After Flannery O'Connor died in 1964, the middle Georgia farm where the author lived and wrote during her final years suffered from decades of decay — paint and plaster peeled inside the main house, the 30-foot water tower behind it teetered on the brink of collapse and the massive cow barn sagged on aging timbers.
Piece by piece, the sprawling former plantation in Milledgeville known as Andalusia is being restored using donations and grants from groups wanting to save a fascinating place in Georgia's literary history. More than $400,000 has poured in to pay for stabilizing foundations and replacing rotting wood since the nonprofit Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation listed the farm in 2006 among the state's most imperiled historic treasures.
The farm is where O'Connor finished her two novels, "Wise Blood" and "The Violent Bear It Away," as well as short story collections in a downstairs parlor converted into a bedroom. Imagery and inspiration for her depictions of the rural South abounded just outside her front door.
"When you go back to the stories, you can't help but visualize this place," said Craig Amason, executive director of the nonprofit Flannery O'Connor-Andalusia Foundation that purchased the farm and surrounding 500 acres from the author's heirs in 2003. "So many people find the connection between Flannery O'Connor's work and this place. I see big burly men come in and shed tears when they look at Flannery's room."
O'Connor's written legacy has drawn more than 4,000 visitors a year to the old dairy farm since it opened to the public for tours in 2004. The property and its buildings lingered without much caretaking since the 1970s. O'Connor moved there with her mother in 1951. They stayed 13 years until the author's death from lupus at age 39. Her mother, Regina Cline O'Connor, moved back into the city soon after.
The latest project under way at Andalusia is to stabilize the sprawling wooden cattle barn where cows were taken to be milked during O'Connor's years on the property, when it still operated as a dairy farm. Amason estimates the work, slated to be finished by the end of this year, will cost $65,000. Last year, workers repaired the barn's frame. Now it needs a new roof, being funded in part by a $2,500 grant from the Georgia Trust.
"At Andalusia you can see the progress over the last few years," said Traci Clark, spokeswoman for the Atlanta-based Georgia Trust. "They have so many outbuildings to maintain and they've done a great job of restoring those buildings. The cow barn is just in really rough shape. We gave them the grant based on their past work."
Amason said projects so far have been tackled in order of the most immediate need. The farm's 30-foot water tower and its adjacent pumping station got rehabilitated first in 2007 because the tower had deteriorated so badly it posed a threat of toppling onto the main house.
Last year, work was completed on the 19th-century cottage where farm workers lived. The so-called Hill House had been used as a setting for a 1976 television program based on O'Connor's short story "The Displaced Person" featuring the late John Houseman and a young Samuel L. Jackson. But since then, one corner of the house had collapsed, as had the back porch. Saving the house cost about $350,000.
The large main house where O'Connor lived has gotten a fresh coat of paint and other maintenance work. Overall, its structure is sound and it's been able to wait until other buildings were saved, Amason said.
But some parts of the farm are beyond salvaging. An old garage, some smaller tenant houses and an overgrown calf barn have all but disintegrated.
"We have a long way to go," Amason said "Our vision for this place is to recreate it to the sense that you're walking back 50 years in time. When you walk in the front door, we want it to look like Flannery O'Connor just walked out the back."