Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Windsor Ruins, Claiborne County, Mississippi

Historic American Buildings Survey, James Butters, Photographer. Mar, 20, 1936. FRONT VIEW (WEST ELEVATION)
Image via the Library of Congress

Most of what was once the largest ante-bellum home in Mississippi is gone. "Windsor," a magnificent Greco-Roman Revival structure of three stories, topped by a cupola-ed hipped roof, was the casualty of a spectacular fire on February 17th, 1890; this disaster was supposedly caused by a careless guest who tossed a cigar into debris left by workmen doing repairs on an upper floor. The inner wooden construction coupled with the rural location meant that little survived except the encircling colonnade.

Yet, year after year, numerous visitors from near and far journey to rural Claiborne County, to see what is left: 23 of 29 stucco-covered brick Corinthian columns with cast-iron capitals, on tall bases, now-silent shafts which originally surrounded the L-shaped structure. Hollywood has also made the pilgrimage to these enigmatic ruins, and memorable scenes from both "Raintree County"(1957) and "Ghosts of Mississippi(1996) were filmed here.

(Some of the cast-iron balcony railings and an original stairway of the same material--probably one of four--were given by the family to nearby Alcorn State University where they decorate the exterior of the handsome Greek Revival Chapel.)

"Windsor" was built for wealthy planter Smith Coffee Daniel II and his family between 1859-1861; it was one of many large houses in the neighborhood, most now gone, that reflected the flush times there on the eve of the Civil War. Alas, Daniel died shortly after the structure was completed, but his relatives weathered the vicissitudes of the War, and lived in the house in greatly reduced circumstances until the fire. In 1974, the remaining family members donated the site to the State of Mississippi.

The exact appearance of "Windsor" is uncertain, since all family papers were destroyed in the conflagration; on the other hand, the creation of fantasy reconstruction views by both Mississippians and others has been a recognized activity since the fire! Historians and architectural aficionados were rewarded in the early 1990's by the discovery in Ohio of a Civil War era sketch made by a passing Yankee soldier, and this very amateurish view confirmed the general suppositions; needless to say, that impression has fueled other visual fantasies!

The building--presumably accompanied by various dependencies, all now destroyed-- has been attributed to the local contractor David Shroder( the documented designer of nearby "Rosswood", similarly neoclassical, but much simpler), and its rather conservative plan was remarkable mainly for its massive scale. The ground floor held service spaces, the first and second floors were living- and bedrooms, and there were additional rooms in the attic-- stories of both a ballroom and a fishpond there are completely ridiculous, however! The wing extending to the east held the kitchen, a dining room and pantry, and bedrooms. The size of the house would imply that the cupola was spacious, and Confederate soldiers were said to have used this spot as an observation post. The Mississippi River is nearby, but it is not visible from the house today.

"Windsor"'s ruins, now and in the past, continue to draw artists and photographers seeking to capture its haunting beauty; ironically, the "gone-with-the-wind" atmosphere is actually the result of an event that happened much later! Pre-1890 photographs have yet to surface--and one would suppose that they exist, presently unrecognized--but some of the most famous post-fire views are featured here. Enjoy!

Many thanks to historian and native Mississippian, Ed Polk Douglas, who greatly contributed to the research and writing of this post. Mr. Douglas is the author of "Architecture in Claiborne County, Mississippi" (Jackson MS, 1974) and lives in Lyons, NY.

"The Enigma (Windsor Plantation, near Port Gibson, Mississippi)", 1941. Clarence John Laughlin, photographer
Image via Carrie Haddad Photography

"Valentine Windsor", 1998. Sally Mann, photographer
Via Gagosian Gallery

"Windsor Ruins", Jack Spencer, photographer
Image via jackspencer.com

The Ruins of Windsor, ca. 1935
 by Eudora Welty (American, 1909-2001)
Image via the Gibbes Museum, Charleston, SC

Untitled, Windsor Ruins, Mississippi, early 1980s. William Eggleston, photographer.
Image via The Paris Review