Saving Architectural Treasures of the Old South

In the film version of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, after Atlanta has been burned and Scarlett O’Hara is fleeing to Tara, there is a scene where she arrives at neighboring Twelve Oaks Plantation to find it burned by Yankee troops and in ruins. The mansion’s once-grand double staircase is open to the night sky, and a cow appears wandering around in a space that had been a formal hall.

Afraid that she will find the same destruction when she arrives at home, Scarlett is overjoyed when rolling clouds part and moonlight falls on Tara’s facade revealing that it has survived, albeit in shambles. In real life, a similar moonlight experience revealed that one of the South’s most important historic homes was in great distress and in need of saving.

While sailing down the Potomac River on a moonlit night in 1853, South Carolinian Louisa Byrd Cunningham caught a glimpse of George Washington’s beloved Mount Vernon in a great state of disrepair. The mansion’s impressive portico was sagging and missing two of its columns. A number of its shutters had rotted away or were hanging from broken hinges, and weeds and bramble covered the lawn.

At first, Cunningham thought that the moonlight was playing tricks on her eyes. She was soon made aware, however, that Mount Vernon’s dilapidated condition was real. Before she arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, Cunningham had begun writing letters to influential friends asking what should be done to help preserve one of the nation’s greatest historic treasures. Her daughter, Ann Pamela Cunningham, soon took up the reins of the cause and became a champion crusader in the effort to save the structure. [1]

The South Was Right! James Ronald Kennedy, ... Best Price: $7.78 Buy New $17.17 (as of 11:00 EDT - Details) Cunningham’s work eventually resulted in the creation of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association which ultimately acquired the property and preserved it for all time. From the very beginning, the goal of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association was more than solely restoring Washington’s plantation mansion. The desire was to make the plantation a place of scholarship dedicated to preserving both the architectural legacy of Mount Vernon and the political and military legacy of George Washington, while also opening the home and surrounding agricultural support structures to the public. [2]

The organization’s work at Mount Vernon was just the beginning of a long and illustrious preservation story that became the model for other efforts around the nation and the South. What Cunningham could never have imagined so long ago is that her passion for the past would launch a wave of similar projects in the late 19th century, and throughout the 20th century, that would become a full-scale movement of historic preservation across Dixie.

Inspired by the continuing work at Mount Vernon, private property owners, historical societies, and heritage organizations around the South began researching the histories of antebellum and colonial homes in their areas, and in turn began promoting and funding restoration and preservation projects that saved thousands of houses from ruin. Because the South’s plantation homes and related townhouses, both great and small, represent such a significant contribution to the nation’s architectural heritage, it is not surprising that they have been the focus of preservation efforts through the years. In fact, the South has often been the leader in historic preservation, and the properties that have been preserved across the region rank among the leading historical attractions in the nation.

Looking to Mount Vernon for inspiration, properties like Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage near Nashville, Tennessee, as well as many of the great houses of Natchez, Mississippi, in Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina, and thousands more homes from Maryland down to Texas, were restored giving the South a leading role in the historic preservation movement in this country. It takes no stretch of the imagination or deep academic training to see why the South’s great colonial and antebellum homes, many with sweeping staircases, columned porticos, and high ceilings, as well as more humble dwellings, have been desirable projects for preservation.

In reality, no greater symbol exists of the American South than a plantation house set amidst a fertile landscape of cultivated fields, pastures, and forests. Claiming near equal status with those dwellings are the townhouses of planter families built in the region’s trading centers and port cities.

Everything You Were Ta... Lochlainn Seabrook Best Price: $13.84 Buy New $13.99 (as of 07:30 EDT - Details) Such homes have long stood as icons of the South’s storied past, particularly of the era before the Civil War (1861-1865) when cotton, sugarcane, rice, indigo, and tobacco ruled the region’s agricultural-based economy and slaves worked the fields. More than a century and a half have now passed since these iconic dwellings were constructed, but the South’s colonial and antebellum houses continue to have a powerful hold on the imagination and mindset of millions of people.

They are simultaneously beloved and romanticized by millions, while despised by others; contradictions that arise because each home rests at the heart of a complex web of human relationships that have shaped the social and cultural heritage of the region for generations. While they were certainly made possible by an economic system that required the labor of slaves, the houses themselves, and the cluster of surviving outbuildings that often surround them, are no less landmarks of history. They are valuable links to the past that reveal much about the aspirations of long ago. Each one opens a window into a time that is very different from the present and provides a glimpse of an era that is only vaguely comprehendible today.

There is much to learn from studying the craftsmanship and architecture of each house and becoming familiar with the lives of the original owners. The history of the American South, however, was not shaped solely by such dwellings or the powerful and wealthy people who owned them.  A deeper understanding of the work and hardships that occurred within the shadow of their walls is crucial in forging a true appreciation of each dwelling’s significance as a symbol of a bygone era and an emblem of America’s architectural heritage. It is equally valuable to consider how the South’s plantation homes and their in-town counterparts have changed over time, and to recognize that far more houses of the planter class have been lost than have been preserved. Scores of those that remain stand in peril of complete loss if efforts are not made soon to protect them.

Still, while success stories were being written, tragic tales of loss continued. Even with the growing awareness of the importance of preservation in the 20th century, many rural plantation homes and the townhouses of planters continued to disappear from the landscape.

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