Natchez Charms Symposium Participants


In Review: Fall Symposium, 2014

Last month’s fall symposium, Natchez: Jewel of the Lower Mississippi, treated Trust members to a spectacular visit. Natchez, a quaint, charming town on the east bank of the Mississippi, retains a remarkable quantity and variety of historic structures, testifying to its economic heyday in the Antebellum period. Red carpets were unfurled as participants travelled between ten sites, many of them privately owned, over the course of four days.

Most of the houses visited were impressive time capsules of 19th-century taste, with furnishings, lighting fixtures, window treatments, and carpeting preserved for our delectation. Train lines, regional airports, and interstate highways never arrived, and Natchez’s relative inaccessibility has played an important role in the preservation of these houses, from the impossibly outlandish and unfinished octagonal suburban villa Longwood to the mixed-use William Johnson House, a downtown commercial and residential property owned by a free man of color.

Over the last 80 years, a series of organizations was created in Natchez to ensure the preservation and interpretation of the town’s architectural riches in perpetuity. The Pilgrimage Garden Club was established in the 1930s and spearheaded the biannual pilgrimage that continues unabated today. The organization also acquired two historic houses, Longwood and Stanton Hall, which the PGC’s staff administers and interprets.

The National Park Service’s Natchez Historical Site, and, most importantly, the Historic Natchez Foundation, were formed in the second half of the 20th century, complementing the PGC’s mission. These three groups maintain a unified purpose and support network that not only ensured the high caliber of our visit, but the ongoing vibrancy of the preservation effort in this important town. Regrettably, such collegiality and cooperation is not a given in historic communities around the country.

For nearly 40 years, Ron and Mimi Miller have lead the HNF’s mandate to ensure the salvation and maintenance of sites throughout Natchez and the surrounding region. Mimi set the stage with the Jonathan L. Fairbanks Lecture on the history and current initiatives of the local preservation movement and was constantly on hand to field questions about the sites and people, past and present, who created and conserved Natchez’s built environment. Among the HNF’s laudable projects is an ongoing effort to restore commercial structures in the downtown district, which will enhance the vibrancy of that urban community.

The Trust is indebted to the Millers for their prominent role in organizing an enjoyable, engaging, and eye-opening visit. While the heavily carved furnishings of the Victorian period were not to everyone’s taste, we all appreciated the privileged access to private homes especially those that have remained in family hands for generations. We had the great fortune of meeting many of the community members who are actively involved in keeping Natchez’s history alive.

Our speakers were tasked with placing the sites included in our itinerary in broader context, and they did not disappoint. From Jeff Mansell’s rollicking presentation on Natchezians’ participation in the Grand Tour to Mel Buchanan’s discussion of the New Orleans Museum of Art’s acquisition of an intact parlor suite for a 21st-century period room installation, we left with an indelible impression that the region’s cultural history is receiving its due.

At every turn participants benefitted from the wealth of information about the furnishings of Natchez houses gathered over the last three summers by representatives of the Classical Institute of the South. Caryne Eskridge, the CIS’s Project Director and Research Curator, was particularly keen to assist as the recipient of the Trust’s 2014–2015 Curatorial Internship Grant. She was joined by three additional CIS summer participants, including speakers Jackie Killian and Nick Powers, who shared new research on the importation of New York and Philadelphia furniture to Natchez.

The exceptional hospitality and excellent local cuisine imparted additional sheen to an already lustrous experience. The late addition of an optional dinner at The Elms, yet another historic house, and a pilgrimage led by Trust Vice President Ralph Harvard to the Pig Out Inn, a Natchez BBQ institution, added moments of conviviality to an itinerary already enlivened by enjoyable receptions at Glen Auburn and Bontura.

We hope all participants learned a great deal about this area of the Gulf South and its remarkable history, architecture, and material culture.


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