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The South’s combination of architectural preservation with genealogy and with the documentation of human toil has often resulted in a much richer testament of the past and a more balanced view of the region’s history…

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]

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 in 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.

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.

Like nearly all historic structures, despite their often commanding appearance, the South’s plantation houses and companion in-town residences have proven to be fragile relics of history that have been vulnerable to dramatic change and ruin since they were first inhabited. Time, tragedy, neglect, and decay have taken a significant toll on them. Only a small percentage of the planter homes that were constructed in the 18th and 19th centuries are still standing. Many of those that do survive exist in surroundings which are dramatically different from their original settings.

For every pre-Civil War residence that has survived in the South, there are dozens that have been lost. In 1861, when slavery had reached its zenith in the United States, approximately 46,275 plantations existed across the South.[3] While not all of those estates were anchored by a grand or substantial home, the majority did boast a residence that conveyed the position and wealth of the owner. Current estimates suggest that less than 6,000 antebellum plantation houses still survive in the entire South. A much smaller number of authentic pre-Civil War townhouses built and used by planter families remain standing today.[4]

An early culprit responsible for the loss of  many southern colonial and antebellum dwellings was the Civil War itself; a conflict deeply rooted in opposing views of states’ rights, slavery, and growing territorial animosities that brought an end to the plantation society of the Old South. Numerous stories survive that tell of marauding Yankee soldiers laying waste to plantation houses with fire and sword, while carrying away as many material treasures and food as their saddlebags could hold. It is unlikely that those perpetrators, swept up in the heat of battle or the powerful emotions that spawned individual acts of revenge, considered the long-lasting effect of the destruction; never realizing that their actions were robbing future generations of important pieces of history that had been meticulously crafted of wood, brick, and stone.

After the South’s defeat new enemies emerged. With the loss of unpaid labor, fortunes fell and widespread poverty reigned in the South well into the 20th century, making it difficult for plantation owners to keep or maintain their aging homes. Even when some owners were determined to survive and hold onto their estates, they often found themselves overwhelmed with economic realities that undermined their intentions.  Then when cotton prices plummeted during economic recessions and the boll weevil swept over the land in the early 20th century, a significant number of families who had weathered the Civil War, Reconstruction, and its aftermath found themselves finally beaten by events beyond their control.

As older generations died away, younger family members often found the responsibility of maintaining ancestral plantations and townhouses too daunting a task to undertake. Many simply moved away allowing their family homes to fall into ruins. Fields that once produced bountiful crops were left untended and many rural estates were soon reclaimed by the forests and swamps that surrounded them. Thousands of plantation homes eventually succumbed to the elements and were lost to the rot, decay, and termites that resulted from neglect and abandonment. Others fell victim to fires ignited by lightning, accidents, or arson, as well as floods, storms, and others acts of nature.

After the Civil War, as the South transitioned from a primarily agrarian society to a more diversified manufacturing economy, many plantation properties were dismantled to make way for industrial, commercial, or residential development. In the 20th century scores of antebellum homes were razed or burned in the name of progress when the land upon which they had stood for many years was claimed for a new purpose. Today, the only evidence that remains of many former plantation estates are their names on street signs and historical markers. At the same time, lots that once held the magnificent townhouses of planter families are too often the sites of parking lots, hotels, and office buildings.

Despite all the seismic changes that have rattled the South through the years some homes have survived. Several have been saved by owners with deep sentimental attachments or an abiding knowledge of the historical importance of their ancestral home. Other owners have held onto their houses out of necessity because they could not afford to leave their antiquated dwelling.  On occasion, the houses that remain were saved in the eleventh hour by groups of dedicated individuals, preservation groups, and historical societies determined not to let significant pieces of history slip away without a fight. In a number of cases, historic homes have found a champion in corporations or charitable foundations that provided the necessary funds to rescue and preserve them for the future. The efforts to save and preserve many properties were often as dramatic and remarkable as the houses themselves.

Early preservation efforts in the South, and across the nation, primarily focused on saving the homes of significant historic figures, or the structures where important historical events occurred. Over time, however, numerous preservation initiatives evolved to save structures valued for their architectural or cultural significance, regardless of their association with important people. Homes from modest log cabins to the most magnificent mansions began to be preserved. Preservation success stories and the excitement each project generated began to inspire other efforts all over the country.

The antebellum houses that survive across the South are among the last vestiges of a period of history symbolized by their very existence. They belong not only to ancestral owners and new buyers of historic properties who actually live in their historic dwellings, but also corporate and nonprofit owners that manage their former private homes as museums.

Despite overwhelming obstacles, many owners have been able to preserve their homes and often put them in better shape than they have been in for decades. Some of the featured dwellings have been opened to the public as a way to produce much-needed revenue for repairs and to pay property or inheritance taxes. Other homes are currently involved in extensive restoration projects and the final outcome of those projects is yet to be seen.

Collectively, the individuals and organizations associated with each home featured in this book have identified a myriad of reasons why they have chosen to preserve their own special piece of the past. At the same time they have also echoed a common theme and a shared belief. They recognize that their historic residences could not be authentically replicated today, and that it is worthy of preservation because it stands as a tangible reminder of this country’s incredible architectural and cultural heritage.

Beyond the physical survival of each historic home the question remains, however, as to how these dwellings, their material possessions, and their history will be viewed in the future.  In his book, Look Away: Reality and Sentiment in Southern Art, historian Estill Curtis Pennington discusses some of the forces that seem poised to erode many of the long-held traditions of the South. He identifies the plantation mansion as an important symbol of the colonial and antebellum periods, and relates how powerful that symbol continues to be in the modern age. He delves into the symbols, songs, and literature of the South to draw conclusions about what the future may hold for the region’s history.

Deeply rooted in the South’s own perception of itself, and “central to the lyrics of the old minstrel song ‘Dixie’ is the passionate longing for old times not forgotten,” writes Pennington. “Without regard to what those days may have meant or what they still mean to each individual, those lyrics sound the central theme of all things Southern: the past continues to exert a strong influence upon the present, because Southerners do not forget. Indeed, they yearn to remember, to recall, and to reflect.” In that longing is the key to survival, Pennington believes.[5]

Pennington further relates that the South’s penchant for remembrance and nostalgia successfully weaves together the often paradoxical elements of reality and sentiment. The truth of how things were in the past and how we now imagine them to have been are magnetically joined by a force that makes separating the two virtually impossible.  He contends that even at this time in the history of the United States, when great social changes have placed so many new road signs on the cultural terrain, the South is still imagined as a place where there is a near religious love of the land and where the structures of the past stand as sentinels guarding the region’s history.

“There is no question that the South is changing,” says historian and educator Chumley Cope, of Spartanburg, South Carolina. “But, I think the respect and sheer fascination that many Southerners have for their homeland will ensure that the greatest symbols of our plantation heritage will survive well into the future. The venerable plantation houses and in-town planter homes that survive are valuable pieces of that heritage and should be preserved at all cost.”[6]

Saving the South’s architectural gems has, in many cases, resulted in more than the preservation of physical structures. It has also evolved into preserving and recording the stories of families living in those homes, as well as the legacy of those laboring for the owner. The combination of architectural preservation with genealogy and with the documentation of human toil has often resulted in a much richer testament of the past and a more balanced view of the region’s history.

Significantly, the efforts and investment made toward restoration have often resulted in an economic boost to local economies, as well as to increased tax revenue. Beyond those benefits, many people see the importance of preserving the architectural treasures of the Old South solely in relation to what it means to the history of each surrounding community and to the families related to each historic site.

“The history of each Southern plantation is a living heritage,” says Ted Alexander, regional director of Preservation North Carolina, one of the South’s leading non-profit organizations dedicated to promoting the preservation and restoration of historic homes. “While common themes and stories are interwoven through the history of plantations from the middle Atlantic states through the deep South, each one has its own personality and its own unique character. No other region of the United States can claim such cultural diversity and architectural splendor as the South. For every plantation house, or in-town planter residence that is restored a little more our collective history is preserved for future generations. And that is something that we should all treasure.”[7]

Republished with gracious permission from Abbeville Institute (July 2018).

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Notes:

[1] More Than Petticoats: Remarkable South Carolina Women, by Lee Davis Perry, The Globe Pequot Press, 2009 (pp. 33-43).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Delta Sugar: Louisiana’s Vanishing Plantation Landscape, by John B. Rehder, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999 (p. 53).

[4] Lost Plantations of the South, by Marc Matrana, University Press of Mississippi, 2009 (p. xi).

[5] Look Away: Reality and Sentiment in Southern Art, by Estill Curtis Pennington, Saraland Press, 1989.

[6] Personal interview, May 14, 2009.

[7] Personal interview, June 10, 2014.

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