A Living Symphony

Sitting on the outskirts of Natchez, Mississippi, Longwood is quietly tucked high on a hill, surrounded by protective trees.  When we arrived at the entrance, it was about the most non-descript entrace to a plantation house that I’ve ever seen.  Just off a main, modern four way highway, we turned onto a gravel road.  The road itself had the feeling of a service road.  Immediately we came upon the guard house where you pay admission.

There is no grand gates or fences marking the entrance of such a house.  Not even a paved road exists until you pass the guard house and cross a bridge over a small pond.  Longwood king of peeks out at you from the embrace of huge oak trees.  In fact, you can’t even see the entire house upon approach – just glimpses of its brick and soaring heights can be seen.

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Perhaps the approach is best described by Margaret Shields Hendrix in her book The Legend of Longwood:

At historic Natchez, high on the bluffs of the great Mississippi River, there is a remote and beautiful woodlands and waxy green leaves of giant magnolias vie for a place in the sun beside myriads of exotic oriental varnish trees (native of far-off lands) each reaching tall toward southern skies.  Here, too, are many ancient oaks and cedars, flaunting draperies of Spanish moss; and pecans, pines and poplars all claiming their share of this pastoral scene. Each year’s springtime is heralded by a riot of changing colors as dogwood, locust, and redbud, feathery fronds of mimosas and fragrant panicles of wisteria and crepe myrtle, each in their time, burst into brilliant bloom.

It was thus that I first saw Longwood – in the spring.  Ms. Hendrix continues:

Visitors clattering over the narrow wooden bridge that spans a deep bayou, where wild ferns grow in such profusion, round a curve on the winding country lane and come suddenly upon a picture like those in fairy tales of yore.

It was as if we had suddenly stumbled upon a palace of the Ottoman Empire, deep in the forests of Natchez.  Different in every way from the traditional plantation house, Longwood is octagonal shaped and topped by a massive dome.  It was begun in 1858-9, but was never finished due to the outbreak of the Civil War and the owner’s death.  Basically four generations of the family lived in the only part that was finished off – the basement.

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The property was purchased in 1850 by Haller Nutt as a surprise for his wife. She had played there as a child and always admired the property.  This was to be a summer home for the family, who resided for most of the year across the river in Louisiana.  Today when visiting the home, you tour the basement, if it can be called that, which was the family’s principal residence.  Many of the original furnishings are still in place.  The upper floors are a raw template of the grandeur that was never to be.  The massive dome is hollowed out; crude staircases built by workers long ago are still the means to get to the upper levels; there are only spaces where windows and doors might have been, the base brick walls that never received their cement dressing.

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Looking up at the unfinished dome

When the Civil War broke out, the northern craftsmen sent from Philadelphia by the architect to construct the balusters and other details, dropped everything and rushed home.  Today all you can see are the packing crates for furnishings, templates that were being used to hand carve the balusters, tools, scaffolding, and empty buckets.  What would have taken 6-8 months to complete remains undone after more than 150 years.

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Nutt, who had been a wealthy planter before the war, would see his fortune disappear in the chaos that ensued.  He would die of pneumonia in 1864, leaving his wife, eight small children, and an unfinished dream.As we toured the home with our guide, it was amazing to see how the basement was adapted into quite a nice home.  With cypress flooring and pieces of furniture from Mrs. Nutt’s childhood home at Ashburn, the octagonal flow of rooms was held together by a central parlor.  This central room was at the heart of the house and by design, skylights in the ceiling, along with an elaborate series of mirrors in the upper floors, were meant to direct sunlight from what would have been the observatory in the dome down to the darkest part of the basement.

On the day of our visit, springtime bumble bees swarmed everywhere – looking for places to drill.  The wood of Longwood was chosen to repel this nuisance, as well as to resist rot and mold.  As a result, even though the house could use a fresh coat of paint, its details remain unmarred.

In the upper empty rooms of Longwood stacks
of cypress molding, ranging from 2 to 8 to 10
inches in width and 14 to 18 inches in length,
have leaned against the old brick walls where
carpenters placed them so long ago, and they
are neither warped nor bent, but are as straight
as the day they were placed there, by hands long
dead and turned to dust.

– Margaret Shields Hendrix

We were a bit early for the next tour, so we sat talking with one of the guides outside the gift shop. Since it was Spring Pilgrimage in Natchez, the guide was dressed in a beautiful antebellum hoop skirt. She wore a large cameo brooch, which I asked if I could photograph. Apparently it had been her grandmother’s and she seemed very proud of it, so she was happy to oblige my request. While we waited, I strolled around to the front of the house to take a few more snapshots. It was timeless to be standing at the base of the front steps – only the boarded up windows gave away that the house was no longer occupied.

As the tour began, we were escorted into what is the basement of the house. Originally this area was never intended to be living quarters. Although it was technically a basement, the plans called for a retaining wall to be dug out of the hillside upon which the house stands. This allowed for windows to be installed on all sides, bringing light to every room except the very center of the house. Even that room hadn’t been forgotten as evidenced by the mirrors placed in the upper stories of the house to funnel sunlight down through holes in the floor.

Over the next forty-five minutes or so, we were escorted from room to room. We saw Mrs. Nutt’s bedroom, still containing her original furniture, as well as some of her clothes. The clothes themselves were the most revealing element in the room as they showed how tiny the mistress of the house had been. We saw a bed that had a removable portion of the headboard. Servants would use this portion to smooth the bed covers when the bed was made – much like a rolling pin. In fact, the bed might have been named a rolling pin bed, but I can’t remember.

The dining room still has it’s overhead fan or at least what passed as a fan in antebellum homes. A large piece of highly decorated wood hung over the center of the table attached to a rope. The rope extended to the edge of the room where a servant would gently pull it to move the wood back and forth over the table. The table itself was set with china very similar to that original to the house. Only one piece on the table was actually Mrs. Nutt’s – a soup tureen. It was in this room that I saw my very first antebellum fly catcher and I had to have one as a souvenir when we visited the shop after the tour. As we walked carefully up rickety stairs to what would have been the main floor of the house, we encountered an entirely different environment. There was no plaster in place, no furnishings, no completed walls…only the brick skeleton of a long ago dream greeted us.

Standing in the center of what was meant to be the main floor of the home, it is possible to look up into the very top of the dome itself. From floor to floor all you can see now are crudely attached rustic pieces of wood marking what were the walkways used by workmen a hundred and fifty years ago. Niches in the wall stood empty of not only ornamentation, but of their plaster dressings. The floor was worn, rough wood, not marble. Everywhere you looked from the main floor up was nothing but a shell. I found it very symbolic of the Old South itself – grandeur snuffed out in its prime with nothing but an empty rotting corpse of what once was and possibly could have been. All around the exterior rooms were buckets, molding patterns, crates, and other refuse of what must have been a lively scene before the far off cry of cannon stopped work. Crates from Europe still lay stacked in corners with “Mrs. Nutt, Natchez, Mississippi” clearly visible on their exterior. One held the grand piano that found a permanent home in the basement. It was as if everyone had been here seconds before us and stepped out just as we arrived. A very strange scene indeed.

After the tour, we walked down the sloping hill of the front yard, across the gravel drive to the family graveyard. Here are buried Mr. and Mrs. Nutt, as well as some of their children and other descendants. All around is forest. I found myself thinking about Mrs. Nutt, walking this same path behind the coffin of her husband, dead during the darkest days of war. She was left with children and a very large, unfinished home and no money. She survived and continued living her life until her death many years later.

Being spring, the forest was coming back to life from the cold of the winter. These were such tangible reminders that life does go on, as it has even in such a place as this – a place visited by hope, disappointment, war, death and abandonment. Just as the birds sing in the coming of spring, the endless stream of tourists coming slowly up the meandering drive have enable Longwood to be reborn after all this time. The past holds court with the present in this place. It’s a tedious waltz between two partners keeping in rhythm out of necessity because one cannot exist without the other.

We climbed the hillside back to the house and stopped off in the gift shop. Afterwards, we headed to the old servants quarters to grab a cold drink from the nearby machine. We found a few old rockers on the porch and sat down to cool off as the warm mid morning breeze promised the arrival of the heat of the day.

As we sipped our drinks, the leaves overhead constantly rustled, stepping in time with floating moss. It was a hauntingly beautiful duet. Keeping in time was the sound of thousands of bumble bees buzzing in the wind as it swept through the ancient arms of the oaks all around, causing them to crack and groan with their heavy burdens of bark and ivy.

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It was in this living symphony that we sat quietly…listening to the creak of the rockers with nothing but history keeping us company…

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