As a boy, Tate Taylor dreamed of living in an antebellum house. The actor/writer/director grew up in Mississippi but left home in 1996 to pursue his career, first in New York and then in Hollywood. But when he returned in 2010 to film The Help—the Oscar-winning movie based on the novel by his childhood friend Kathryn Stockett—the dream “came back with a vengeance.”
A columned house used in the movie was for sale but Taylor took a pass because it had little land. “I wanted to be in the middle of nowhere,” he says. After a months-long search that led him through much of the Deep South, he circled back and found the perfect place in Church Hill, a tiny community just north of Natchez: Wyolah Plantation, a 100-acre spread with a three-story Greek Revival dwelling, constructed in 1836, and eight outbuildings.
It almost didn’t happen. Wyolah’s then-owner, a Brooklyn doctor, bought the estate in 1976 with the idea of reviving it and retiring there with his wife. Even though he never embarked on the restoration, he couldn’t bear to let the place go. The house was on the market for decades, with potential buyers always turned away. Undaunted, Taylor “flew up and told him my intentions,” the filmmaker explains. It worked—the man, Taylor remembers, got “teary-eyed” when he saw that his own plans could be carried out by someone else.
Designer Shawn Henderson and restoration consultant Thomas E. Goodman renovated Wyolah, the 1830s Mississippi plantation home of The Help director Tate Taylor and film producer John Norris.
A painstaking three-year renovation added 11 new baths. Raw attic space was converted to a full third floor with four bedrooms en-suite and a small kitchen and laundry room. The second floor got kitchen and laundry facilities as well.
The summer kitchen is now a one-bedroom guesthouse, as is the charming columned office that was built by Wyolah’s first owner, a physician. The old commissary, connected to the main house by a breezeway, became the primary kitchen. The home’s original faux-marble mantels and faux-grained doors, which had all been painted over, were restored. Dining room walls were brushed with a romantic mural of local flora and fauna by Don Jacobs, a Mississippi artist who created similar scenes for the governor’s mansion in Jackson, the state capital.
To help with Wyolah’s decor, Taylor called on his friend Shawn Henderson, a Manhattan-based designer whose ardently contemporary taste admittedly contrasts with Taylor’s admiration for all things antique.
For example, Henderson says he swallowed hard when Taylor brought a 19th-century heirloom settee to his attention, but soon the family treasure was upholstered in sleek brick-red leather and placed beneath a guest room window, opposite a German botanical chart depicting huge mushrooms.
For his part, Henderson reports that his greatest challenge was trying to reflect his client’s personality.
The center of Wyolah’s action is the elegantly proportioned music room, where friends come to play the resident piano and guitars (Taylor calls himself an enthusiastic “fake singer”) before continuing their revelries around a bonfire. Mick Jagger, a producer of Taylor’s James Brown biopic, Get On Up, has stayed over, as has Academy Award-winning actress Octavia Spencer, who starred in both The Help and Get On Up.
Though Taylor has a place in Los Angeles and keeps an apartment in Manhattan’s East Village, he considers Wyolah his primary residence—and he has turned it into something of a filmmaking mecca. Recently he bought the plantation house next door and made it into a postproduction facility, while Wyolah hosts everything from visiting executives to workshops for aspiring filmmakers.
Before he began work on his latest project an adaptation of Paula Hawkins’s thriller The Girl on the Train—Taylor had DreamWorks Studios executives and the film’s director of photography as guests at the home for several days, he says, and “we planned the whole movie.”
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Tour The Help Director Tate Taylor’s Mississippi Mansion | Celebrity Homes | Architectural Digest