Let me begin by revealing something very personal about myself. Almost forty-five years ago I began a love affair which has lasted to this day and will continue until the last breath leaves my body. Now, if you're waiting for the name of a lovely lady you're going to be disappointed for the love affair of which I write is with the architecture of the antebellum South - those beautiful columned mansions which speak so eloquently of a time and place which will never be duplicated.
It was Keats who wrote "a thing of beauty is a joy forever". To me, nothing is more lovely than one of those majestic structures placed in a setting of splendid magnolias, spanish moss-draped oaks and multi-colored azaleas. This, of course, requires a rural setting. There are, however, many of these wonderful structures located in towns and cities throughout the Southland and this circumstance fails to create a dimunition of the beauty of these edifices.
My interest in antebellum architecture began when I was an undergraduate at Auburn University in the mid-1960's. One evening I was visiting with one of my professors, Frances McLeod, to have her check my progress on a research paper I was doing for her class. She excused herself to take a phone call and I began looking through the books on her coffee table. One was entitled ANTEBELLUM MANSIONS OF ALABAMA by Ralph Hammond. By the time Professor McLeod returned, I was thoroughly engrossed in the book and completely taken by the beauty of the houses pictured therein. The houses that most intrigued me and seemed the most grand were those of Greek Revival style. These, of course, were those magnificent columned structures reminiscent of the temples of ancient Greece. To me, the column added such a special dimension to the structure. Also, just so there is no confusion about the term "antebellum", the two words "ante" and "bellum" are Greek and mean "before the war" and the war that is referred to is the War for Southern Independence. Since that great conflict began in April of 1861, a house had to be built before that date to be antebellum. The beginning of the antebellum period of the Old South was between 1800 and 1810.
I realized that many of these structures were within easy driving distance of Auburn and I was soon spending free days driving to such out-of-the-way towns as Lowndesboro, Eutaw, Forkland, Boligee and Pleasant Hill. My Sigma Nu brothers thought I had lost my mind to get up at 7 AM on a Saturday morning and drive a hundred miles to photograph a couple of old houses, I understood, though.
By my senior year at Auburn, I had accumulated a nice library on the antebellum architecture of the South. My greatest desire was to photograph the beautiful mansions along the lower Mississippi River from Natchez, Mississippi to New Orleans. Upon graduation I took a job in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi and, thereafter, almost any free time I had was spent traveling between Baton Rouge and New Orleans on the east bank and from Donaldsonville to the suburbs of New Orleans on the west bank photographing the spectacular mansions of that part of the river. I also made exciting trips to Cajun country to photograph some beautiful homes in the vicinity of Bayou Lafourche and Bayou Teche.
I did not photograph Natchez during this time as my fiancee had made me promise I would not go to Natchez until she could go with me. I agreed and, true to my word, I did not go to Natchez until we spent the first three days of our honeymoon in that Old South city. We then traveled down the River Road visiting houses and ended up in the French Quarter for several days.
Since then I have traveled many miles to photograph more than a hundred beautiful antebellum homes and collect information about them. I cannot tell you how many times I have had my breath taken away by the first sight of one of these structures (and by return visits many years later).
I mention all of this because recently, in the space of just two weeks, it was brought home to me how many Southerners also love and appreciate these marvelous houses.
It all began with a phone call from an old friend, Jim Lear, who is commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans camp in Yulee, Florida. (Actually, the camp meets in Callahan because of a fine barbecue restaurant located there.) Jim wanted me to speak to his camp at one of their meetings (I usually speak to his camp once a year) but, rather than speaking about a Confederate hero or a particular battle, he requested that I present my powerpoint presentation on the antebellum mansions of the Old South. I was happy to agree and we decided on their camp meeting of Monday, September 21.
Commander Lear also asked if I could do the same presentation on Saturday, October 3 in St. Augustine at the state convention of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. This would be at their final evening banquet. I checked my calendar and found that I was free that weekend so I agreed.
It was a true pleasure to present to these two audiences a journey throughout the Deep South highlighting those wonderful mansions that I have long admired and loved. I was also very pleased with the reaction of each group to this aspect of our Southern heritage.
I also had a pleasant experience at our SCV camp meeting in Tallahassee on Monday evening, September 28. One of our members, Bob Beard, has just had published the second book in a series for young readers that he is writing. Bob is a retired professor and a talented writer plus being a very interesting and accomplished person. He has a bachelor's degree in physics from Georgia Tech, a master's from LSU and a doctorate from Michigan. He has taught at Princeton, Iowa, LSU and FSU among others. His books for young readers (ages 11-16) educate as well as entertain. In fact, I enjoyed the heck out of the copy that he gave to me but, then, I'm still pretty young at heart. One thing that especially pleased me about Bob's book was that he chose to place on the cover of the book a picture I had taken of a beautiful antebellum home in Natchez. What a pleasant surprise and honor.
Now, I would like to conclude this article by telling you where you can visit to see some of the most beautiful houses ever built. I would suggest that, if you do end up in these locales, visit the local Chamber of Commerce or Visitors Bureau and obtain brochures detailing where the local homes are located.
I will begin in the northeastern corner of Georgia and work south and west until ending up in Louisiana.
First, Athens, Georgia. Truly one of the pretty cities of the South. One street in Athens can give you a flavor of the glory of the Old South. Prince Avenue is virtually an avenue of white columns. Among these are the Ben Hill House (he was a member of the Confederate Congress and later the US Senate) which is now the home of the president of the University of Georgia, the Cobb House (Howell Cobb was a Confederate general and Georgia governor), the Lumpkin House, the Grady House and the Upson House (which is now a bank but you cannot tell from the outside).
Less than an hour southeast of Athens is "The Last Dreaming Town" of Washington in Wilkes County. Washington is a treasure trove of antebellum architecture with dozens of beautiful structures. Among these is the home of Confederate general Robert Augustus Toombs.
To the west and on Highway 441 is Madison, Georgia. It was rumored that Sherman declared that Madison was "too pretty to burn" but I have a hard time believing there were any redeeming qualities to that man. Madison truly is a beautiful town, though, with many fine antebellum homes.
Further south on 441 is Eatonton. Among the antebellum homes here is one where a ghost has been seen repeatedly over the years. Doesn't every fine old Southern home deserve a ghost?
South of Eatonton on 441 is Milledgeville, a former capital of Georgia. Among the many fine old homes here is Lockerly Hall, a handsome columned home surrounded by a beautiful arboretum containing thousands of varieties of plants.
Macon is a bit to the west of Milledgeville and the area on the hill overlooking downtown has some fine structures.
To the west of Macon near the Alabama line is LaGrange. There are several fine antebellum beauties here including an early home of Ben Hill.
If you're traveling to Nashville, be sure to stop along the way to visit in Maury County, Tennessee, This area has many beautiful homes and much Confederate history. Among the homes is Elm Springs, national headquarters of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which is just outside Columbia.
The Black Belt section of Alabama is home to a host of beautiful structures. Most of these are in small towns along Highway 80 which runs east to west through the state. Tuskegee, Lowndesboro, Selma and Demopolis are places to stop and a quick trip north of Demopolis to Eutaw and Greensboro is well worth the time. Don't miss Gaineswood in Demopolis. It is truly one of a kind and spectacular.
In northern Mississippi, Columbus has a number of quality homes with a rather distinctive type of Greek Revival architecture.
The "must see" location in Mississippi is Natchez located on the Mississippi in the southwest corner of the state. The grand mansions here are incredible and a reflection of the time when Natchez was one of the wealthiest cities in the entire South. D'Evereux, Dunleith, Stanton Hall, Melrose and many others will take your breath away.
South of Natchez on Highway 61 is St. Francisville, Louisiana in the Felicianas. Greenwood and Rosedown are the most spectacular of the many fine homes here.
South of Baton Rouge along the east bank River Road are some fabulous old homes. These are generally spaced apart in rural settings and include Ashland (or Belle Helene), L'Hermitage, Houmas and San Francisco. All spectacular.
On the west bank River Road between Donaldsonville and Edgard are magnificent Nottoway, Oak Alley, Felicity and Evergreen among others.
A bit to the west of the Mississippi River and along Bayou Lafourche between Donaldsonville and Thibodeaux you don't want to miss Belle Alliance, Madewood (the finest "temple style" antebellum mansion) and Rienzi and still further west in Cajun country you will find the splendor of Shadows-on-the-Teche and Oaklawn Manor.
I hope everyone reading this will plan a trip soon to visit and view some of these charming towns and magnificent houses. Sadly, many of the finest antebellum homes have been lost forever. We will never again see Forks of Cypress, Mt. Ida, Windsor, Belle Grove, Three Oaks, Uncle Sam, Woodlawn and others except in pictures. While I am thankful for the pictures of these wonderful structures, nothing compares to being there and being overwhelmed with the beauty and majesty of some of the finest hones ever built in this country. These structures still standing are a tribute to the grandeur of the Old South and the vision of those Southrons who came before us. A thing of beauty is, truly, a joy forever.
Bob Hurst is a Southern Patriot who belongs to a number of historical, heritage and ideological organizations. He has a special interest in Confederate history. He also serves as commander of Col. David Lang Camp, Sons of Confederate Veterans, in Tallahassee and 2nd Lt. Commander of the Florida Division, SCV. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-878-7010.