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Davis’ ‘beautiful view’ restored
A recent trip to Biloxi, Miss., permits one to happily report that Jefferson Davis’ home, Beauvoir, has returned to its former self after suffering severe damage from Hurricane Katrina three years ago.
Although most post-Katrina media attention focused on New Orleans, the Gulf Coast of Mississippi also was hard hit. Small towns such as Pass Christian and Waveland were virtually destroyed. And Beauvoir took a direct hit, being just across the highway from the Gulf.
Davis, the only president of the Confederate States of America, received the home as a gift from an old friend, Sarah Dorsey, and moved into one of the wood and stucco outbuildings formerly used as a school and office after the war.
While Davis’ wife, Varina, was not anxious to move to Beauvoir, eventually she acceded to Davis’ wishes and joined him there to help him write his memoirs. He insisted on paying a token monthly rent of $50 to Dorsey, and upon her death the home was left to him in her will.
It is a Greek revival house whose strength of construction comes from its cypress wood along with long-leaf heart pine. The original roof was slate imported from Wales.
In the years since Katrina, workers, volunteers and $4 million in repairs have left the main house (the name means “beautiful view”) and front grounds looking much like they used to. Work is beginning on the new library, which was destroyed, water reaching almost to the second story, where the books and many other artifacts were located. Only about 20 percent of the contents could be found or saved.
The large green shutters on the windows only partially protected them, and a firm specializing in accurate renovation of antique properties has reproduced many of the glass panes, bubbles and ripples included. The original wooden window frames and mullions remain; only the glass was replaced.
The front door has been replaced, with its two long glass panels bearing an acid-etched design that looks like lace curtains in the glass.
The interior of the house has been meticulously restored.
After painstakingly removing several layers of paint on the beautiful entry hall ceiling and walls - it was done in the trompe l’oeil technique favored at the time - restorers were able to match the paint exactly.
The broad white pine flooring took care of itself. A guide reported that it is so hard that a nail has to be put in with a drill.
Although none of the Davis family’s furniture was in the home, authentic replacements have been found. It became a relaxing place for Davis to work on his memoir, “The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government,” completed shortly before his death.
The living room, parlor with its “coffin box” piano, and even the two dining rooms (one for children, one for the adults) now appear as they once did, complete with lovely Flow Blue china, a favorite among antique lovers, sitting on the table.
The building behind the main house, which contained the kitchen, was destroyed by fire some time ago. Kitchens of the era were frequently located away from the main house to lessen the danger from fire. The Sons of Confederate Veterans, which oversees the house, hopes to be able to replace the kitchen eventually.
The backyard once was filled with barracks to accommodate Confederate veterans, their wives or widows, their orphans and servants who lived there (they were referred to as “inmates”) from 1903 until 1956. In that time,the retirement home cared for some 1,800 individuals, about 900 of whom are buried in the nearby cemetery. Those buildings had already been demolished. The grave of Molly the Mule, a mascot and work animal during the veterans’ home years, is nearby.
The large, round 500-gallon wooden and brick cistern with its tall green conical roof has been rebuilt and looks quite good, an interesting touch to the home built in 1852. This allowed it to have a secondary water supply from rain caught on the roof.
The Davises’ bedroom and that of their youngest child, Winnie, who was born during the war, are perfect, and even the front porch looks as though one could sit in one of the rockers and look out over the now peaceful Gulf of Mexico.
The child’s bedroom, complete with dolls in a doll bed, looks as realistic as ever. The United Daughters of the Confederacy raised funds several years ago to restore Winnie’s doll, as well as a skiff belonging to Davis, named the Barbeshela. Apparently he enjoyed puttering around the Gulf waters in it. “Barbeshela” comes from a Choctaw Indian word, and is used in lower Mississippi to indicate a friend.
Behind the house, what had been Varina Davis’ rose garden remains barren, although plans are afoot to begin planting the one-acre plot with the hundred or so varieties of roses she formerly had. The fountain is gone, although her large white sundial is still there.
Farther on down the path, the old cemetery remains. Its 800 graves appear untouched, although some of the smaller markers have been destroyed by large tree roots. In the middle of it is the beautiful Unknown Confederate Soldier’s Grave and marker, pristinely white and also untouched. The United Daughters of the Confederacy recently placed a memorial wreath there, and the Sons of Confederate Veterans does the same at numerous times during the year.
Behind the cemetery lie some large white marble slabs, the remnants of the original tall arch that stood at the front of the house near the road, broken and scattered after of being struck by a storm-tossed river barge. Seeing that pile, it becomes easier to visualize the force of the winds that day in 2004.
The wooden latticework under the porch around the house built in the “raised cottage” style of Caribbean homes, through which water was supposed to flow in case of a bad storm, has been restored, and looks much as it did when the Davis family lived there.
The small office and gift shop were destroyed, and those facilities are now housed in a trailer, in one room of which the 15-minute story ofBeauvoirand Davis’ life runs on a large-screen TV in a continuous loop.
The appeal of the beautiful old home of the only president of the Confederacy appears universal. A lady in the hall at one of the nearby casino hotels mentioned to this writer how glad she was to see the house restored, adding that she is from Minnesota but comes to Biloxi to spend the winters and enjoys seeing Beauvoir.
Varina Davis eventually gave the home to the Sons of Confederate Veterans with the provision that it be used as a home for veterans and ultimately a place to preserve the president’s life and legacy. That group has worked tirelessly to see that her wishes are carried out. The restoration is evidence of that.
In a conversation last week with this writer, Davis’ great-great grandson, Bert Hayes-Davis, expressed relief that the restoration had gone as well as it has, and that his ancestor’s home can again be one of the outstanding attractions in the Biloxi-Gulfport area.
• Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor to America at War. she is a member of the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table and the United Daughters of the Confederacy..
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