The Lovely Bones

Arguably the most famous and iconic plantation ruin in the South, twenty-three pillars are all that remain of Windsor, a home so grandiose in its heyday that Mississippi steamboat captains used it as a landmark. It’s haunting under any circumstances, more so when glimpsed through a dense morning fog, emerging as a series of vertical phantoms which slowly morph into great columns supporting only thin air. The evocative stone skeleton holds a preponderant sense of time lost and forgotten and, with minimal surrender, conjures images of what was. Indeed, no one knew what Windsor actually looked like until an accidental discovery late in the last century.

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Located below Port Gibson, Mississippi, Windsor was begun in 1859 and finished two years later. On a monumental scale rivaling Louisiana’s Belle Grove (see “Requiem for a Queen,” April, 2014), it was the centerpiece of a 2600-acre plantation owned by cotton king, Smith Coffee Daniell II. He engaged architect David Shroder to supervise an army of artisans from as far away as Europe, and augmented the work of carpenters and masons with slave labor. The house was encased by fluted columns forty-feet-tall, their height increased ten feet by ensconcing them on brick plinths, and a domed, glassed-in cupola, reaching seventy feet into the sky, was literally the mansion’s crowning glory. Small wonder that the place was visible from the Mississippi River four miles away! Windsor’s Corinthian capitals, cast-iron balustrades and two staircases were created in St. Louis and shipped downriver to the building site. The house ultimately boasted 17,000 square feet of living space in twenty-four rooms, each with its own fireplace. In addition to nine bedrooms, there were two parlors, a library, study, doctor’s office, schoolroom, and, wildly innovative for the time, two indoor bathrooms with water supplied by attic tanks. The interior was equally lavish with furniture and artworks brought from Philadelphia, New Orleans and France.

Eva Marie Saint, Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor filming “Raintree County” at Windsor in 1957.

Sadly, Daniell died at thirty-four only a few weeks after moving into his fabled dream home. With the nation at war, the property was promptly commandeered by Confederate troops only to be lost to Union forces two years later. While the family was allowed to live on the top floor, Windsor’s signature cupola was used as an observation platform, and the downstairs doubled as a Yankee hospital which likely saved the house from destruction. What it did not survive, however, was a cigarette carelessly dropped on February 17, 1890, igniting building materials and creating a blaze that gutted the entire structure.

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An 1863 sketch of how Windsor may have looked.

With Windsor’s original plans lost, time eventually erased everyone who knew what the house looked like. That changed in 1992 when an examination of the personal papers of Union officer Henry Otis Dwight, believed to have bivouacked on the plantation grounds in 1863, unearthed a revealing sketch. The discovery prompted a more elaborate and detailed rendering, but one that’s also a matter of conjecture.

A more elaborate rendering of how Windsor may have appeared.

An elaborate re-imagining of Windsor in its glory days.

Some wish that the drawing had never been found, and that Windsor had been allowed to keep her secrets. Regardless of how you choose to view this grand enigma, its twenty-three lonely sentinels endure to remind us of grandeur forever lost and of a lavish way of life which, in the words of New Orleans writer Harnett Kane, “devoured itself from within.”

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My novel, Still Time, the first in a time travel series, is set in 1861 Louisiana.

 

 

3 Comments

  1. Scott
    May 7, 2015

    What a majestically haunting image amidst all that modern arboreal growth. A skyward projection of heavenly times once lived, then sapped and exsiccated by the passage of time. What a great subject for a drone outfitted with an HD video camera, gyro-stabilized to fly among the columns, then rise above shooting a sweeping view of the landscape all around. Cool stuff! Thanks again! Enjoy your posts, always.

  2. Liz
    May 13, 2015

    Once again I thank you for bringing a piece of history to life. Your photo selections are wonderful, too!

  3. Robert Lowe
    Mar 25, 2016

    A treasure as a young boy growing up! The imagination and dreams I enjoyed so often. And even more of a treasure being grown…and, of course, Elizabeth Taylor!

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