Video: Oldest house in Mississippi gets needed repairs
PASCAGOULA -- It's the oldest house in Mississippi. Actually it's the oldest structure in the Mississippi Valley.
And it's finally getting the love and attention it has needed for two centuries.
The house's construction is unique for this area and rare in the United States -- French Colonial heavy-timber frame construction.
Once known as the Old Spanish Fort, the low-slung building on Krebs Lake off the Pascagoula River was renamed more appropriately the La Pointe-Krebs House, after its first two owners.
And the state is finally investing in it.
The house has been undergoing study and testing for a year, and recently contractors worked to return it to level. Well, as close to level as the structure, which is about 265 years old, is going to get.
Within a month or two, a University of Southern Mississippi professor will bring modern technology in to date the building's timbers.
So by the end of February, the world will know exactly how old the building is.
There's a chance the building was mentioned on a 1720 French map of the Pascagoula River that outlined the property of Joseph Simon de La Pointe on the east bank of the river. But historians who know this building best think that may not be the case.
Marks "Mc" Wixon, executive director of the La Pointe-Krebs Foundation, believes it was more likely built in 1750, or maybe as early as 1730.
But that's almost an afterthought. It's old and it's finally being preserved correctly and that's exciting, said Melanie Moore, La Pointe-Krebs Foundation member who organizes the annual Fete fundraiser for the property.
A carpentry shop?
Whether it was built as a lumber mill or some other outbuilding for the La Pointe estate is not all-important. It was a residence on and off through the centuries.
"Hugo Krebs had 14 children, it was used as a home," Wixon said.
It started life as one large room. Two rooms were added on either end -- one of those believed to be as late as 1820, based on the material used. The roof covers wide porches that run the length of the building on both side and on one end. It has two fireplaces, an attic large enough to stand in, a rustic entrance, a simple door and plain board window shutters.
It was not the main house.
Moore gives a quick history catchup: La Pointe came over with Pierre Le Moyne, sieur d'Iberville on d'Iberville's second journey to this region. D'Iberville first landed in the Biloxi-Ocean Springs area in 1699. La Pointe, a French Canadian, received a land grant from him about 1712 on the east bank of the Pascagoula River and set up a trapping and fur trade. A man named Graveline received property on the west side, now Gautier, and business thrived.
Hugo Krebs, a German, married La Pointe's daughter and inherited the property. From two wives, Krebs eventually had 14 children, the property along the river was subdivided and a community grew in what is now Pascagoula.
The structure has survived many storms and patch-up renovations.
Hurricane Katrina in 2005 tore up the adjacent museum, but not the house.
"That's grace, I guess," Moore said.
The salt water and moisture left behind in the old house invited termites and other difficulties.
"But the building is really stable and in good shape for how old it is," said Maria Katsimanis, J.O. Collins' foreman for the project. She said some of the beams, though they look eaten and fragile on the surface, are solid inside and still doing their job.
Leveling the west end was a big undertaking.
Jacks lifted it as much as 8 inches on one corner.
"Never did I dream we'd get this much out of it and it stay together," Katsimanis said.
Moore agreed. "A building made of oyster shell and mud, to lift it up after 200 years is a little risky."
The plan was to lift it a quarter-inch a day. They were able to safely lift it as much as an 1 inch a day.
"It's working with us," Wixon said. "It seems like it's happy to be taken care of."
This house marks the beginning of settlement in this region.
The state legislature recognized its importance, which opened the door for state Department of Archives and History grants.
So far, the state has invested $500,000 in Community Heritage money. The final estimate of cost is $1.2 million to $1.5 million.
There have been many poorly done restorations. Those are being fixed now with better technology.
This time, there's an architect, a timber specialist, a mud-construction specialist and an experienced restoration contractor.
On Monday, a wheel barrow sat in front of the house with large plastic bags separating out material from portions of the walls -- hog hair and mud used in one of the later restorations, Spanish moss and mud used in the 1800s addition, oyster-shell cement -- known as tabby -- in the original construction.
"We label where each bag came from so we can mix it back up and put in the walls," Katsimanis said, keeping those areas as authentic as possible.
There are a few other buildings like this, on the East Coast.
However, this is an "18th-century building, unique in Mississippi and very rare in America," said Ken P'Pool, deputy state historic preservation officer. "We want to make sure we get it right this time."
P'Pool described the process as organic, learning as they go what works best. It's about diagnostics before treating.
Wixon said the house "is like a living, breathing thing."
The goal of the already-funded first phase is to have a house that's level and safe to walk around in so there's less chance of losing it to a storm. Hopefully, it will include the roof, they said, which would make the architects sleep better at night.
Phase I is expected to be complete in July, but the house will still be a construction site.
Phase II would complete the inside -- finishing touches, porches, hardware on doors and windows. It would be done all at once if funding is available, or in smaller phases as the money comes in, Wixon said.
His goal is to get it registered as a National Historic Landmark and adopted by the federal government for its historical significance.
Wixon said he believes they have a better shot at that after renovation is complete.