A century and a half ago, it was a place for little girls’ imaginations to run free, but, after decades of vacancy, the playhouse that belonged to sisters Jessie, May Belle, Emma and Sallie Peyton began to show signs of crumbling.

Likely built in the mid-1870s, the cubby house was constructed for Jessie, born in 1870. No doubt the sisters’ brothers (Joseph, Lytle, John, Huet, Bailey and Wharton) also enjoyed skylarking in the 8x12.5-foot wooden structure with two windows, a fake fireplace and a vaulted ceiling.

At some time, perhaps in the 1970s, the playhouse changed hands and was moved less than a quarter-mile away to the backyard of Lebanon veterinarian Sidney Berry, where it was enjoyed not by his then-grown children but by his grandchildren.

Cut to spring of 2019. Berry’s daughter, Tish Berry Hudlow, sizing up the situation of the one-room building, realized it was deteriorating quickly. Noticing an article in the local newspaper that the caretakers of the 150-year-old Fite-Fessenden House were holding an event to raise funds for a new roof, she connected the familial dots and presented the playhouse to the History Associates of Wilson County.  

The traveling playhouse

Sallie Barry Peyton had grown up to marry W.H. Fessenden. The couple bought the federal-style home, which sits a block off the town square at 236 West Main St., in the 1920s. It had been constructed by Lebanon doctor James L. Fite in 1870. Sallie died in 1983 at the age of 96 and left the house to the History Associates.

Judy Sullivan, vice president of the group and also a member of the Margaret Gaston Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, began holding their meetings in the Fite-Fessenden House in the autumn of 2018. She explained how the playhouse came to its third resting place behind the historical brick mansion.

“Tish called me after she read about our first Raise the Roof event in May of 2019 and said she had Sallie Fessenden’s playhouse on their property and would like to donate it,” recalled Sullivan. “We moved it to the back garden on July 9, 2019. The fellow in charge of moving it made the comment that at first, he thought it was gonna fall apart, but then he realized it was stronger. It did fine in the move.” 

Hudlow shared more of the back story about the playhouse, saying, “It was built for Sallie’s sister in the 1870s on the family farm. I think when Mr. Phelan (then owner of the Peyton place) sold the farm, Daddy asked if he could have it, and the playhouse was moved from the farm to the backyard of our house on Phelan Drive.

“It was not brought to our property until after I left home. I never played in it, but our daughter played in it. It’s a cute little house and you can tell it was great for little girls when they were growing up.

“The playhouse was going to fall apart if something was not done. Since Fessenden House was now a museum, it seemed the right thing for that playhouse to be on Fessenden House grounds on Main Street.”

The Berrys had a relationship with Sallie as they often invited her to Christmas dinner in their home. The veterinarian also took care of her dog.

Said Hudlow, “Daddy would make house calls on her dog, Toots, because Sallie didn’t drive. She reminded me of Mrs. Pumphrey in the TV series, ‘All Creatures Great and Small’, with her dog, Tricky Woo. That was Sallie and her dog, Toots.”

Fixing up the house

Alexa Moscardelli, who grew up in a house built in the late 1800s, took the lead role in seeing to the restoration of the structure, which has been dubbed Miss Sallie’s Playhouse.

“My initial interest in the playhouse was sparked by the Year Round Garden Club’s longstanding relationship with Fite-Fessenden, but it has been sustained by working with a group of friends who ‘share the vision’ and by the enthusiastic support of the Lebanon community in historic preservation. The pandemic’s forcing us to gather outside and stay home didn’t hurt either,” said Moscardelli.

As for details of the makeover, she said, “The playhouse had to be made plumb because it was leaning. The second thing, we needed to do something about the roof which was the original cedar shakes roof. It was covered with moss and leaked so we had to take it off. We replaced it with metal that matches the Fite-Fessenden House roof.

“Some of the boards were missing, so we had to find the boards to replace them and have them planed down. The soffits were rotten and had to be repaired. The playhouse at some point had electricity. You can see the old wires, but we didn’t replace that.

“We had a volunteer carpenter do the work. He asked to remain anonymous. We could not have had enough money to restore it like he did. He set up a little workshop and planed and sanded. The late Bettie Hill, a designer, helped us pick out the Victorian colors,” Moscardelli said. 

The playhouse made its debut with a children’s tea party/birthday party in September, and the back garden was also used in 2020 for a Suffrage 100th anniversary party, a Chalk It Up event in conjunction with Cumberland University, several book club meetings and a garden club function.

Sullivan noted that work is going on inside the Fite-Fessenden House, and once the weather warms back up, the back garden will be available for parties.

Added Moscardelli, “We had used the backyard during Covid because we could sponsor socially-distanced events, and we plan to continue that practice, especially as long as the quarantine persists. We are hoping that the back garden will be known as ‘Lebanon’s backyard.’ We want people to use it.”

Playhouse donor Hudlow said of its restoration, “I think it looks really nice, and we’re very pleased that it’s been preserved and is being used the way it’s being used and that people can see the playhouse and that it’s part of the town’s history now.”

FITE-FESSENDEN HOUSE

The house museum is located at 236 West Main St. in Lebanon and will be available for guided tours by appointment once the coronavirus has been dispelled. The back garden area and playhouse may be rented for parties and special occasions. For information, contact Judy Sullivan at (615) 484-0770 or email at judyblauchsullivan@gmail.com.

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