A history of the J.W. Cutrer House in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
by Ashley Steenson
For the 1951 film directed by Elia Kazan, Southern playwright Tennessee Williams was forced to add a happy ending to his 1947 play “A Streetcar Named Desire.” As the Hays Code mandated self-censorship of films through the 1960s, Williams was accustomed to the censorship of his plays, which often depicted characters who were seen as morally corrupt at the time. Though Williams set “A Streetcar Named Desire” in New Orleans, memories of the Mississippi Delta pervade the story through his most well-known and controversial character Blanche DuBois.
Made famous by British actress Vivien Leigh’s portrayal of her in the film, Blanche DuBois yearned for her ancestral home throughout the play. At one point in the story, she explains to her sister Stella, “But you are the one that abandoned Belle Reve, not I! I stayed and fought for it, bled for it, almost died for it!” As a model for the house, Williams used the Cutrer Mansion or Belvoir, French for “beautiful view,” in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
Thomas Lanier Williams III visited Belvoir many times on parish visits with his grandfather, a local reverend. Born in Columbus, Mississippi, in 1911, Williams returned to the state from Nashville a few years later to live with his grandfather in Clarksdale. Williams lived in the Delta for only a short period, but the region’s influence on his work is lasting and clear. The Delta inspired names and places in “The Glass Menagerie” (1944), “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1947), “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1955), and “Orpheus Descending” (1958).
The mansion that would serve as inspiration for Belle Reve was the home of lawyer, politician and plantation owner John Wesley “Jack” Cutrer and his wife Blanche Clark Cutrer. Blanche Clark was the educated daughter of Clarksdale’s founder, who attended Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, the first of the elite women’s colleges known as “The Seven Sisters.” Renowned for her intelligence and beauty, she inspired the name for Blanche DuBois’ character.
Jack Cutrer was widely known throughout Mississippi. Cutrer’s family originally came to the American South from France, and his father Isaac Wesley Cutrer was born in Louisiana. He then left Covington for Osyka, Mississippi, where Jack Cutrer was born in 1864. As a young lawyer, he represented Coahoma County in the Constitutional Convention of 1890, one of many from the time period that disenfranchised black Southerners. To put it lightly, Cutrer had a reputation for cutthroat politics. The same year, Jack Cutrer shot and killed newspaper owner Freeland Chew in broad daylight for insinuating that he had black ancestors. He was never indicted.
In addition to his politics, Cutrer had a reputation for the luxurious parties that he threw with his wife Blanche during the later years of the Progressive era and the 1920s. The family held French dinners in Italian gardens that were inspired by Blanche’s travels (and possibly by Jack’s heritage), in addition to opulent masked balls and private performances by jazz artist W.C. Handy.
Built by Memphis Architect Bayard Cairns in 1916 in the style of an Italian Renaissance villa, Belvoir was also renowned for its architectural beauty. Cairns studied at Columbia University in New York and the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, specifically under the acclaimed French Architect Jean-Louis Pascal. Along with French artists like Auguste Rodin and Edgar Degas, American architects like Richard Morris Hunt (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1902) were also educated at the École.
The combination of historical style with modern technology was the defining trademark of Beaux-Arts architecture, which reached its height in the U.S. during the late 19th century and Progressive Era. As Southern critic John Trotwood Moore wrote in 1923, Cairns’ designs were “characterized by their happy combination of beauty and strength.” Beaux-Arts features can be seen throughout the Cutrer Mansion, specifically in its tiled roof, classical ornamentation and arched windows, as well as in the commanding façade of the structure.
Like Frank Lloyd Wright and other influential architects of the time, Bayard Cairns took the time to train young designers. A 1922 ad for his Memphis Atelier emphasizes Beaux-Arts architects’ commitment to education and history: “The plan is for those who wish to follow the course of The Beaux-Arts Institute of Design … It is planned also to make measured drawings of some of the old buildings, which are fast disappearing without record, much to the loss of the art of architecture.”
In addition to using expensive materials for the outside of the structure, the Cutrers spared no cost for Belvoir’s interiors. They were designed by Charles Duveen, the British decorator behind lavish estates like Coe Hall, near Theodore Roosevelt’s home on Long Island. As both an interior designer and antique dealer, Duveen introduced the Elizabethan style to the U.S. in the early 20th century. He often used dark furniture, wood-paneled walls, oriental rugs and deep red fabrics in keeping with the European style. According to his 1940 New York Times obituary, Duveen’s clients included publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst and Clara Bryant Ford, wife of Henry Ford.
Unfortunately, the mansion’s future was up for debate just a decade later. Jack and Blanche Cutrer both died in the 1930s, leaving Belvoir to family. They later sold it to a local church, St. Elizabeth’s. The church scheduled the home for demolition in the late 1990s, but a group of locals stepped in to save it with help from Delta State University and other donors. The Cutrer Mansion is now on the campus of Coahoma County Higher Education Center and owned by Coahoma Community College.
As for Tennessee Williams, he wrote prolifically up until his death in 1983 and left behind over 70 plays. Despite the fact that he constantly traveled, spending large swaths of time in Key West and Europe, Williams never forgot the Mississippi Delta. In “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Blanche DuBois imagined Belle Reve as representative of the life that she had lost. About his plays, Williams explained that “out of a regret for a South that no longer exists … I write of the forces that have destroyed it.” Like his characters, for better or worse, Williams could never seem to escape the past.
Ashley Steenson is currently a history Ph.D. student at the University of Alabama and primarily writes about politics.