded as much as a 25 to 30 percent higher price.
The reason for the comparative urgency had much to do with the involvement of architect Walter Melvin, now an emeritus principal of the highly regarded New York City architectural firm he founded 45 years ago.
After purchasing the home for $525,000 in Sept. 2008 from real estate broker Olivier Monod, who had housed his Anchor Realty offices there, Tudor enlisted the services of Melvin in the restoration project.
She later secured an encroachment from the city to allow for the planting of an extensive landscaping/gardening project on the city’s right-of-way adjacent to the house, which her consultant Dan Garlick, described as “a pleasant walk through to some type of museum in the future.”
When the restoration project was ultimately completed, a public session was held in which Melvin described details of his work, which had included removing the familiar long vertical windows in front so as to have the house resemble the look when Chapman built it in 1847. He talked of his attention to detail based on limited information from old photographs, such as the pair of prominent chimneys that grace the front of the rooftop.
Tudor had insisted a large brick fence be erected around the property, in keeping with her desire to maintain a sense of privacy and seclusion.
In addition to overseeing the meticulous restoration of the house, which had served as Anchor Realty’s business offices, Tudor added her collection of historic furniture to the interior. In addition, she had erected a pair of historic markers to identify the location as the original home of Chapman, whose name is synonymous with Apalachicola, and has served as the namesake of the city's former schools as well as the current botanical gardens.
Tudor even secured permission, in Nov. 2018, from the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation for site plan approval for The Botanist Café to be placed on-site.
“Everything is just absolutely amazing,” said Patrick Ferguson. “If it required a level of 5, she gave it a 10. It was a turnkey museum; there were even place-cards on a table with invitations for guests.
“It was on the verge of opening,” he said.
But the museum never came to pass, and instead Melvin’s messy divorce from his wife of 50 years, did.
An ex-wife fights for her share
According to filings in New York state, Melvin began divorce proceedings against his wife Sarah beginning in 2015, and the proceedings, largely over how to divide the marital assets, dragged on until they reached a boiling point in April 2019.
According to motions filed by attorneys for Sarah Melvin in New York courts, a March 2018 order had granted Walter Melvin limited withdrawals of marital assets but explicitly excluded charitable contributions.
The attorneys for Sarah Melvin, who resides in Milford, New Jersey, said their 76-year-old client lives alone, and is wheelchair bound with cancer. The attorneys accused Walter Melvin of an “April raid” in 2019, in which they say the architect transferred out of New York a total of $2.26 million, immediately followed by a check given to the Chapman House of $700,000, which was a large piece of more than $1.2 million the architect contributed to the Chapman project, the attorneys argued.
“The Chapman House and Helen Realty were used as devices and shams to help mask the fraudulent transfers and to assist the judgment debtor in violating the orders of the New York Court, to commit actual or constructive fraud, and to help Melvin avoid and mislead Sarah Melvin,” they contended.
They also allege Melvin had been Tudor’s boyfriend during this time period, although her current attorneys did not confirm this.
“They were friends,” said Byron Wright, who together with Robert Bruner, of the Tallahassee law firm of Bruner Wright, has represented Tudor through a Chapter 11 proceeding.
“I don’t think they speak any longer,” he said. “I don’t know that (an extramarital relationship) was ever the case.”
The New York attorneys followed the trail to circuit court in Apalachicola, with that state’s judgments in hand, and so in Jan. 2020, Circuit Judge Charles Dodson approved a final money judgment against Tudor and the Chapman House Museum, for about $420,000 as a final settlement of Sarah Melvin’s claims against the property.
It then became Bruner and Wright’s job to unravel the complex debt against Tudor and her beloved project that Melvin had invested in, a debt that included more than $300,000 owed to Melvin’s divorce lawyers.
“We’re happy to have all issues resolved with all potential creditors and claimants,” said Wright, “The Fergusons are two young and bright individuals who will somewhat carry on what the Chapman House was intended to be.
“She just determined it was better off to sell it. She didn’t want to do that, she wanted to open the museum, but sadly the events that transpired prevented that from happening,” he said.
“We were happy to see it go to the people who it went to,” Wright said.
“She’s leaving that whole episode of her life behind,” said Bruner.
Plans in the works for future use
The Fergusons, who have acquired other properties in Apalachicola in their five years here, have high hopes for the property.
“It’s not something we plan on selling in the foreseeable future,” said Patrick Ferguson,
They purchased Tudor’s magnificent vintage furniture collection in a separate transaction, and have been at work on revitalizing the gardens, which had become listless and overgrown in the years since Tudor first planted them.
The property also includes a two-story cottage that while it does not have historic value, they plan to preserve, and likely continue to rent out it out.
Patrick Ferguson said he and his wife, and Moses, their 3-year-old Golden Retriever, will likely stay frequently in the stately mansion. But it won’t be their secluded getaway, but more likely a place open, in some way, to the community, perhaps for chamber of commerce events, or Christmas parties.
“In our mind it’s been so boxed in and so exclusive,” he said. “We really want to open it back up, and on a limited basis offer it back to the community.”
As they ponder their precise plans, the Fergusons continue to marvel at Tudor’s work in polishing the house into the gem it is today, while falling short of the museum she envisioned.
“She made a valent attempt at doing that,” Ferguson said. “She got lost in the details and was never able to follow through with her initial plan.
“We’ll slowly bring it back to life, getting it back where it needs to be, and pump some life into it,” he said, noting that the first thing he and his wife did after the closing was venture into the top story and open the east facing shutter.
“We tried to open this thing up, so it’s alive again,” Patrick Ferguson said. “It definitely took someone like Helen to get this thing put together. Maybe it takes someone like a simple guy from Mississippi to finish it.”