Alumni's historic preservation makes HGTV show

Alumni's historic preservation makes HGTV show

R oss Sheppard’s, ’13, and Jacob Hawkins’, ’14, investment has made an impact on the southern area of Milledgeville. So much so, their renovation to the c. 1838 Samuel Rockwell House was broadcast May 1, 2021, on HGTV’s “Life Under Renovation”with additional episodes available on Discovery+streaming app.

The casting director in Atlanta messaged Sheppard on Instagram, because she’d been following his page throughout the early stages of renovation. 

Ross Sheppard
Ross Sheppard

“She reached out to me as a realtor asking if I knew of a client who would be a good fit for the show,” said Sheppard. “I mentioned we were about to start the second phase, and she said, ‘That’ll be great. Your house will be perfect for this.’ So, we made the casting tapes.”

Sheppard’s project was then selected for the “Life Under Renovation” show.

“It's been fun,” said Hawkins. “We love Milledgeville, and Ross is from here. He’s a big salesman—he sold me on reinvesting in Milledgeville.” 

Jacob Hawkins
Jacob Hawkins

Hawkins was originally looking to invest in homes in Atlanta. However, when Sheppard, a real estate broker and historic preservationist, approached Hawkins about investing in the Rockwell House, Hawkins, who respects Sheppard for his business acumen, said “yes.”

At first, they thought it was a crazy idea, but soon realized investing in the Rockwell House would have a significant impact on the town.

“We have a special connection with Milledgeville’s history, and the south side has as many important places as the rest of the city,” said Hawkins. “But there’s a severe lack of investment. Rockwell was passed over by many, but we envisioned a bustling pillar of activity for the Midway community.”

“The closing of Milledgeville’s only historic inn last summer was a big concern for us too, said Sheppard. There’s a huge need for a flexible inn and event space for everyone from parents and alumni visiting to students gathering and celebrating. It’s a unique place for people to explore Milledgeville’s past and present.”

Before the renovation, the house was dilapidated.

“I really wasn't thinking we’d do this,” said Hawkins. “Then, Ross told me to research the history of the house. So I started diving into the past, and I absolutely fell in love with it.”  

“Both Ross and I have strong connections to historic preservation. We’ve grown up and lived in communities that have seen damage to their historic fabric. We want to help preserve the vibrant histories of Milledgeville while creating space for them to thrive in today’s world.”
– Jacob Hawkins

He discovered it was once the home of Georgia Governor Herschel Johnson, who led the state’s anti-secession movement and was also a vice presidential nominee. There was even a state senator who lived in the house.

“Both Ross and I have strong connections to historic preservation,” said Hawkins. “We’ve grown up and lived in communities that have seen damage to their historic fabric. We want to help preserve the vibrant histories of Milledgeville while creating space for them to thrive in today’s world.”

Although Hawkins wasn’t a part of the HGTV show, he’s an investor in the project, among his other endeavors. Former Georgia College Professor Dr. Scaffidi instilled in him the importance of being a visionary, and he puts that energy into a lot of different projects. Hawkins is still in contact with him today. He’s also learned by seeing what Sheppard’s vision was and helping him get there. In addition to investing in the Samuel Rockwell House, Hawkins owns a few businesses, plus he’s an executive director for a charitable foundation. 

(Left to right) Ross Sheppard, Jacob Hawkins and Will Walker at the pre-renovated c. 1838 Samuel Rockwell House in Milledgeville.
(Left to right) Ross Sheppard, Jacob Hawkins and Will Walker at the pre-renovated c. 1838 Samuel Rockwell House in Milledgeville.

After earning his graduate degree in historic preservation from the University of Georgia, Sheppard sought out investment opportunities in historic homes.

“This is just literally the intersection of everything that I love—Milledgeville, preservation and real estate,” he said. “I saw a unique opportunity in this house. Rockwell had many close calls that almost resulted in its destruction, and we could save it again while building a future for the property that supported the surrounding community.” 

Sheppard and his partners have already bought a couple of houses across the street from the Samuel Rockwell House and would like to buy more to continue investing in the existing community.

“We thought this would be a good anchor business for the immediate proximity of this house,” said Sheppard. “Anything anyone does contributes to the snowball effect that’s happening in this neighborhood. So, doing something big like this in the community, nobody can overlook it, right? It can draw attention to this part of town in an effective way.”

“We saw this as an opportunity,” he said. “We could save the priceless architectural features of the home, open the property to the entire community and renew interest in an undersupported community of Milledgeville.”

Sheppard felt compelled to turn this house into a treasure for all to enjoy. So far, several parents of Georgia College students have stayed at the Rockwell House. One family even rented the entire house for graduation.

“It’s an amazing resource for the Georgia College community too,” he said. “I felt a sense of duty to do that.”

Sheppard and his team worked on the house in two phases. The first phase involved getting the house habitable. The second phase was recorded for the show.

“Last summer, we started another 10-month renovation and finished everything,” said Sheppard. “That's what you’ll see on the show. The pretty things people want to see like the kitchen, paint, furniture and landscaping.”

Hawkins and Sheppard hired mostly local people to work on the house, like the Brick Mason Mr. Woody, who was featured in the show. He’s done masonry for over 30 years and did all of the home’s brick work.

“There was a lot, because historic bricks are really soft and will deteriorate,” said Sheppard.  “They just don't last like modern bricks do. Mr. Woody grew up around there. And it's really fun to hear him say, ‘I've been driving by this house for my whole life. Now to get to participate in saving it.’” 

The post-renovated c. 1838 Samuel Rockwell House.
The post-renovated c. 1838 Samuel Rockwell House.

They also had a historic preservation student research and write blogs about the house, which will appear on the website.

The work crew included approximately four exterior and four interior painters, two plaster and three woodwork workers, three people who worked on the 3-D printing to replicate some handmade moldings, three tile workers, four plumbing crew members to replace all of the plumbing, one carpet person, two preservation consultants and Sheppard and 10 of his friends who did all of the floor sanding.

It's built in the same year and way as Georgia’s Old Governor's Mansion was—timber framed on a granite foundation. The outside color was also indicative of the time period. 

“Many people see old homes—especially in Rockwell’s previous condition—and think it’s an insurmountable task. It’s not easy, but saving homes like this can be done with a combination of DIY and skilled labor. It was really fun to share my preservation expertise with the crew and audience and show that anyone can do this important work.”
– Ross Sheppard

“Yellow is the original color scheme we discovered in an analysis,” said Sheppard. “We didn't just choose to paint it yellow. It was more common than most people think for houses not to be white. Most houses were not white until the early 20th century.” 

Sheppard thought the best part of the HGTV experience was sharing the preservation process with a national audience.

“Many people see old homes—especially in Rockwell’s previous condition—and think it’s an insurmountable task,” he said. “It’s not easy, but saving homes like this can be done with a combination of DIY and skilled labor. It was really fun to share my preservation expertise with the crew and audience and show that anyone can do this important work.”

Sheppard has been in real estate since 2008—when he was 18 years old and bought his first home at 19 for $100,000. He rented the other rooms to his friends, and that paid for his mortgage. Since then, he’s followed his passion for real estate.

His interest in historic preservation began when he belonged to the Watson-Brown Foundation Junior Board of Trustees, Milledgeville Chapter at Georgia College—where a panel of high school students from central Georgia research, fund and support historic preservation projects in the Milledgeville area. The board also functions as part of the educational programming at Georgia's Old Governor's Mansion.

“Matt Davis, ’02, ’04, was my first preservation mentor,” Sheppard said. “He encouraged me to not pursue preservation as a career, but to incorporate it into what I was already leaning towards, which is exactly what I ended up doing.”

“I really credit Matt with what I’m doing now, because who knows if I would’ve stumbled on preservation or falling in love with it if I hadn't had that experience,” he said. “So being involved in Georgia’s Old Governor's Mansion and seeing Matt become a success story really set an example for me.”

At that time, Davis was the graduate assistant during the restoration to the Old Governor’s Mansion and served as curator during Sheppard’s time on the Junior Board. He currently serves as director of Historic Museums at Georgia College.

“Matt planted the seed for me there to become a preservationist,” Sheppard said.

When Sheppard served as a Georgia College Alumni Board member, he sponsored an endowed scholarship. Now, he would like to use the Samuel Rockwell House as a way of raising funds for the scholarship.

“We want to use the house as an economic engine that’s a key piece of the Hardwick community infrastructure,” he said. “We’re working on ways for Rockwell to support community members through access and continued financial investments, like a scholarship for a student from Hardwick.”