Caretakers vow Jefferson Davis’ cottage will rise again
Wednesday, September 07, 2005
BY SULEMAN DIN
BILOXI, Miss. — Beauvoir, the seaside retirement estate of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, stood for more than 150 years as a great example of Southern architecture and antebellum lifestyle.
With lawns shaded by tall oaks, cedars and magnolias, Davis’ cottage was simple in design but elegant in detail. A tapered staircase led to the center of its extensive wrap-around porch. The front door was cut glass, the windows covered by louvred green shutters. The building was painted bright white with green trim.
Just nine months ago, the historical society that maintains the grounds finished repainting Beauvoir’s numerous chimneys and shutters, reattaching the shutter frames, and installing a lift in the back for disabled visitors.
"It was looking its best in 50 years," said Patrick Hotard, the historical director of the house, a state and national landmark operated by the Mississippi Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. "Now I feel like we are even before square one. I’ve been working here six years, and you get attached to a place. It’s very trying on the emotions. It is one of the last great old houses of the South."
Early reports out of Biloxi said the cottage, which houses Davis family furniture, art, and archival items such as letters and artifacts, had been leveled, but Richard V. Forte, chairman of the Sons, was happy to paraphrase Mark Twain, noting such reports of Beauvoir’s demise were greatly exaggerated.
"I am confident that it will be rebuilt," Forte said. "It’s just a matter of cleanup and restoration."
The winds and storm surge of Hurricane Katrina did damage the home heavily: The porchline and front steps are entirely gone, part of the roof is torn away, windows are smashed, and the back portion is crumbling. Floodwaters water pushed many of its artifacts out into the mud, where some of them were stolen.
Other buildings on the 52-acre site fared worse. The war veterans hospital next to Beauvoir, which had been converted into a museum, was flattened, along with two matching pavilions that stood in front of it. A marble monument that framed the brick walkway to the home was broken. The Jefferson Davis Presidential Library, built for $4.5 million in 1998, had its first floor washed out.
Davis holds the distinction of being the only president of the Confederacy, but the West Point graduate was also known as a hero in the Mexican War of 1847. He was a congressman and senator, and was secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce.
He was captured by Union soldiers in 1865 and jailed for two years. He moved to Beauvoir in 1877 and lived the last years of his life there, writing his memoirs. He died in 1889.
Beauvoir — French for "beautiful view" — had been built in 1851 and went through the Civil War unscathed. But Hurricane Camille damaged the home extensively in 1969. Forte said the cottage’s raised design is what saved it from being washed away then, and now.
"They knew what they were doing back then," Forte said. "The way they built that cottage, it lets the water and air go right under it."
Still, the place is a wreck, and Forte and Hotard had no estimate on the cost of repairs.
"It’s going to be very substantial," Hotard said.
Forte said that because Beauvoir is a historical landmark, there will be grants available for reconstruction. Private donations also will be solicited, he said. The Friends of Beauvoir have set up a fund for those wanting to help reconstruction efforts.
Architectural experts have been brought in to examine the building and see what can be recovered.
Many valuable pieces inside the home, such as portraits of Davis and his family, are still intact, Hotard said.
The hospital museum, now in rubble, housed a priceless collection of military artifacts from Confederate soldiers, including uniforms and weaponry, and much of that was stolen when the walls came down.
Forte said that the historical society has provided a list of missing items to eBay, so that if any appear for sale, they can be confiscated and returned.
"There is a market for these items," he said. "That’s just an unfortunate human trait, and I don’t understand that why someone would steal from a home, especially this one."
To prevent further theft, the grounds are now guarded by Beauvoir’s own security people and the army.
Bertram Hayes Davis, the great-great-grandson of Jefferson Davis, said the family is relieved that enough of the structure remains for restoration efforts.
But right now, he said, the family is more concerned for the people in Biloxi and along the Gulf Coast who have lost their homes and their loved ones. It’s what Jefferson Davis would have felt, he said.
"He would have put the needs of others first," Davis said. "The home can be reconstructed. Beauvoir will be a part of the Gulf Coast for hundreds of years to come."