Beauvoir home returns to its original 1852 glory

The post-Katrina restoration of Beauvoir House, the 1852 National Historic Landmark in Biloxi, is remarkable but not just because the exacting work was accomplished in a year's time. The biggest attention-getter is an appearance that harkens to the days when U.S. statesman and Confederate President Jefferson Davis lived there.

Modern trappings are gone, except the necessities of utilities and security. Even the ceiling artwork, called trompe d'oeil, is being restored to its old self with three-dimensional shadowing.

Visitors touring the home will see art restorers at work, but the rest of Beauvoir is ready for the Tuesday reopening. The more accurate paint colors imbue the lighter, airy feel that existed in Davis' time, 1877 to 1889.

Twentieth-century white paint is gone from window casings, mantels and doors to bring back the then-fashionable faux wood and marble techniques. Original plaster damaged from leaking roofs is conserved. Heart pine floors are refinished. Etched-glass panes are back on the front doors.

"History has certainly made the Beauvoir Mansion a major landmark in Mississippi's life story, including surviving two major hurricanes," said Larry Albert, whose Hattiesburg company, Albert & Associates, oversaw repairs to the house owned by the Mississippi Division, United Sons of Confederate Veterans.

The Beauvoir House restoration is costing $3.9 million, the bulk from federal and state historic preservation money with strict oversight by the Mississippi Department of Archives & History. Volunteers, insurance settlements, private donations and such programs as the National Park Service's Save America's Treasures have also been vital to bringing back the house, grounds, furnishings and damaged museum artifacts.

In all Beauvoir has survived 21 hurricanes, as well as early developers - who tried to buy the beachfront land from the Davis family until it was sold in 1902 to the SCV as a monument to Davis and home for aging Confederate veterans. Its latest role as a museum made Beauvoir the Coast's best-known heritage tourism site.

Albert & Associates had spent 16 years on restorations, which Katrina wiped out in one day. About 25 percent of Beauvoir was destroyed, mostly porches and piers, but the house built by Mississippi planter James Brown survived.

"This building demonstrates that our forefathers knew how to build correctly on an active coast line," Albert said. "In all of my research and studies concerning old buildings, this one stands out in our nation as very unique."

The heavy, ax-cut beam construction is credited with saving the 3,000-square-foot house, although that size is deceptive because large porches and back wings allowed for living outdoors but under a roof in the heat of the summer.

Hundreds of "gee-whiz" stories swirl around the restoration, including the fact that Lathan Company, the Mobile firm hired to do the work, found a mother lode of Welsh slate roof tiles from the same quarry used in original construction.

To assure the work of a cadre of experts and Old World crafters is historically accurate, Albert's firm researched the 1852 architectural masterpiece.

"It was a challenge and an honor to work on this house," said Sean Kelly, Lathan's project supervisor, who learned preservation construction in his native Ireland. "After this work, if Beauvoir is maintained and secured, it can last another 150 years."

Kelly admits one of the hardest things was not to correct the mistakes of original builders. Post-Katrina studies reveal the master carpenters who began Beauvoir in 1847 did not complete the sometimes less-exacting final work.

"What we would call 'flaws' today was one of our surprises, but in the 1850s they didn't have the equipment we do," said Rick Forte Sr., acting Beauvoir director and for 19 years chairman of the boards of trustees and directors.

"Beauvoir was obviously constructed well. If the 'flaws' are not a detriment we left them as part of the history."

The architect and construction administrator who lived on site to oversee the use of historically accurate materials and techniques is Randal McCaffrey from Albert's firm.

"When I visited Beauvoir before Katrina, there was such a sense of history, that this was antebellum Mississippi on the Gulf Coast," McCaffrey said. "When I arrived to participate in restoration work, that spirit was gone, just a sense of sadness and loss. Stand on the front gallery now, look out over the Gulf and the oaks and that spirit is back.

"We have had craftsmen that are as good as you will find anywhere in the country. Unfortunately, you will not know who most of them are because they came, did their work and left, just as the original workers did. We all contribute what we can while we are here. Who we are is not important. What we pass on for the future is."