In 2016, Sidney Collins Freeman went home to tiny Livingston, Alabama, just to touch base—she was fresh out of graduate school and wanted a break before choosing a city and embarking on a career. But she walked into a drama of sorts.
Lakewood, the spectacular antebellum mansion where she'd grown up, had long been in disrepair. The raised Greek Revival home with its elegant wrought iron double staircase was in such bad shape that, four years earlier, the Alabama Trust for Historic Preservation and the Alabama Historical Commission cited it on their Places in Peril list. Her parents, who had long ago moved into a small guest cottage next door, were suddenly at a tipping point.
"My mother was ill, and there was discussion of selling it to developers," Sidney says. "But we were afraid that it would be demolished and made into an apartment complex or a strip mall." The house had been in her family for seven generations. "My childhood memories happened here," she says.
"When I was growing up, my mom, dad, and I lived on the second level, and my great-aunt (a firecracker known to everyone as Pie) lived on the first floor. She made baked goods for everybody in town and fixed lunch for my family each day. She taught me to cook. We were extremely close," Sidney says.
Over the years, the house had undergone few renovations, which made for an eccentric lifestyle, but Sidney remembers it lovingly.
"It didn't have a shower because they didn't have them in the 1800s," she says. "The electricity was never updated, so we had extension cords running everywhere. The house didn't have central AC or heat. We lived with window units and gas heaters. We always set up our Christmas tree in the formal parlor, which was freezing, so we would gather there in coats, hats, gloves, and scarves to open presents."
Sidney realized that if she didn't tackle the gargantuan task of restoring Lakewood, a remarkable legacy would be lost. "I'm an only child," she says. "It was me or nobody."
Then age 22, without a shred of construction experience or historic-preservation expertise, she took on the extraordinary challenge of bringing a circa-1832 house—all 6,800 square feet of it—back to life. She scraped together funds to hire a contractor and worked with him on everything: yanking up all gas lines, pulling up rotted flooring, demolishing chimneys that were turning to powder, and removing a badly wrought addition. Kitchens and baths were torn out; ceilings and walls were repaired or totally redone.
Midway through the project, Sidney began dating Jake Freeman, the man who would become her husband. She mentioned to him coolly that she was restoring a house, and after he got over the initial shock of seeing the size and scope of the project, he excitedly got on board. "The first time he came here, it looked like a bomb had gone off," she recalls.
"We refinished all the flooring ourselves," Sidney says. "That took months! We did most of the interior painting as well." And when the new kitchen was finally finished, she painted it yellow, the color of her late Aunt Pie's kitchen.
The high point for Sidney was getting married at Lakewood in October 2017. "On the morning of our wedding, workers were still putting up pieces of molding and touching up paint," she says.
She now uses part of the house as an Airbnb , letting guests stay in some of the bedrooms and make themselves at home in her kitchen and living room. "What's the point of doing all this if you don't share it?" asks Sidney.
"Getting to live in this house is the greatest dream come true I could have imagined," she goes on. "The work will never be finished, and that's just fine. The idea that one day my children will wake up on Christmas morning where I did—there's nothing more special."