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Classical Antebellum Natchez, Mississippi
April 15 – 19, 2009
The Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America
“Within three miles of the town the country is entirely occupied by houses and
grounds of a villa character.”
- Frederick Law Olmstead, A Journey in the Back Country, 1860
Overlooking a broad expanse of the Lower Mississippi River from high bluffs and little touched by the ravages of the Civil War, Natchez, Mississippi, contains the Deep South’s finest and most numerous array (some 75 or more) of Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate and other style mansions. Built between 1800 and 1860, the houses took architectural center stage in the region when extravagant prosperity from cotton production and export produced more millionaires per capita than any other city in America. Natchez was the preeminent port in the Mississippi Territory and just prior to the Civil War the immediate area accounted for 10 percent of all southern cotton production. Whereas the population in 1820 was 2,200, making Natchez the largest town between St. Louis and New Orleans, by 1860 the town had grown to 6,600.
The city derives its name from the Native American tribe who lived originally in the area. Located midway between Memphis and New Orleans, the town has lived since the early 18th century under French, English, Spanish and American rule, including under the Confederate flag.
Like other such southern cities as New Orleans, Charleston and Savannah, Natchez suffered hard times after the War Between the States and yet, paradoxically, those days of reconstruction, crop failures and depressions during which most people were “too poor to paint and too proud to whitewash,” saw an extraordinary architectural wealth left in place for future recognition and praise.
In 1931 the first of the annual spring pilgrimages was organized when scores of magnificent antebellum homes in and around Natchez were opened to the public. Southern hospitality and spirit prevailed even as it does today. “Natchez, Where the Old South Still Lives” has been the theme for a revived and prosperous city.
The Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America invites you to take part in an exclusive five-day tour of some of the city’s most beautiful homes and scheduled after the pilgrimage season crush. Many of the historic homes contain original furnishings and are in private hands including descendants of the original owners, Richmond, Lansdowne, Monmouth, The Briars, Linden and Dunleith to name just a few. Others like Stanton Hall, Auburn, Melrose, Rosalie, Elms Court, Longwood and Magnolia Hall add to the impressive variety that makes Natchez a unique Mecca for early 19th century American regional architecture.
Knowledgeable lecturers and tour guides will lead the group through these and other homes. Owners will host private functions and we will have in-town accommodations at the historic Natchez Eola Hotel, a member of the National Register of Historic Places, and nearby the equally historic Natchez Eola Guest House.
Built in 1812 after designs executed by Massachusetts-born architect/builder Levi Weeks, Auburn is considered the first house in the Mississippi Territory “on which was ever attempted any of the orders of architecture,” in fact, it was the first house west of South Carolina to have a monumental portico. It also influenced the designs of countless other antebellum plantation houses, real and fictional, such as Twelve Oaks in “Gone with the Wind”. A Palladian four-columned Ionic portico topped by a pedimented roof creates a grand entrance to a stately red-brick mansion. Before Weeks’ presence in Natchez, houses had been built in a simpler vernacular style, sometimes called planter’s cottages. Like many other antebellum houses in Natchez built from architectural reference books or builders guides, Weeks turned to his own library for design details for Auburn. Inside, an unusual freestanding spiral staircase leads to the second floor. A later owner added sensitively designed wings, thereby creating a splendid nine-bay façade, as well as a rear portico.
The Briars, though built circa 1818, actually bridges two architectural periods, having the basic style of the floor-and-a-half planter’s cottage and the elegant, well-designed details of the American Federal style. Due to the sophistication of the architectural details there is speculation that Levi Weeks was behind the design of the house. A gallery or porch supported by slender Doric colonettes runs the full width of the front façade with elegantly arched Adamesque dormers above. A central hall is flanked by pairs of rooms. Additional outer rooms are bedchambers. At some later period a rear gallery was enclosed for use as a large parlor. The original owner was John Perkins, a planter from Maryland.
Gloucester is named after the Massachusetts birthplace of owner Winthrop Sargent, first governor of the Mississippi Territory. Built around 1803 the two-story brick mansion has the unique distinction of having a pair of matching fan-lighted entrances with detached sidelights. The original doorway was given a twin in 1808 when Sargent doubled the width of the house that necessitated a second front entrance for balance. They open into a U-shaped hall that surrounds the library. Twin stairways rise to the second floor. Two antique-filled rooms, the dining room and drawing room, have octagonal walls facing the side facades. A pedimented portico with a second-floor gallery were added around 1830.
Greatly admired by later architects, Linden began sometime during the Spanish occupation of the 1790s as a simple dwelling of a central hall with two rooms on each of two floors. In 1818 Thomas B. Reed, the first United States Senator from Mississippi, bought the property and widened the house with one-story extensions, adding a 98-foot, 10-columned gallery across the entire front. A Northerner, who was traveling in the Natchez area around 1830, left this description of the typical plantation house of the period: “….This gallery is in all the country-houses, in the summer, the lounging room, reception room, promenade and dining room.” Reed also added a four-columned gallery and pediment to the second floor. One of the most celebrated doorways in Natchez, the front entrance at Linden has fluted Doric pilasters, framed fanlight and sidelights set in alternating diamond and oval panes. Two wings were added to the rear in 1840.
Rosalie dates from 1820 and sits tall above its raised basement on the bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. A hipped roof and widow’s walk add to the height. The nearly cubical brick structure has double gallery porticos front and back. Inside, the impressive scale of the airy rooms include 13-foot ceilings and deep double parlors. The staircase in placed in a side hall between two rooms. This leaves the main hall open front to back to breezes and entertaining. Victorian marble mantels, Brussels carpets, gilt mirrors and 21 pieces of Rococo Revival furniture were shipped from the Belter shop in New York to Rosalie in the 1850s. The house influenced the designs of such later Natchez landmarks as Magnolia Hall, Melrose and Stanton Hall. Peter Little, who was a planter and also owned the first steam-powered sawmill on the river, was the original owner.
Richmond, begun in 1784, is a composite of three distinctly different styles of Natchez architecture, forming a 40-room mansion. The original section is at the center and represents the Creole style from the time when the house was under French/Spanish ownership. The second construction phase took place in 1832 under new owner Levin Marshall from Virginia, who was making a fortune in banking and as the owner of hotels, steamships and 25,000 acres of plantation land in Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas. He added a front section in the new Greek Revival style, containing the major reception rooms, as well as bedrooms. Fluted pilasters flanked door and window openings in the new parlors. Later Marshall added to the rear a third, two-story section, housing two dining rooms and additional bedrooms. The mansion is furnished with original heirloom antiques and is lived in by Marshall’s descendants.
Constructed about 1840, Cottage Gardens is a planter’s cottage, modest in feeling from the outside with a full-width gallery beneath a pediment and one-and-a-half stories. The house is surprisingly spacious with a wide center hall from which a staircase curves gracefully up to the second floor. Today the rooms are furnished with 18th century Irish and American antiques. In the 1960s the library was redesigned with refined paneling by Louisiana architect A. Hayes Town. A lush walled garden is next to the house.
Melrose is an ultimate example of the southern Greek Revival style. Built in 1845 for lawyer John McMurran and his wife Mary Louisa, natives of Pennsylvania, the mansion has the unadorned boldness of the Greek temple – four Doric columns support a simple entablature and triangular pediment. What the façade lacks in surface decoration is made up in pure geometric shapes. The scale is imposing. The designer/builder was Jacob Byers, a carpenter from Maryland. The house is composed of 15,000 square feet, and a pair of parlors and a library, all enfilade, take up one entire side of the main floor. Ionic engaged columns frame each doorway. The most impressive feature of the dining room is Natchez’ most elegantly carved mahogany punka which hangs from the center of the ceiling, which was swung by pulling an attached silk rope to create cooling air from above the dining table. Original furnishings remain in place, including furniture and such decorative objects as paintings, glassware and statues, and even suites of original furniture can be found in the six upstairs bedrooms.
Monmouth boldly asserts its style, reflecting the character of its original owner, John A. Quitman. Born in Monmouth, New Jersey, he moved to Natchez where he found fame and fortune. He formed a local corps of soldiers and led them as a major general in the Mexican War, in the process of which he became a national hero. He later served as a congressman in Washington and a governor of Mississippi. He was also a lawyer, president of a railroad and owner of thousands of acres of cotton and sugar plantations. In 1826 Quitman purchased the house he named Monmouth that had been constructed eight years earlier in the Federal style. It was not until 1854 that he remodeled it as the solid, substantial structure that we see today, at the same time maintaining carefully designed balance, symmetry and proportions. A private dinner will be given here.
Landsdowne has elements that convey the Greek Revival style. Four fluted Doric columns line the front portico of this one-story house built in 1853, while the doorway is framed by similar style engaged columns. Stucco scored to resemble cut stone covers the brick walls. Pilastered doorways, bold molding profiles, and plasterwork cornices and ceiling medallions continue the Greek Revival decoration inside. Time has almost stood still at Landsdowne since the 1850s. For example, the drawing room is decorated as it was back then with the original Zuber wallpaper, the double set of Rococo Revival rosewood furniture covered in rose brocade, the Aubusson carpet, the gilded cornices and copies of the first brocaded damask lambrequins. The imported white marble mantel is decorated with an unusual carved calla lily design. This fine old plantation house also contains black Egyptian marble mantels in the bedrooms and rosewood bedroom furniture, original glass and silver and many antique objets d’art. Descendants of the original owners will host a private dinner for us at Landsdowne.
Dunleith is one of the icons of Natchez antebellum architecture. Its square construction is entirely surrounded by 26 Doric columns that rise past double galleries to the height of two full stories. Floor length windows lead out to both galleries. Built in 1856 for Charles G. Dahlgren, a banker from Philadelphia, he would later hold the rank of brigadier general in the Confederate Army, while his brother, John Dahlgren, was appointed a rear admiral in the Union Navy. The interior has 15-foot ceilings and large well-appointed rooms furnished with antiques. A private dinner will be hosted here.
The extraordinary architectural highlight of Elms Court is the dramatic 142-foot length of galleries decorated with exquisite lacy ironwork railings, supports and arches imported from Italy. The original house, built in 1836, was fronted by a pillared portico. In 1852, the new owners, lawyer and diplomat Ayres and Jane Merrill, hired builder Thomas Rose who removed the portico and added to the two-story central block matching one-story wings, linking the three sections with the delicate-looking ironwork. The house had 22 rooms, including a billiard hall, smoking room, music room and double parlor.
Described as “palatial” after its completion in 1857, Stanton Hall is Natchez’ largest antebellum mansion, dominating the city from its hilltop site. Its scale refers to the great wealth cotton was bringing to the city in the 1850s. Frederick Stanton, an Irish-born cotton merchant, hired architect Thomas Rose to draw up the plans. Although there are Italianate details as part of the design, other elements point to Minard Lefever’s pattern book Beauties of Modern Architecture (1835), including Greek Revival portico capitals, doorways, etc. The newer Victorian style trend, Renaissance Revival, can be seen in carved flowers and leaves decorating the hall arches and Carrara marble mantels. Cast-iron Corinthian columns support the portico while lacy ironwork railings border the double galleries. Similar ironwork can be found on a side porch and rear gallery. The colossal scale of the mansion is encompassed within 11,000 square feet on the two main floors. Ceilings are 17 feet high while doors are 10 feet high. During the Great Depression, Stanton Hall stood empty and was in desperate need of restoration. Supposedly it could be purchased for $10,000, the value of the cast-iron fence that surrounded the property. We will have an opening reception and private dinner at Stanton Hall that is now owned by the Pilgrimage Garden Club.
No tour of Natchez is complete without a visit to that spectacular Italianate/Moorish confection, Longwood. Constructed in 1860-61, it remains to this day unfinished inside due to the declaration of the War Between the States in 1861. Later, given the nickname of “Nutt’s Folly”, the mansion was to become the home of planter (43,000 acres on 21 plantations) and physician Haller Nutt and his large family, hiring the Philadelphia
architect Samuel Sloan to design it. Although war seemed to be on the horizon, Nutt and Sloan proceeded with plans for Longwood that was to be, with 30,000 square feet, the largest octagonal house in America. Sloan sent Yankee masons and tinners (for the roof) to complete the work. However, they only got as far as finishing the exterior and the roof with its onion dome. By this time Mississippi had seceded from the union and for fear of being attacked, the workmen fled north through enemy lines, leaving no finished floors or plaster walls, only a bare skeleton frame. Plans to have the interior completed after the war were never carried out. In 1862 Nutt had his own workmen finish the basement. However, he died two years later, his wife claiming that his death was not due to pneumonia but to “Three million dollars worth of property swept away; labor of a life time gone; large debts incurred by the War pressing on him, and his helpless wife with eight children and two other families looking to him for support.” Nutt descendants lived on at Longwood until the 1960s. The Pilgrimage Garden Club maintains Longwood.
Immediate Registration Suggested. Please contact Lani Sternerup at Classical Excursions, firstname.lastname@example.org or 800-390-5536.
Tour Price: $1795. per person based on double occupancy, $295. single supplement applies. Tour price includes a $300. tax deductible donation to ICA&CA.