Re-opening of Confederate president’s home a post-Katrina success story

McClatchy Newspapers
Posted on Fri, May. 30, 2008

In the history of Hurricane Katrina recovery, Beauvoir is a Humpty Dumpty "back together again" story getting national attention.

The restored 1852 National Historic Landmark reopens Tuesday with a public celebration and tours for the first time since the 2005 storm destroyed all but the house on the beachfront estate where Jefferson Davis spent his retirement.

Lovers of architecture and history, tourists, Davis family members and Mississippi Gulf Coast and state VIPs will attend the morning celebration, timed to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Davis’ birth.

Music, food, re-enactors in period clothing and speeches from people involved in the monumental restoration await those who attend. After Tuesday the house will be open for paid tours and fundraising begins in earnest to bring back other historical components of the Beauvoir estate vital to the Coast’s heritage tourism.

Before Katrina, Beauvoir attracted more visitors to Mississippi than any other house museum, said Ken P’Pool of the Mississippi Department of Archives & History.

"In the days right after Katrina, literally hundreds of calls and e-mails came to us from across Mississippi and the nation seeking information about Beauvoir’s condition, with the same sense of urgency in which they sought information about the safety of friends and loved ones," said P’Pool.

"To many Gulf Coast residents, the Beauvoir house and museum represent a rich cultural heritage being slowly erased with each hurricane. Economically, properties like Beauvoir are also very important. Despite the recreational opportunities offered to tourists, surveys demonstrate that it is still our history and culture that attracts more visitors to Mississippi than anything else."

Beauvoir is owned by the Mississippi Sons of Confederate Veterans, which bought the house from the Davis family in 1902. First it was a home for Confederate veterans, and then a museum to the life and times of Davis, a respected U.S. statesman who became Confederate president.

"Heritage tourism is growing and heritage travelers tend to stay longer and spend more money," said Richard Forester, executive director of the Mississippi Coast Convention & Visitors Center.

"So the fact we are able to reopen this very historic place, especially as we approach the sesquicentennial of the War Between the States, means Beauvoir will play a key role in marketing the historic legacy of our community."

Preservationists say Beauvoir is the most heavily damaged national landmark by Katrina, here or elsewhere. Beauvoir is also a Mississippi Landmark, and both designations made it eligible for historic-preservation money totaling $3.9 million.

"With that horrendous hurricane image of Beauvoir, you couldn’t help but wonder if it would ever look the same," said Richard Forte Sr., who chairs Beauvoir’s boards of trustees and directors. "I thought I knew I a lot about Beauvoir, being on the board 28 years, but I now have a Ph.D. in restoration. The public will be amazed on Tuesday."

Among national media that have interviewed the Beauvoir staff are PBS, Southern Living, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and The Associated Press, said Forte, and some will be there for the reopening.

In addition to an open invitation, Beauvoir has invited groups long involved in its preservation and promotion, such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy. A large stone memorial arch the Daughters of the Confederacy donated in the 1920s was leveled by a casino barge, which some think saved the house from the barge’s assault.

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