The same ancient oaks that sheltered Jefferson Davis from the Mississippi Coast heat provided shade to the estimated 1,200 people who came on a sweltering Tuesday morning for the reopening of his hurricane-restored Beauvoir.
The incongruity of people and sounds was obvious - women in hooped skirts, men in Confederate gray and cannon fire contrasted with moms in shorts pushing 21st century strollers and loud road repair machines. It would give Davis pause if he were to miraculously return on his 200th birthday, but he'd feel right at home. The house looks as it did when he left in 1889 and died in New Orleans.
Katrina destroyed all the buildings on the beachfront estate except the National Historic Landmark that was battered and lost its trademark galleries. The 1852 house appeared inflexible to the untrained eye, but $3.9 million in government preservation funds proved that wrong.
"Beauvoir is an example of our bold recovery from Katrina," said Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, the first speaker. "It is a symbol of rebirth and new reflection on disasters of historic proportions.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
"Katrina brought us together. Samaritans from all over came to our Mississippi Gulf Coast, not to battle but to help Mississippi... When generations hence ask what day did we become one, it is today."
Those who came for Beauvoir's reopening, timed for Davis' 200th with birthday cake provided, learned he was much more than Confederate president. Several speakers pointed out his roles as a respected U.S. senator, congressman, U.S. secretary of war, and Mexican War hero whose words at the Battle of Buena Vista, "Stand fast, Mississippians!," were repeated by Larry McCluney as a rally for Beauvoir's storm revival.
McCluney is commander of Mississippi Division, Sons of the Confederate Veterans, which bought Beauvoir in 1903 from family. At this beachfront estate, Davis penned "The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government," and although the library cottage where he wrote is gone, work is under way for a replacement in Beauvoir's mission to reflect Davis' life and times.
Tuesday was a day of history remembered and history made. The raised Greek Revival was built by Madison planter James Brown, whose great-great-granddaughter from Port Gibson was there to marvel at what she and others label "an architectural jewel" and a Phoenix symbol of Coast recovery.
The curious public mingled with Beauvoir staff, preservationists, Southern heritage groups, workmen, volunteers and local/state/federal VIPs instrumental in reviving the house. They also met 16 modern Davises, who sang "Happy Birthday" to their famous descendant while standing in front of his house.
"If the same storm were to come now," observed Larry Albert, Beauvoir's principal restoration architect who reinforced original brick supports, "I believe we'd see 90 percent less damage than we did with Katrina."