By Cheré Coen | Photography courtesy of University Press of Mississippi
Since the 19th century, the South has played a leading role in the historic preservation movement in this country. A new book celebrates restoration and preservation success stories throughout the South.
Robin S. Lattimore teaches high school history in North Carolina and has long been a fan of historians Michael W. Kitchens and Marc R. Matrana. When Lattimore contacted them to express how much he enjoyed their books, they returned the compliment.
“We are all independent historians,” Lattimore explains. “Because of that we were familiar with each other’s works. We collected each other’s books.”
The trio eventually collaborated on a book that spotlighted the architectural beauty of Southern plantations, with Lattimore covering the “Upper South” of the Carolinas, Virginia and north Georgia and Matrana tackling Louisiana and Mississippi. But that left a hole in the middle. Kitchen’s work filled in the gap, when he wrote about homes in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky.
The result is the gorgeous coffee table book “Southern Splendor: Saving Architectural Treasures of the Old South,” published by the University Press of Mississippi.
“We struck up a friendship that turned into a collaboration,” Lattimore says.
Highlighting what remains
In 1860, at the height of the antebellum South, there were approximately 46,000 plantations, buildings that ranged from magnificent structures to modest homes. Most, however, sported clear evidence of the owner’s wealth and social standing.
Today, there are fewer than 6,000 antebellum homes remaining in the South.
There are many reasons for the decline of these homes, Lattimore says, including damage in the Civil War, failure to pay taxes and upkeep after the war’s conclusion, the poverty and neglect of the owners, and the plantations’ isolation from cities and commerce.
“Some people in the South walked away and wanted something else,” he explains.
The types of Southern plantations differed greatly from Virginia to Texas, from Kentucky to the Gulf Coast. Lattimore loves the High Style, Greek Revival architecture of Middle Tennessee, with “the classic red brick and white columns.” But he’s equally fascinated by the River Road plantations outside of New Orleans with their Creole architecture.
Homes in the Carolinas and Virginia date back to early colonial times, offering Federal and Georgian architecture; some of the Mississippi plantations, such as the Hollywood Plantation near Greenville, have unique stories and have been used in film and television.
“There’s something for everyone,” he said.
The authors examined 1,000 Southern homes for this tome, eliminating those they deemed not as architectural significant or had already received adequate attention. The book includes plantations with interesting back stories, those popular with the individual authors, and “properties that don’t get exposure or haven’t been written about,” he says.
Examples include the enormous and elegant Houmas House in Louisiana as well as Louisiana’s Laura and Whitney plantations, which tell stories from slaves’ perspectives. Mississippi sites range from Natchez’s Ellicott Hill where the American flag was first raised when the U.S. took possession of Spanish lands at Natchez and east of the Mississippi to Beauvoir in Biloxi, the final home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
The book is divided into state sections, with a history of each house complemented by 275 photographs from Jacques Levet Jr., Danny Bourque and Lesley Bush, among others. The authors included archival information and owners’ histories, the latter giving “a wonderful voice to the property,” Lattimore said.
The authors compiled “Southern Splendor” to share Southern architecture with a broader audience, believing that grand plantations remain a Southern icon. They do recognize, however, the feelings these homes conjure, a representation of an economy based on slavery.
“As cultural historians, we are aware that these houses sit in a complex social web,” Lattimore says. “I think it’s important to have interpretation of the slavery component, but I also think it’s important to talk about the owners.”
African Americans were also instrumental in creating these homes.
“The goal of the book is to celebrate restoration and preservation success stories accomplished by a diverse group of individuals, heritage organizations, foundations, and corporations, and to inspire similar projects in the future,” the authors write in the book’s final notes. “It has also been the goal of each author to highlight and celebrate the collective contributions of both white and black Southerners to the architectural history of the region in relation to its plantation heritage.”
Above all, the authors hope the book inspires further preservation of historic Southern homes. Otherwise, Lattimore believes, significant properties will be lost.