Jefferson Davis’ last home took a direct hit from Hurricane Katrina, but the grand old mansion is proving to be as much a survivor as its former master.
On November 18, 1875, an elderly gentleman with an angular face, pale eyes and a short gray beard directed his horse-and-buggy toward the home of his longtime friend Sarah Dorsey. She was away at the time, but the gentleman was instantly impressed by the elaborate design of the grand mansion before him. Located on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, the Dorsey house was named Beauvoir (French for “beautiful view”) and seemed ideally suited for the Gulf of Mexico’s balmy climate. A wide frescoed central hall, floor-length windows and a columned, wraparound porch allowed for natural ventilation of the structure. Orange trees, magnolias and stately oaks accented the landscape. As Jefferson Davis, the former president of the Confederacy, brought the buggy to a halt, he thought: A place like this would be ideal for retirement. One hundred and thirty years later, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Beauvoir’s executive director, Patrick Hotard, would be shocked when he saw the devastation dealt to the historic structure—a national treasure.
Sarah and Samuel Dorsey were a unique couple. Samuel, a wealthy cotton planter, purchased Beauvoir in 1873, but died two years later. Sarah was well educated, a rarity for women in the late 19th century, and the author of six novels. Aware of Davis’ interest in writing his memoirs, she offered him the privacy of a cottage on her property for $50 a month. Agents were employed to gather Confederate archives from various sources, including those held by the U.S. War Department. Sarah and later Davis’ wife, Varina Howell Davis, took dictation. Twenty-year-old Jefferson Davis Jr. took up residence at the cottage to help out. Beauvoir became a vibrant complex dedicated to the former president’s project. Completed in four years, the final product was the two-volume chronicle The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government.
Tragedy struck before the work was completed, however, when Jefferson Davis Jr. died of yellow fever in Memphis. “The last of my four sons has left me,” Davis lamented. “I am crushed under such heavy and repeated blows.” Of six children, only his two daughters, Varina Anne (called “Winnie”) and Margaret, would survive him.
In 1879 Davis agreed to purchase Beauvoir for $5,500, to be paid in three installments, but before he made his first payment, Sarah Dorsey died of breast cancer. She left her entire estate to Davis. A true friend to the last, he personally accompanied her casket to Natchez, Miss., for burial.
After publishing his memoirs, Davis spent most of his final days at Beauvoir. He enjoyed walks with his dog Traveler and, when his health permitted, attending events related to the Confederacy he had once governed. Davis especially enjoyed speaking to young Southerners, frequently encouraging them to “lay aside all rancor, all bitter sectional feelings, and to make your places in the ranks of those who will bring about a consummation devoutly to be wished—a reunited country.” He died at 81 and was buried at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Va.
Varina Davis sold Beauvoir in 1902. The Mississippi Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans purchased the home for $10,000, with the stipulation that it would become a Confederate soldiers’ home and a lasting shrine to the memory of Jefferson Davis. Beauvoir was named a National Historic Landmark in 1973.
In 1998 the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library was built next door. It hosts an extensive collection of artifacts, books and records on Southern history, the Confederacy and Davis’ life.
In late August 2005, as Hurricane Katrina bore down on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, the state’s National Guard was activated and a mandatory evacuation was ordered for residents. Hotard raced to fortify Beauvoir. Thick plywood was placed over the doors and windows, and sandbags were laid in front of the doorways for added protection. Hotard and his staff then headed upstate. But Katrina’s powerful winds and a 24-foot tidal surge led to a disastrous homecoming.
The destruction staggered the hardiest of Gulf Coast natives. Many residents, suddenly homeless, would have to endure conditions much like those their ancestors faced when they returned home 140 years earlier after the Civil War. Ninety percent of the structures within a half-mile of the coast were destroyed, with 236 people killed and 77 declared missing. Vegetation was uprooted and replaced with sand, mud and flotsam. To make matters worse, the surge carried two casino barges ashore, turning them into floating bulldozers. A number of historical sites, including the noted Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art (less than a mile from Beauvoir), were flattened. “We have lost nearly 300 buildings on the National Register,” said Ken P’Pool, director of Mississippi’s Historic Preservation Division. “The loss of historical fabric is enormous. Places like this are priceless. You cannot rebuild history.”
Beauvoir had survived 21 hurricanes, but Katrina almost wiped it off the map. “The storm was truly a monster,” Hotard said. “My mouth was just hanging open, because I just couldn’t believe it.” Most of Beauvoir was still standing, but the front gallery had been demolished along with the roof above it. The rear gallery had collapsed into a heap. Fortunately, because Beauvoir was built on 9-foot-high brick columns, only 12 inches of floodwater had passed through the house. Those 12 inches, however, damaged the furniture, soaked paintings that had fallen to the floor, and led to a spattering of mold on the walls.
The outlying buildings fared worse. The Library Pavilion, the cottage where Davis penned his memoirs, was now nothing more than two sets of stairs and a vacant lot. The Hayes Pavilion, the gift shop, a Confederate museum and the director’s residence were also leveled. A Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer would become the director’s new residence.
The tidal surge gutted the first floor of the presidential library. Symbolically, a large statue of Davis was the only fixture not washed away. The floodwaters carried out several priceless first floor artifacts, including Davis’ Mexican War saddle, funeral catafalque and death mask, and Varina’s mourning dress. The library’s second floor, which included the most valuable of the Davis artifacts, received minimal damage. “It was looking its best in 50 years,” Hotard said. “Now I feel like we are even before square one. I’ve been working here six years, and you get attached to a place. It’s trying on the emotions. It is one of the last great old houses of the South.”
Larry Albert, a local architect and specialist in historic restoration, had performed restoration work on Beauvoir and designed the presidential library. Now he would have to rebuild both of them. “I came here September 9 after the storm. Everything was brown, and debris was everywhere,” Albert recalled. “I stood out there and cried. This house is more special to me than my own, which had lost a roof. It took me a while to be able to check the piers and realize it could be saved.”
Fortunately, during his previous restoration work there, Albert had had extensive drawings produced of the house. Those drawings would provide a blueprint for Beauvoir’s post-Katrina restoration.
After the shock wore off, the first task was to assess the damage and stabilize what was left. Structural engineers and construction workers from nearby Hattiesburg examined the house and added platform supports to prevent further ceiling damage. Fans were used to dry the walls and reduce mold damage. Lumber and bricks strewn about the grounds were carefully gathered and placed into piles. “You stabilize, then try to document everything that is wrong,” Albert said. “Then you fix what’s wrong.”
Beauvoir will receive top priority in the reconstruction planning; the outlying buildings and the presidential library will be rebuilt in later phases. It is widely hoped that work on the house will be completed by June 2008, in time to commemorate Davis’ 200th birthday.
Retrieving all the lost artifacts is virtually impossible. Artifacts were washed across a 52-acre area and half-buried in the mud. “Thirty-five percent of Beauvoir’s collection was lost,” said Richard Flowers, Beauvoir’s curator. “We’re very pleased to have recovered what we have, but there are some major items and documents that we have lost and fear we’ll never find.” A security guard now watches over the grounds on a 24-hour basis.
According to Jack Elliott, an archaeologist with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, three methods were used to retrieve artifacts. The first was a simple walking inspection. The second involved carefully examining debris as it was removed by heavy equipment (a damaged lap desk that once belonged to Davis was found by a backhoe operator). The third method required using rakes and screens to filter out dirt and expose smaller artifacts. Debris removal and artifact retrieval mostly had to be done by hand, requiring countless volunteers, including a mix of church members and students from Central Michigan University, Minnesota’s St. Olaf College, the University of Georgia and Mississippi State University. Also helping were members of tourist organizations such as Hands on USA and Tourism Cares, and Confederate Heritage organizations such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy, in addition to National Guard units, the Boy Scouts of America and disaster relief organizations. Even members of the Canadian Navy arrived to lend a hand.
When an item was found, the next objective was to determine whether it was indeed an artifact. Souvenir Confederate coins from the gift shop wreckage were difficult to discern from authentic coins carried out by the surge. Thousands of broken shards from period dishware, the gift shop’s souvenir dishware and dishes from nearby homes were all mixed together.
Artifacts were gathered and sorted by the degree of damage. The presidential library’s first floor, the only site with a full roof remaining, served as the gathering point. Flowers, a former Army medic, photographed and catalogued the pieces as they were brought in. Because of a lack of storage space, the artifacts were shipped upstate to Jackson. They are now stored in six climate-controlled self-storage units to await further conservation work. A $400,000 grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation provided transportation, lodging and supplies for experienced conservators from the University of Delaware and Winterthur Museum. Hotard said it was “a godsend to have a facility of that caliber essentially adopt us. We’re just pleased beyond measure.”
Professor Debra Norris of the University of Delaware is leading the overall conservation program. Catherine Williams, of Austin, Texas–based Silver Lining Art Conservation, arrived in March 2006 to coordinate the conservation team. For Williams’ contingent, rescuing the artifacts from mud and salt water corrosion was the first major hurdle. Textiles, furniture and weapons had to be cleaned. Provided they were still intact, textile artifacts such as uniforms were rinsed off on window screens to allow the water to drain. In severe cases, they were soaked in plastic toddler pools, then spread out to dry. Fiberglass insulation strands that had become imbedded in some fabrics had to be carefully picked out. Tattered clothing, such as Varina Davis’ mourning dress, will be pieced together and sewed onto a fabric surface for future display. “Ornate clothing, such as a dress, is difficult to handle because it is three-dimensional,” Williams said. “It is not like a flag, which can be placed on a flat surface.” A $40,000 Americana Grant will cover the conservation of the mourning dress, as well as Jefferson Davis’ cloak and a dress worn by Winnie Davis.
Light cleaning solutions with no detergents or oils have been used on furniture to prevent any stripping of their original finish. Small filtered vacuum cleaners were used on dry surfaces to remove flood residue. Broken furniture will have missing parts glued back on or replaced with handcrafted replica parts. All of the original material that still exists is retained; only the missing parts will be replicated. Missing veneer is being replaced with cut-to-fit pieces.
“Chloride corrosion (rust) from saltwater doesn’t stabilize,” Williams said. “It’s more damaging than corrosion from freshwater.” Corrosion on metal surfaces, such as swords, is removed by nylon scouring pads to prevent scratching. After the rust is removed, the metal weaponry is heated with hot air guns. A thin layer of protective wax is then applied to the heated surface.
Among the broken china pieces, a set that once belonged to General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson is being repaired first. Shards are cleaned of iron stains using an acid solution, then glued together like a jigsaw puzzle. Gaps are filled in with dental plastic to form molds. Plaster is poured into those molds, then sanded to a smooth surface after drying.
Paintings provide the biggest hurdle. Among the most seriously damaged are portraits of Jefferson Davis and his daughter Winnie, both of which were submerged in seawater and battered in the storm surge. The paintings are first cleaned with deionized water to remove salt and debris. Cotton swabs are used to carefully remove the previous protective varnish, which is now discolored by floodwaters. Through the use of stereo-microscopes, the paintings are carefully examined for cracks which are filled with water-soluble putty before a new coat of varnish is applied. Any missing paint areas are filled in with restoration paint. None of the remaining original paint is covered over. The process is time consuming because of the need to match original colors and remove any past repair work.
This past spring, new steel and concrete piers were installed to replace the original brick foundation piers (19 of 26 piers were damaged). Each pier will have a brick facade, using the original bricks to conceal the concrete. With a stable and stronger foundation, the porch can now be repaired. According to Flowers: “Only 65 percent of the porch’s wood was recovered. The rest will have to be cut from cypress trees.” The interior ceiling, decorated with hand-painted frescoes, is going through a stabilization process to preserve the plaster. Roughly $10 million will be needed for the full restoration. Donations and grants, including a $25,000 check from Donald Trump, will fund most of the work.
Starting with the foundation, Beauvoir will be restored from the bottom up,” P’Pool said. “We are moving as quickly as possible. Because of the massive destruction along the coast, the countless repair demands and the time needed to do the job correctly, there is no set timetable for completion.”
After being restored, Beauvoir will serve as an education center and a memorial to the Confederacy’s only president. Beauvoir board member Bertram Hayes-Davis, a great-great-grandson of Jefferson Davis, said: “We want visitors to take away two impressions from Beauvoir: That it was the final home of Jefferson Davis, a West Point graduate, Mississippi congressman, senator from Mississippi, secretary of war and a genuine hero of the war with Mexico. In addition, he was a family man and devoted husband. These forgotten facts are little known and defined Davis as a true American patriot.”
For further information or to make a donation for Beauvoir’s restoration, please write: Beauvoir, 2244 Beach Blvd., Biloxi, MS 39531, or visit www.beauvoir.org. Additional information on the project is available at the Gulf Coast Recovery Project site: www.ischool.utexas.edu/~cochinea/gulf coastrecovery/home.html.
Originally published in the August 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.