2018-03-21 / Real Estate

Building Highland Hills

In Bon Air, the Sowers family launched an empire

The Highland Hills home of Jere Kittle, one of the neighborhood’s longstanding residents. Highland Hills was the first development undertaken by the Sowers family from start to finish. 
ASH DANIEL The Highland Hills home of Jere Kittle, one of the neighborhood’s longstanding residents. Highland Hills was the first development undertaken by the Sowers family from start to finish. ASH DANIEL The March 7 issue of the Observer’s house and home section, Casa, featured a story on Highland Hills, a mid-century housing development in Bon Air that has only recently received proper credit for its rare architecture.

Using National Homes prefab structures designed by forward-thinking and lauded architect Charles M. Goodman, the neighborhood’s houses stand out for their clean lines, floor-to-ceiling windows and being offset from the road. Though long an architectural gem, Highland Hills has grown in popularity as of late, garnering a number of write-ups in local publications.

But one detail seems to have been omitted from these accounts: the role played by the Sowers family in Highland Hills’ development and construction.

According to J. Mark Sowers, his father, George “Bruce” Sowers, and his uncle James “Jim” Sowers were the ones responsible for the neighborhood’s creation in the mid-1950s. A deed for one of the neighborhood’s plots lists James Sowers as president of the Highland Hills Corp., and Bruce Sowers as its secretary. Though the men had previously built houses together, Highland Hills was the first large-scale development they were involved with.

For the Sowers, Highland Hills was the beginning of an empire; nearly every family member since has been involved in some facet of the real estate business. To understand the Sowers’ involvement with creating this historic neighborhood, we interviewed Mark Sowers, president of Oakbridge Corp. and developer of Harpers Mill.

Observer: How did your family begin developing and building houses?

Mark Sowers: My dad [Bruce Sowers], he was an artist. Actually, after the war, he was a commercial artist, which basically [meant] he designed labels for brands and stuff. It was a terrible job. He wasn’t getting paid anything – 25 cents an hour, something like that – and so I think [he and] my Uncle Jim got into real estate. Dad partnered up with him early on … they started Highland Hills.

I think they sold 70 houses in one week and got this national award. I don’t think it did very well money-wise, and from there they ended up doing their own thing. … Dad went on to build custom homes after that. Designed his own, built them, did the subdivision sections, all that.

Observer: So, your father and uncle were the developers and builders of Highland Hills. Was it their first undertaking?

Sowers: I think they built [a few individual houses here and there, but Highland Hills] was the first subdivision that they did together. I think [dad] was involved in some other ones, but mostly it was Brighton Green that he worked on in all those years. He got into other things too: Southport Industrial Park – I couldn’t tell you all of the different projects that have been done now. But [Highland Hills] was really sort of the beginning of it all.

Observer: What did your father’s role with Highland Hills entail?

Sowers: He subcontracted to build the roads, and then he was the builder, so you go in, clear the lots, pour the slab. [National Homes would] send out the prefab panels, and they’d put them together. He used to tell me he could build a house in a week. All the panels were pre-finished on the inside. You’d stand it up and it was done.

He said the houses were very tight houses [in their construction]. A kid went into one of the houses and started a fire in the middle of the floor and shut the door when he went out. The fire went out. It was so [tightly constructed] that it couldn’t get enough air to keep the fire going. It basically put itself out.

Observer: Tell me about the real estate legacy your father left behind.

Sowers: Along the way, Oscar Napier and Bernard Savage, he basically put them in the real estate business, and I think they got partnered up a little bit on Brighton Green [a residential development in North Chesterfield]. And so, Napier Realty and Savage really got their start from that.

And then, of course [my family]. We just got our start working on dad’s houses, cleaning them out and toting lumber, and doing all the things that you do. We all went into the building business: my three brothers [Doug, David and Buddy, who died in 2014], myself. My sister Peggy [Burr] went into interior design, and Kathy [Milburn, another sister] took that over when she passed away. So basically, we’re all in some form of the real estate business.

And then [there’s] Uncle Jim’s kids: Jimmy, Billy Sowers, and even their daughters, Lu [and her husband] Warren Redfern was another builder. …

There was a lot of things that were spawned that came out of the Highland Hills Development. It’s kind of a shame that [Dad] wasn’t [better] recognized. ¦

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