Exploring Books

Finding the Lost Mansions

By Mary Carroll Miller | Photography courtesy of Mary Carroll Miller and misspreservation.com

If you love old homes, Lost Mansions will capture your imagination about Mississippi’s long-forgotten architectural treasures.

It all began with a simple set of steps.
Greenwood’s Grand Boulevard, a mile-long, oak-shaded tribute to the best of Southern architecture, had just a few vacant lots when I was a child. One of those lots held a wide, sturdy brace of curved concrete steps, maybe four or five in all, leading to nothing but open air. No house, no foundation, nothing but the fading memory of a long-gone house. And I was fascinated by them. I would beg my mother to park the car and let me climb up on the steps and try to recreate the house in my mind. She described it as huge and white and lovely, lost in a fire many years before I was born.
The sheer loneliness of those steps haunted me, for goodness-only-knows-what reason. But they also inspired a deep curiosity about architectural ghosts. Not the kind of ghosts that send you fleeing from a cobwebbed old mansion or tickle your spine in a graveyard, but the enduring essence, if you will, that remains after a much-loved house disappears. I’ve stood in a forest, deep in the southwestern corner of Mississippi, and marveled that some of those trees were actually two-story brick columns, still topped with iron capitals, silently guarding the abandoned site of a pioneer family’s dreams. I’ve trudged through muddy pastures, dodging cow patties and briars and snakes, to find the bits of bricks and clumps of mortar that mark where once a truly wondrous house stood, before it was deemed out-of-date and bulldozed into oblivion.
I have had the rare privilege, fueled by an insatiable fascination with “lost” buildings and an unhealthy lack of restraint, of exploring most of the towns and many of the back roads of Mississippi, always in search of what once was and is no more. My discoveries and the desire to share these forgotten treasures with others led me to write a short magazine article in 1992, which caught the attention of editors at University Press of Mississippi, and we began discussions about a book-length treatment of the subject. After I submitted a list of more than 100 historically and architecturally significant antebellum houses, they gave the green light to the project and Lost Mansions of Mississippi was published in 1996. That book included 59 houses, ranging from well-known sites like Windsor, Concord and Homewood to long-forgotten places such as Clifton, Magnolia Vale and Annandale. The first print run for the book sold out in less than three months and its success led to Lost Landmarks of Mississippi (2002) and Lost Mansions of Mississippi Volume II (2010).

Each of these books required several years of research, writing and editing. Whenever possible, I went to the sites where the houses or buildings were once located, searching for any trace of their existence. Those that vanished a century or more ago were usually impossible to locate with certainty. But on rare occasions, I would come across a line of bricks, marking a foundation, or the remains of an outbuilding or a mound of rubble over the spot where a house collapsed in flames or workmen leveled an old structure. Each story felt like a way of hanging on to a tiny bit of Mississippi history, preserving it for future generations.
I’m often asked which is my “favorite” house. That’s tough, as each one has a way of capturing the imagination. But there are a few stories which are so poignant or outrageous that they stick with me even after all these years.
I find Windy Hill Manor in Natchez especially memorable, both for its historic significance and its tragic decline. It was an elegant Federal-style house on Liberty Road, built by Benijah Osmun in the early 1800s. Aaron Burr stayed there briefly during his flight from justice after killing Alexander Hamilton. The home passed down through a series of families over the next 150 years and was last home to three spinster sisters. Refusing to accept help in their state of genteel poverty, Misses Maude, Beatrice and Elizabeth would not leave the house even as it slowly collapsed around them. When a room would cave in, they would simply lock the door and refuse visitors entrance to that wing of the house.
After the last sister died in the 1940s, Windy Hill sat forlorn for two decades. I interviewed the cabinet maker who dismantled the house in 1965. He described his futile attempts to pull the 150-year-old spiral staircase down with a cable hooked to his truck, leading him to take it apart piece by piece. He pushed the last remains of the house into a bayou with a backhoe. When I asked him if he would take me to the site, he sheepishly admitted that it was now so overgrown that he could find no trace that it ever existed.
Those kinds of stories will break your heart if you love old homes. But if they spark someone to preserve and restore even one endangered house, it’s all worthwhile.

Read More in DeSoto Magazine online.