Group has come far from humble kitchen table beginning

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 1, 2004

Suffolk News-Herald

For years, the Suffolk-Nansemond Historical Society was headquartered at executive director Sue Woodward’s kitchen table.

Now, after a couple of years crowded into an office at its recently restored Suffolk Seaboard Station Railroad Museum, the preservation group has moved into its own three-story, 4,000-square-foot home.

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The historical society became heir to the historic Phillips-Dawson House at 137 Bank St., and the neighboring Eley-McKay House two years ago, after the death of owner Gerard Dawson. He left the properties to the organization with the stipulation that his family home be used as the organization’s headquarters.

Although Dawson had indicated intentions to leave the house to the historical society, it still came as a surprise to members.

&uot;I guess we had a hint,&uot; said Woodward. &uot;It was such a kind gift. I’m touched that he would entrust it to us.&uot;

Both houses, built in the 1880s, are in need of some work, she said. Although the Eley-McKay house is not usable right now, the historical society is using two floors of the Phillips-Dawson house.

The society is waiting for a final report from an architect conducting a historical structure survey, Woodward said. He is examining the roof, underneath the house and establishing a priority list of needed repairs.

&uot;This is a pretty ambitious project,&uot; Woodward said.

The house, which will be the focal point of the historical society’s annual candlelight Christmas tour this year, is initially being used for office space.

Down the road, Woodward envisions the house becoming a place to showcase antiques and artifacts that depict Suffolk’s rich history.

She and other board members are also hopeful that one day a research facility will be on the property.

&uot;We get calls and letters every week wanting to research specific information about Suffolk’s history or genealogy,&uot; Woodward said.

The Phillips-Dawson house has a rich history, she added.

Horace B. Phillips, who had come to Suffolk from Delaware to join the booming lumber industry during the late 19th century, built the house on the corner of Franklin and Bank streets in 1881. Although modest at first, the house size began to grow as the family’s fortune did.

Soon after the widowed Mrs. Phillips died in 1936, the only other family to own the house came along. Dr. Challis Dawson, a farm boy from Illinois, had met his future wife, Yvonne, when he was in France as an army doctor in World War I.

She had been to the Paris Conservatory to continue her musical studies and by the time she met her future husband, she was a noted concert pianist in France.

When the time came for Dawson to return home, the young couple decided to marry. Although they lived in New York for several years, the couple migrated south to Suffolk in 1927 to raise their only son, Gerard.

In 1941, the Dawsons bought the Phillips

house. For the next almost three decades, Dr. Dawson practiced medicine there and Mrs. Dawson, who had given up her stage career, taught piano.

Gerard Dawson attended Suffolk Public Schools, then went in 1944 to Harvard for a year before he was drafted.

He was in the Navy only a short time before World War II ended. He returned to graduate at Harvard.

Eventually, he settled in New York City and worked for more than 30 years at Tiffany & Co. on

Fifth Avenue.