There once was a woman, a teacher I’m told,
who went out in search of a tree very old. . .
And so begins the story of a woman, a tree, and a dream.
The woman was Dr. Laura Pauline Jepsen, a Florida State University English professor for more than thirty years. She was an exceptional scholar – whose areas of expertise were on Tolstoy, Greek tragedy and Shakespeare; but she is most remembered for her lovingly built English Tudor cottage – Lichgate on High Road.
Miss Jepsen spent two years looking for the right place to build her enchanted dream castle, she would return continually to the site of a majestic Live Oak tree in an open field. She fell in love with the tree, saying, “it was a tree to inspire poets.” This was the place of her dreams so she went to a bank asking for a loan to buy a tree.
She purchased the property not only as a place to call home, but also in the hopes of protecting the ancient centuries old oak. She registered her tree, as the Lichgate Oak with the Live Oak Society; the dues are twenty-five acorns a year. To conquer time, to preserve the essence of the past, and to escape into reality – were her triple desires when starting to build Lichgate.
She designed the cottage after the earliest timber structures in England; with gneiss stone foundation and fireplace, leaded windows, and the oldest wood she could acquire – ‘the wood eternal’; tidewater red cypress, cedar, redwood and of course, the white pine floor boards – almost two hundred and fifty years old from the first frame house in Putney, Vermont, built in 1762.
Laura moved in before the cottage was completed, while there was tar paper on the walls – the birds would fly in and build their nest on the rafters. Miss Jepsen wanted to build a gentle, humble place, much like Thoreau’s Walden; “to live a primitive and frontier life, though in the midst of civilization.” And so began her quiet life of simplicity and giving back to the community.
Dr. Jepsen was truly a renaissance woman with many interests – from spinning and writing, to community betterment. She was one of the founders of the Tallahassee Museum of History and Natural Science,the local Audubon Society and Sierra Club as well as the Humane Society. She was recognized for all her efforts by the City of Tallahassee with a Certificate of Appreciation. One of her main interest was raising and showing champion bulldogs; – she loved her pups so much that she had a doghouse built that resembles the cottage – complete with tile floors and air conditioning.
In 1981 Laura published a book of her home and beloved oak. Called simply Lichgate on High Road, it told the story of her home. In it she wrote,
“As my house passed through its several metamorphoses, I soon realized that although some persons live in the house of their dreams, my house lived in the dreams of other persons. Visitors from cities, states, and foreign countries stopped to exclaim: “It reminds me of…” Some of the Black Forest, some of the Alps, some of Saxon England–all, of the far away, and some, of the long ago. Of the Hansel and Gretel cottage, the Anne Hathaway house, or the rooftops of Mother Goose. Here was a curiosity, out of time and place, a fairy tale creation, come to settle, as if by a spell, in the Florida sunshine”
Accompanying the cottage, Laura built a lichgate at the edge of her yard. A lichgate is the passageway between the church and the burial ground, a place for the mourners to rest in the journey from church to gravesite. In her book she wrote,
“Because for more than half a century my thoughts have moved in and out of an imaginary lichgate. Though in olden days a lichgate separated the world of the living from the world of the dead, paradoxically enough, in our populous existence, the world of the dead on the other side of the lichgate may be the place where one is not only alive but living. How happy the thought that merely by going east or west through a lichgate, one may enjoy the best of both worlds, the here and a semblance of the hereafter.”
For more than forty years Miss Jepsen would walk thru her lichgate,a “memorial to the world of retrospect.”
Laura passed away on Christmas Eve, 1995, knowing that her ashes would be placed with her beloved oak.
Laura Jepsen lived an inspiring life – she realized what she lived for. We should try to keep her fire burning, plain and simple. It was Miss Jepsen’s “hope and desire,” as stated in her will – that the enchanted Lichgate property be preserved for future generations to enjoy. The property was almost sold for commercial development; but in the 11th hour a small group of people, many of them former students of Miss Jepsen’s, came together, formed a non-profit organization, and took out a bank loan to preserve the property. Through donations, and the use of the property for weddings, retreats, and community gatherings, the dream of preserving this gentle garden and humble, historic home is possible.
In the end some find the way home – through the Wardrobe, the Looking Glass, or perhaps through the Lichgate.