From Thailand to the Loop

When two world travelers fell in love with Mobile on a whim, they decided to restore one of the city's magnificent old homes.

Fearn-Syson House exterior
Fearn-Syson House // Photos by Summer Ennis Ansley

There is something majestic about bringing buildings back to life. The subtraction of time’s grime replaced with loving care has the deep-reaching ability to foster community greatness. One such effort has been quietly taking place during the pandemic in the heart of midtown Mobile, and by some unexpected caretakers.

Bryant Olson and his partner, Cole Tonklongchan, had no plans to pick up roots and move from Thailand halfway around the world to Mobile. In 2019, the international travelers were visiting a friend in Pensacola when they decided on a whim to spend a week in Mobile at the Malaga Inn. In that one short week, they became enamored with Gulf Coast culture. The couple found it hard to leave … so they didn’t.

“We loved the city and decided to visit many houses that were for sale,” Olson says. “We made an offer on the Fearn-Syson House, and it was accepted the next day.” 

Then and Now Residential developer George Fearn built the home as a wedding gift for his daughter Bessie Fearn Syson. He cut all the trees from the property, milled the lumber, built houses and then replanted oaks that are now seen shading the verdant property. Said to be the first Spanish Colonial Revival building to be built in Mobile, architect George B. Rogers originally specified a wood shingle roof. It was later replaced with terracotta that was, at one point, painted green. Olson went back with a new terracotta roof — in the traditional colorway. Image from Mobile Historic Development Commission Photograph Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama

The couple returned to Thailand, Tonklongchan’s native country, where Olson — a master at marketing and sales — owned 16 stores that sold high-end personal care products. His exclusive clientele included the king of Bahrain, U.S. singer Belinda Carlisle and many Thai celebrities. Despite that success, Olson sold all his businesses, except the Penthouse Spa in Bangkok, in preparation to move to Mobile. Through the winter of 2020, the transition was going smoothly. But when the COVID-19 pandemic escalated in March, Olson found himself in Mobile while his husband was still in Thailand. All flights were canceled, and the inability to travel left Olson with a lot of spare time and the opportunity to focus on his new house.

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He decided to use his newfound idleness to return the home, designed by noted architect George B. Rogers, back to its original splendor. He began with the large veranda that wrapped around the front half of the house. Olson repaired the porch roof and restored the decorative columns that graced the space. He notes, “I think there were originally 21 columns, but I was not able to find two. The house currently has 19 columns, and I see it as our unique stamp on the home. It is the reason I titled my Facebook page ‘19 Columns Restoration.’ I currently have over 3,600 followers, and it grows steadily every week.” 

Walk in the Door The Fearn-Syson House, circa 1904, features a large “living hall” that connects the living and dining rooms to the front door. All three rooms feature oak parquet floors with inlays of mahogany and maple in a unique quatrefoil Celtic design.
A Grand View The dramatic coffered ceilings were originally wood-toned but were painted in the 1980s.
Unapologetic Opulence The Fearns imported this antique limestone mantelpiece from England when the home was built. Olson got the fireplace working again and decorated it with a gilded mirror, unique candlesticks and a clock that was a gift from a “19 Columns” Facebook page follower.

As the country continued under lockdown, Olson started the next phase of home regeneration — window restoration. Each pocket window was reglazed, the frames restored and made to work as they did over 100 years ago. He even sought out antique glass to replace missing panels or change past glass repairs that were not a match.

Restoring a home such as the Fearn-Syson house has many attractive elements, but there’s usually one feature of special interest to new homeowners. In Olson’s case, it was the fireplaces and chimneys. He remarks, “I thoroughly enjoyed learning about where the fireplaces were made and reviving the beautifully carved mantels. There is nothing more magical than a roaring fireplace during Christmas. It added ambiance to the house. They were not used for years, and now that they are working, they make this grand old house feel much more like home. I also got the best Christmas present: Cole was finally able to make it to the U.S., and we spent the holiday together.” 

Enveloped in History The wood paneling in the dining room would have been unpainted when the Fearns built it, with hand-painted murals above the wainscotting that have been lost to time. A floor button meant to ring the servants is still visible under the dining table. Olson’s traditional design aesthetic fits the historic home perfectly.
Restored Grandeur Olson replaced most of the porch ceiling, which had rotted and was falling in. The capitals of the 19 columns are unique to the home and don’t adhere to any of the traditional orders.
Sit a Spell The new gas lamps over the outdoor sitting area feel period-appropriate.

It appears 2021 is turning into a much grander year for Olson and his husband. Tonklongchan, a Thai native, now has his permanent U.S. residency and will soon be at 19 Columns permanently. As they plan the next phase of improvements for their home, they are also making strides to restore more of their newly adopted city. 

“We plan on purchasing older, historic homes in Mobile, those with good bones, and returning them to their former glory,” Olson says. “We hope to hold fundraising events with historic restoration nonprofits. Mobile is our new home, and we want to help her shine.”

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