Casino Deutschland

The Last Hurrah

longwood

Longwood endures as an unrealized fantasy.

Glimpsed through trees draped with spectral moss, Longwood looms like an exotic mirage. As audacious as it is unexpected, this is the doomed fantasy of scientist/planter Dr. Haller Nutt who dared ignore the gathering clouds of civil war and began construction of this extraordinary house in that fateful year, 1860. (Little wonder that his neighbors nicknamed the mansion “Nutt’s Folly.”) Wildly wealthy from Mississippi and Louisiana plantations, Dr. Nutt decided to build a new home near Natchez for his wife Julia and their eight children. With Greek Revival architecture fallen from fashion, he found inspiration in a design book by celebrated Philadelphia architect Samuel Sloan. What captured Nutt’s fancy was a pattern called “Oriental Villa,” a three-story octagonal structure festooned with minarets and “surmounted by a magnificent Persian dome,” a solarium and an observatory. He dispensed with the minarets, but his “summer retreat” would include 32 rooms with 26 fireplaces and over 30,000 square feet of living space enclosed by walls 27” thick.

Sloan's_Oriental_Villa

Longwood’s inspiration was architect Samuel Sloan’s flamboyant Oriental Villa.

The interior of Longwood was no less imaginative. A central court reaching from foyer to rotunda was designed to supply ventilation, while strategically placed mirrors would flood the vast space with reflected light. Inner rooms surrounding the open court would open to outer rooms with balconies for more light and air. The sprawling basement would include a schoolroom and playroom for the children, a billiard room, wine cellar, smoking room and offices. Destiny, however, would dictate the space be used for something altogether different.

lwfp2

Sloan’s octagonal floor plan was as functional as it was inventive.

Employing unlimited slave labor, Dr. Nutt watched with satisfaction as Longwood rose with astonishing speed and galleries with elegant filigree woodwork were installed. Pennsylvania brick masons were imported to polish the lavish interior. A staunch Unionist and outspoken opponent of secession, Nutt prayed that war would be averted, but hopes for peace—and the completion of Longwood—crumbled when South Carolina broke away in December, 1860. Worst fears deepening, Dr. Nutt urged his labor force to work faster, but when President Lincoln called for troops after the April, 1861, firing on Fort Sumter, the desperate gamble was lost. With his northern workmen eager to enlist in the Union army, Nutt had no choice but to pay them and send them on their way..

6063139146_9e6581b13f

Exterior detailing was window dressing for an unfinished shell.

Resigned to an unfinished house, Dr. Nutt had his slaves board up dozens of windows and doors on the upper floors and complete the eight rooms in the basement. The family of ten moved into these damp, dim quarters which author Harnett Kane described as “living in the tomb of one’s hopes.” Dr. Nutt hoped to simply wait out the war, but his misfortunes were only beginning. First Confederate, then Union forces torched his stored cotton and ravaged his fields. With his plantations in total ruin, Nutt kept detailed records of assets destroyed by the Union army so he could seek reparations after the war, but pneumonia and, some say, a broken heart killed him in 1864 at age 48.

The Nutt family managed as best they could in dank quarters never designed for full-time living.

The Nutt family managed as best they could in dank quarters never designed for full-time living.

As war raged on, Julia offered Longwood for use as a Union hospital. Her courageous struggle to feed her family, which continued long after Appomattox, is revealed in a poignant letter in which she wrote, “Tomorrow, I am to part with my last cow to get bread for my children.” Reaffirming her husband’s Union sympathies and using his meticulous records, Julia filed a lawsuit for over a million dollars in damages with the Commission of Southern Claims in Washington. She died in 1897 with the suit still in limbo, and another thirty years passed before her family received only a fourth of that amount. Her descendants held on to Longwood until 1968 when they sold it to Kelly McAdams who donated the property to the Pilgrimage Garden Club two years later. The grateful organization bought an additional 87 acres and opened the house to the public. Designated a National Landmark in 1971 and beautifully maintained, it remains the largest octagonal house in America and attracts visitors from around the world.

jqg_1323438624

The raw dome is a memorial to unrealized dreams.

Visiting Longwood is a somewhat surreal experience. Standing alone in the empty, cavernous interior and looking up into the tangle of cypress lumber beneath that “magnificent Persian dome,” I remembered something in Clarence John Laughlin’s seminal photography book, Ghosts Along the Mississippi. “The plantation system,” he wrote, “devoured itself from within.” I cannot think of a more fitting epitaph for Longwood.

Longwood is featured in my book, The Goat Castle Murder.

Goat Castle Murder

 

3 Comments

  1. Sallie Batson
    Jun 17, 2016

    Fascinating, Michael. I had forgotten that Mrs. Nutt had given it to the Union Army to use as a hospital. I’m sure that spared it from total destruction. Your love of history and architecture are a gift.

  2. Ciji Ware
    Jun 17, 2016

    Longwood seemed jinxed from the first brick! Looking forward to see how the house figures in GOAT CASTLE MURDER…

  3. Liz
    Jun 21, 2016

    “…living in the tomb of one’s hopes…” pretty much says it all. I am eternally grateful, Michael, for your generous sharing of these amazing places and people we would never know unless you brought them to our attention. Bravo!

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *