Battered Beauvoir

Twenty-five days after Hurricane Katrina, Rita threatened the Mississippi Coast but did not make a direct hit as volunteers continued to salvage what was left of historic Beauvoir. When Rita created an extremely low tide, Jay Peterson spotted something suspicious from his Beauvoir guard booth.

He grabbed the binoculars and realized he'd hit pay dirt for a museum that had lost many artifacts on Aug. 29, 2005. He walked into the Mississippi Sound and retrieved the desk chair that Jefferson Davis had used as a Mississippi senator in Washington. A few barnacles were already attached.

Forty percent of Beauvoir's artifacts were lost in Katrina, and more than half of what was recovered can't be conserved in pristine condition. Some of those items will become part of a permanent Katrina damage exhibit to the Biloxi estate dedicated to the life and times of Jefferson Davis.

Whether the chair will join those items or reclaim a proud spot elsewhere is unknown as conservators study it.

"It's random and unreal what happened during Katrina, what was damaged, what wasn't," said Richard Flowers, Beauvoir's conservator. "Some Davis china survived without a scratch, yet silverware was bent like an accordion."

For months after Katrina, volunteers and the small staff combed Beauvoir's 51 acres for artifacts. Conservators, many of them volunteers from across the country, continue to help. When Beauvoir House reopens, about half of the original furniture will be back and more will come.

A 24-foot surge washed across the estate, but only 8 to 12 inches of surge entered the 1852 Beauvoir House. The floor is 23 feet above sea level and that height and construction techniques are credited with saving the National Historic Landmark.

Wind ripped off the distinctive front gallery, its steps and roof cover, which also caused damage to interior walls. Eight-foot-tall piers were washed out and the back porch collapsed.

Looks were deceiving. Architect Randy McCaffery, construction administrator for the restoration, estimates only 25 percent of the structure was lost, some of it caused by modern additions such as ground-level rooms. The use of Old World techniques with modern knowhow has brought Beauvoir House back to life. The bill: $3.9 million.

"Katrina gave us a chance to study how Beauvoir was built, how they put curves in the walls, how they joined lumber," Flowers said. "We're now going to have a construction exhibit."

What can't be fixed are the two cottages on the front lawn. In one, Davis wrote "The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government" in the late 1870s. Replicas of both cottages are under construction for about $800,000.

America's worst natural disaster also smashed the Confederate Soldiers Museum, built in the 1920s as a hospital for Confederate veterans living there. The brick building housed the gift shop, artifacts from Beauvoir's Old Soldier's Home period and the Civil War. Among lost artifacts is $300,000 in Confederate currency destroyed by water in the collection vault.

A replica soldier's barracks was claimed by the storm, as was the Beauvoir director's home, a smaller replica of Davis' plantation home in Warren County.

The only other structure still standing was the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library, opened in 1997 as a research center and museum to Davis' life and times.

Many valuable artifacts were on the first floor washed through by the surge. Among the losses is a giant First National flag that flew over the Spotsylvania Hotel in Richmond, Va. Some guns, swords and other artifacts can be conserved and much of the research on the second floor was untouched.

Although the library could be repaired, it sits in a new FEMA flood zone. A $12.5 million raised presidential library will be constructed farther back to consolidate museums, gift shop and research center.

Another storm of a human kind swirled around Beauvoir in Katrina's aftermath and concerned ownership of the estate bought in 1902 by the Mississippi Division, United Sons of Confederate Veterans.

The lawsuit centered around a power play between national SCV members who joined with a few Mississippians to take ownership away from the Mississippi SCV. It was difficult for the public to sort out charges of corporation vs. membership ownership, racism and who claimed what, but in July 2006 a Hinds County circuit judge settled it by ruling in favor of the membership of the Mississippi Division and the two Beauvoir boards that have overseen the house for more than a century.

"We were fortunate there wasn't another storm because the lawsuit delayed proper stabilization of the house," said Flowers.

In March 2007, the restoration contract for Beauvoir House was awarded to Lathan Company of Mobile and repairs began, along with work on the battered brick wall and picket fence on Beach Boulevard.

Katrina deposited tons of debris in Beauvoir's Oyster Bayou area. Some came from Beauvoir and included recoverable artifacts but some was from stores and neighborhoods nearby. Federal funds are helping revitalize this natural area full of wildlife, including foxes, muskrat, an otter and several alligators washed in by Katrina.

Once Beauvoir's grounds reopened in April for Katrina Disaster Tours, trappers began relocating the gators but the other wildlife is welcomed.

If you go

What: Beauvoir reopening ceremony and celebration of Jefferson Davis' 200th birthday anniversary.

Where: 2244 Beach Blvd. (near the Mississippi Coast Coliseum), Biloxi.

When: 10 a.m. Tuesday, with reception, period re-enactors, music and free all-day tours of the restored Beauvoir House.

Who is invited: The public, volunteers and workers who have helped restore Beauvoir and artifacts or anyone interested in the restoration of the 1852 National Historic Landmark.

Cost: Free.

Details: 388-4400.

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