The original owners of the house were Mr. & Mrs. William R. Pettis. It was built in 1834 by contractor Alfred Hobbie of Quincy, Florida, and its architect was believed to be a Mr. Betton. The house originally stood on the northwest corner of Monroe and Carolina streets, and was described as in the style of a southern farm house, colonial & classical. A south wing was added in 1904.
In 1924 the house was purchased by Mr. & Mrs. F. E. Harrison. The Harrisons enclosed the back porch creating an indoor kitchen, and brightened the first floor by adding large glass doors. By this time, the house had been wired for electricity and the gas fixtures removed. For the next 25 years, the house became one of the centers of social life in Tallahassee, hosting dances and parties of all kinds. The Harrison daughters held their wedding receptions in the front parlors, and dignitaries, governors and foreign royalty were entertained.
The house was then known as the Hobbie-Harrison House.
By the 1950's, the house had been purchased by Weldon Starry of Tallahassee and The West Coast Properties Corp. as an investment. The house then served as The Salvation Army House, headquarters of the Salvation Army of Tallahassee, at 504 North Monroe Street. In the 1960's, the house fell into disrepair, and demolition was begun.
Sarah Payne Cawthon purchased the house and saved it from the wrecking ball in 1967. It was moved to Ocala Road, and used as a guest house.
In May of 1986 the Sarah Payne Cawthon House was donated to the College of Law by Honorable Anne Booth of the First District Court of Appeal and Sarah Cawthon Shaw, the daughters of Rainey and Sarah Payne Cawthon.
Sarah Payne was born in Dickson, Tennessee November 18, 1905. In 1925 she graduated with a B.S. degree from George Peabody College in Nashville, Tennessee, and then traveled to New York City to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Returning to Nashville, she received a Master of Arts degree from George Peabody College in 1928 and began her teaching career. In the summer of 1929, she taught Shakespeare in the English Department of the University of Florida. In her class was the captain of the UF football team, Rainy Cawthen. He earned both an "A" and her hand, and they were married that August. For the next few years, the Cawthens lived in Jacksonville, and then Gainesville again while Sarah continued to teach high school, and Rainy coached football. In 1936, they moved to Tallahassee where Sarah taught at Leon High School, and Rainy became a successful business owner, civic leader, and served in the House of Representatives.
Sarah was active in many theatrical, literary, art and historical societies, and early on had a flare for historic preservation. Her daughter Anne Booth shared some memories of her mother at the house dedication in 1986. She said her mother was a woman ahead of her times. Whenever she became aware of an old house or building being torn down, she would enlist the help of a man with a truck and raid the trash piles. She salvaged old windows, doors, mantel, flooring, and columns before there was a popular market for such things, and used them in her own house. Eventually she started wanting to save the whole house, thus this house is here today. Sarah passed away in 1977, and Rainy in 1991. Anne Booth said of her mother: "She loved FSU, and never stopped learning. She gave wonderful parties as a political wife, and always showed amazing flair and style in whatever she did."
Today the Cawthon House is the home of the LeRoy Collins Institute, which is a nonpartisan, statewide policy organization which studies and promotes creative solutions to key private and public issues facing the people of Florida and the Nation.
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