A Beautiful View at Beauvoir
The home of Jefferson Davis continues its restoration and demonstrates the resilient character of a landmark in a hurricane town.
While in Biloxi, Mississippi, earlier this summer, I visited Beauvoir — the last home of the only President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. I was impressed with how the estate mirrors the Southern mind and the grounds reflect cultural preservation that signals progress in an area nearly destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
A wealthy planter named James Brown built Beauvoir in 1852. The Brown family resided in the home until the Civil War made it too dangerous to stay. After the death of Brown, the property changed hands, and Sarah Dorsey became the second owner of the estate in 1873. She gave Beauvoir its name.
Davis visited Dorsey at the estate a few times in the 1870s and enjoyed the serenity it provided as a writer’s retreat. Dorsey invited Davis to stay and write his memoirs, and so Davis moved to Beauvoir in 1877 to begin writing. Two years later, Dorsey died of cancer but willed Beauvoir to Davis.
While I walked onto the grounds of the Beauvoir estate in the shadows of 250-year-old oaks, it was hard to believe that it took nearly $15 million dollars and seven years to restore Davis’s last home and the unofficial Presidential Library to its current state. Hurricane Katrina tore through the grounds, demolishing the main house’s porch and filling the home
with a foot of water. The completed restoration of the Beauvoir house in 2008 allowed the national historic site to once again be open to the public. In June, Beauvoir held a dedication ceremony for its Presidential Library.
Although the library hasn’t officially reopened, a dedication was held on Davis’s 205th birthday. The structure that housed many historical documents, including original construction records of the House and Senate, is currently rebuilding its collection. The original library, owned and operated by the Mississippi Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, had its entire first floor washed away in Katrina.
Though the building was only seven years old and structurally sound, after Katrina FEMA declared part of it to be in a flood zone, which meant the entire building had to be taken down. The new library was rebuilt 130 feet from the original site, and the 24,500-square-foot space also includes a museum, theater and a gift shop that are open to the public.
Beauvoir’s original Confederate museum was also destroyed by Katrina. Jerry Olague, a tour guide on the property for the past 13 years, laments over the loss of nearly 40 percent of the museum’s artifacts, but says items are coming in from all over the country to replenish the collection. One of the newest acquisitions is a desk used for the signing of surrender documents at the end of the Civil War. “After the signing, General George Armstrong Custard helped himself to the desk,” says Olague. It has since been given to the Army and then donated to Beauvoir.
The guided, half-hour tour takes visitors through the main house that cost just over $4 million to restore. The restoration included importing Welsh slate for the roof, repairing etched glass from Italy, cataloging and repurposing cypress and pine found on the property and using period piece wood when possible. Color analyst George Ford catalogued 100 colors that were used in the original intricate painting throughout the house, and the actual painting of the main house’s interior took two specialists 13 months to complete. (The couple painted seven days a week from sun up to sun down.)
After touring the house, visitors can take a self-guided tour through the estate. A walk through the recently completed recreation of Varina’s Rose Garden leads to the Confederate Soldiers Home Cemetery. Notable grave sites to look for include Samuel Emory Davis, Davis’s father and Revolutionary war veteran, Prentiss Ingraham, writer of the Buffalo Bill dime novels, and the Tomb of the Unknown Confederate Soldier, a boy estimated to be only 15 years old. From 1903 to 1957, Beauvoir served as a Confederate Veterans Home to nearly 1,800 veterans and their wives. Almost half of those that resided at the home were buried on the property.
French for “beautiful view,” Beauvoir has been the name of the grounds since 1873. Before the estate was named Beauvoir, it was known as Orange Grove for the Satsuma oranges that grew on the property. While the view is still beautiful, the scenery has changed a great deal since Davis’s day. A manmade beach that stretches 26 miles along the coast and a divided four-lane highway now provides a very different view.
As I toured the grounds, Davis’s own words echoed in my mind, both in a historical context as well as a modern reading of cultural preservation and progression: “The past is dead; let it bury its dead, its hopes and aspirations.”
I find the tabula rasa view that comes from living in a hurricane town, of being able to accept that sand and Gulf waters can take what they want refreshing, because creating or recreating is an opportunity. Some destruction in a town like Biloxi is expected and maybe even welcomed.
Watch a short documentary about Jefferson Davis, Beauvoir and Hurricane Katrina here.
|Address||2244 Beach Blvd., Biloxi, Mississippi|
|Admission||Adults – $9.00 Seniors/Military – $7.50 Children 6-18 – $5.00 Children Under 6 – Free|
|Hours||9 a.m.-5 p.m.|
|Days||7 days a week|
|Tours||Every half-hour beginning at 9:30 a.m.|