Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Prospect Hill

A blue 1980s Cadillac sits abandoned in the woods, not far from a sunken road lined with mossy trees and illegal garbage dumps. Hidden down an inscrutable lane, just past the car, are the near-ruins of an old plantation house known as Prospect Hill, where a lone surviving peacock, too wary to display his colors, slinks through gardens of blooming camellias and jonquils that have gone wild.

The scene is quintessential Jefferson County, Mississippi, once one of the wealthiest counties in America, now one of the poorest. The county’s landscape is today mostly empty but for a scattering of trailers, substandard houses and disintegrating remnants like Prospect Hill, archetypal examples of fine things either gone to ruin or on their way. There are a few meticulously restored mansions, but most of the historic buildings are either vacant and deteriorating or already gone, including the house known as Holly Grove, which I moved from near Prospect Hill to my property near Bolton to save it from falling in.

There are almost no remaining examples of historic African American architecture, and the few occupied houses at the other end of the spectrum are like lonely outposts. A former county sheriff told me of a woman who still lived in her ancestral plantation house, who he said “locks her gate every night, goes in the house and locks the door, goes up to her bedroom and locks that door behind her, then sits in bed reading about flowers with a loaded pistol on the nightstand.” A person rooted in the conflicted past with a lot of money no doubt feels vulnerable in rural Jefferson County. It’s likewise hard to find outsiders who want to invest heavily in high-maintenance houses, though in the 1980s two historic mansions were temporarily occupied by, respectively, actor George Hamilton and a group of Hare Krishnas.

Still, the chance that we might find someone who’d be inspired to save Prospect Hill prompted me and three like-minded friends to make the trek. It’s going to be a hard sell, but the place is for sale, with a small amount of wooded acreage. That's the good news. The bad news, in addition to the urgent need for a new roof, is that the owner's whereabouts are unknown.

The house, built in 1854, is one of the few surviving landmarks of the freighted saga of Mississippi in Africa, which was the subject of my eponymous second book. The grandly scaled Greek Revival house is beautiful and impressive, it sits on a lovely site and its history is as compelling as any in the South. It would be worth saving for either its architectural or historic importance, and the two in tandem would seem to demand preservation. But time is of the essence, and time does not appear to be Prospect Hill’s friend.

The word that comes up again and again in conversation while we’re there is “disturbing.” The roadside dumps, the posted signs warning of surveillance cameras, the numerous abandoned cars, which look as if they could contain bodies, are all disturbing. The scattering of abandoned lawn mowers – three of them, left in their tracks where they broke down, now overgrown – are disturbing. The condition of the house, with its collapsed galleries and rotting steps, is disturbing. Its history -- of family betrayal, of a young girl’s death by fire, of a slave uprising and subsequent lynchings, of American and African civil war -- is disturbing. The two moldering copies of How to Win Friends and Influence People in the ransacked parlor, the empty bourbon bottle atop a warped, waterlogged grand piano, are disturbing. Our visit is a mounting crescendo of disturbance, each new phase seeming to trump the last. We may technically be within the bounds of Jefferson County, but where we really are is the land of Disturbia.

None of which prevents us from searching for signs of hope in this most unlikely of places. We’re sure it’s here somewhere, buried in the detritus of a fated history that’s growing more fateful with each passing day.

Our visit was prompted by an email from a friend of Prospect Hill’s owner asking for help in finding a buyer for the house, which necessitated a reconnaissance mission to assess its condition. Saving it will require someone with plenty of money and an overarching appreciation of history and architecture. Any house can be saved with enough money -- I know, having dismantled, moved, reconstructed and restored a house as badly deteriorated as Prospect Hill. Finding someone who's willing to part with that much money for a house in the middle of nowhere, whose owner is at large and... well, whose status is not known, is the next issue. And beyond the house’s isolated location and obvious structural problems are the myriad issues of poor Jefferson County.

Jefferson County’s theme of southern gothic ruin is relentlessly imposed upon every scene that unfolds before us as we travel the back roads to and from Prospect Hill, climaxing with our visit to the house itself. If this were fiction, or a movie, the theme would seem unnecessarily heavy-handed. The contents of the house, visible through open windows, are already ruined. Beyond the house are ruined cars, trucks and trailers, one of which was traveling on its doughnut wheel when it coasted off into the trees years ago, as if in one final exhale: The end. (Something lives in the car now -- I don’t know what, just something that made a growling noise when I peaked through the rear window). The cemetery, the remarkable centerpiece of the Prospect Hill saga, which a group of volunteers restored in 2003, is likewise falling into disrepair again. Overall, it’s a depressing scene. It’s tempting to think: Vanity, vanity, all is vanity. Yet we cannot seem to get enough of it. There is a weird, alluring vibe about the place that lingers long after we’ve left. We wonder how we could derive pleasure from what appears to be a tragic requiem. The answer: It ain’t over yet; and second, it’s an amazing house, with an amazing story, and it’s at a dramatic moment now.

The house is actually the second on the site. The original Prospect Hill mansion was built by Revolutionary War veteran Isaac Ross, who immigrated to the Mississippi Territory from South Carolina in 1808 with a group of mostly mixed-race slaves. Ross was, by all accounts, an egalitarian slaveholder, which of course sounds like a contradiction in terms. He is said to have been fair in his treatment of them, perhaps because, as is also sometimes said, he was related to them by blood. Out of fear that they would be mistreated by a subsequent owner, Ross wrote in his will that at the time of his daughter’s death Prospect Hill should be sold and the money used to pay the way of his slaves (who were to be emancipated) to the West African colony of Liberia, which was set up for that purpose by a group known as the American Colonization Society. This, Ross felt, was the only way for the slaves to gain control of their destiny.

It’s a long story, but after Ross’s daughter died his grandson contested the will, not wanting to free the slaves, then sell the plantation and give the money to them. This was in the 1830s, three decades before the Emancipation Proclamation. The will was tied up in court for a decade, after which the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed its validity, which meant that the slaves were freed to emigrate to the region of Liberia known as Mississippi in Africa. But before that happened, midway through the litigation, there was an uprising among some of the impatient slaves, during which the Prospect Hill mansion was burned, taking with it the life of a young girl, after which a group of slaves was lynched. It’s a grisly story, and it doesn’t end there. Among the more than 300 who eventually emigrated to Liberia, a small group enslaved members of the indigenous people, who were themselves involved in the slave trade, and continuing conflicts between descendants of the two groups contributed to Liberia’s horrendous civil war in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Ross’s grandson, Isaac Ross Wade, managed to hold on to Prospect Hill – it appears he may have bought it himself or co-opted it from the estate, and because a few of Ross’s slaves chose not to emigrate, and Wade had his own slaves, he continued to farm the plantation. In 1848 he built the existing house on the site of the original, a short distance from the family cemetery, where the Mississippi chapter of the colonization society erected a monumental obelisk in tribute to Ross, and where Wade is also interred, though his tombstone was installed backward. The slaveholding family and their descendents were divided over the issue of repatriation, and it’s hard not to see the backward-facing tombstone as a recognition that Wade was essentially the villain of the story.

A descendant of Wade’s who grew up in Prospect Hill sold the house in the 1970s to a man who planned to restore it but never did, and who subsequently sold it to its current owner, who painted and repaired the interior and planted extensively in the gardens but did nothing to bolster the aging exterior. The current owner quit the place a few years ago, reportedly for Texas, leaving many of his possessions behind (note to thieves: There’s nothing of value). There is now a tree intentionally felled across the drive, immediately inside the gate. The surrounding land is leased by a hunting club. Although the Wade descendant gave me permission to visit the cemetery before he died, and I’d seen the house twice while the current owner lived there, and we’d been encouraged by the owner’s friend to visit and photograph the house in hopes of finding a buyer, we felt like interlopers. It didn’t help that I mentioned Wade’s villainy while standing over his grave.

But we were on a mission. The house is the ruined stage set for an incredible drama, and it's in undeniably bad shape. Pots used to catch rainwater from the leaky roof are still scattered through the central hall, and they have been overflowing for a long time. The front gallery has caved in, as has one rear room. The rusty tin roof is starting to peel away. The roofline remains straight and strong – for now; the windows have not yet blown out; and the floors, walls and elaborate trim are basically intact. The place holds onto bits of its former grandeur in a Faulknerian way – the elegant brick steps leading from the old, sunken drive to the lawn, the massive cedars festooned with Spanish moss, the imposing edifice itself – and in the right hands it could be a showplace again. Among the countless threatened historic buildings in the state, Prospect Hill represents an extremely important remnant of Mississippi, and American, history. But as it now stands, it's in trouble. Either someone will impose their own new dreams upon it or it will succumb to an old nightmare that has been a long, long time unfolding.

Just inside the front door is a note pencilled on the wall that summons a more bucolic time. In it, someone recorded that on an April day in what appears to be 1854, the goldfinches returned on their annual migration, which apparently was a source of delight. For a moment, standing there in the open doorway, it is easy to imagine when Prospect Hill was a wonderful place to live, when walking through its airy rooms wasn't like touring a horror house or the interior of a demented brain. The hope is that there will be someone to mark the goldfinches’ return, if not this year, then perhaps the next. Too much beyond that and it’ll be too late. The house will be too far gone. There is ample evidence in the history of Prospect Hill of both the good and the bad triumphing, but there is nothing ambiguous about its current state. What it needs now is not more drama. It needs a bunch of blue tarps, and soon.

Thursday, March 11, 2010


Georgiana is an empty husk of a house, a modern ruin that could easily be mistaken for an abandoned barn. It’s been stripped of all its furnishings and adornment, it’s overgrown with vines, and it’s barely visible from a seldom-traveled road in the sparsely populated Mississippi Delta.

But as Charles Prine observes while brushing cockleburs and beggar’s lice from his horse’s tail in a corral in front of the house, there’s more to the place than meets the eye. “There’s some kinda story,” he says, then adds, a bit sardonically, “Somebody died.” Which is pretty much shorthand for… everything.

My friend Chad and I have arrived at Georgiana on an early spring day when the broad, flat fields of the Delta are teeming with gargantuan tractors hitched to 20-foot-wide plows. The landscape is being laid bare and the air is filled with the scent of fecund dirt. We’ve taken off from working on our own old houses to scout the Delta’s back roads for interesting, old, and (typically) abandoned buildings, as well as for stands of ancient trees and anything else that speaks to the strange continuum of time. It’s how we roll.

I first saw Georgiana about 15 years ago when I was visiting friends who live in the area, and occasional return visits have charted a slow, inexorable and escalating decline that’s sadly typical of historic buildings across the rural South, and particularly the Delta. The landmarks of the past are literally falling by the wayside, which makes them especially attractive to people like Chad and me. I’m not sure why that’s the case, but there’s something intensely romantic about fate. There’s something about wandering the empty rooms of an abandoned house and coming upon the one book that got left behind, the one ragged, velvet chair that’s being gnawed away by squirrels, the wisteria vine blooming in the shattered parlor window, the exposed mortise-and-tenon joints and heart pine planks and rusty square nails, the letter summoning lost love that’s been carried into a rat’s nest, and the worn rail where generations long gone steadied themselves coming down the stair. You can’t help wanting to know more, to piece the story together, to see how it unfolded and how it ended. It says something important about life in any time. Plus, there's just such beauty in the construction, which far surpasses most of what's built today in quality and craftsmanship. I fell in love with my own house, Holly Grove, when it was in ruins, and determined to save it only after the process of romantic dissolution tipped and it became clear that evocative wooden ruins don’t last forever.

I’m the kind of person who googles just about anything, so when we return from our Delta outing I will research Georgiana online, but as Chad and I navigate the loose strands of rusty barbed wire that surround the house we don’t know much other than that it was a slave plantation visited by Union gunboats during the Civil War. That, of course, is a pretty compelling start for a story, and even without those enticing tidbits, it would be evident to an untrained eye that the hulking, weather-beaten ruin on the banks of Deer Creek offers a dark and alluring window into the past.

Georgiana is an early house by the standards of the Mississippi Delta, which was primarily settled in the late 19th century. The really old places in the area tend to date to the 1830s and ’40s, and always face bayous, rivers and lakes that were the only transportation routes through the swampy country back then. This is true of Georgiana: It faces Deer Creek, its back to the more modern road.

The house is two-and-a-half stories, with a brick first floor that elevates the main, second floor above occasional high water in the flood-prone Delta. The second floor is built of milled logs and the top story is frame. Two massive double chimneys that rose perhaps 60 feet from the ground floor to the peak of the roof have long since collapsed in a heap inside the lower level rooms. Otherwise the house seems sturdy and – for now -- stable, the one clear danger coming from the death-trap of an underground cistern in the first floor breezeway. Someone has tried, ineffectively, to cover the hole, which forms the mouth of a wider, water-filled chamber perhaps 20 feet deep; it’s spooky just to peer into the mysterious and menacing darkness below, from which it would be impossible to climb out.

As he climbs over the mound of collapsed bricks to check out the framework joinery, Chad allows as how a great many people have no doubt died in and around Georgiana, owing to the sheer force of years, but the truth is the place feels momentous, like some roadside portal between life and death. Prine’s report of a noteworthy death is not at all surprising.

Until about a decade ago the owners of Georgiana, some of whom live nearby, tried to ensure that the portal survived, that the husk of the house was preserved, mostly by keeping a good metal roof on it and blocking the gaping window openings with sheets of tin. But in recent years ill winds have peeled back the protective tin here and there, allowing rain to enter, which spells disaster for a wooden building, even one constructed of close-grain, old-growth cypress, as is the case with Georgiana.
From all appearances Georgina has endured abandonment for longer than it was occupied. I’m guessing it’s been empty for the better part of a century, because there’s nothing that even hints at the 20th century -- no electrical wiring, no plumbing, no later alterations -- but it’s really starting to hurt now.

Portals tend to open both ways, and Georgiana offers a glimpse of both the Delta’s past and its future. Locals are fond of saying that the land along Deer Creek encompasses some of the best farmland in the world – “the most fertile land this side of the Valley Nile,” as Big Daddy described the Delta in Tennessee Williams’ play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. William Faulkner’s short story “The Bear” chronicled an earlier history, when the Delta represented North America’s most productive wilderness. The truth is the Delta’s entire history is all about richness, exploitation, and conflict.

A new story is unfolding today, in which productivity is measured on corporate agribusiness ledger sheets, and the region’s cultural history plays an ever-diminishing role, if it comes into play at all. The landscape of the Delta is characterized by a daunting parade of abandoned houses, mobile homes, stores, schools, churches and even entire towns. It’s amazing to see a place collapse so fundamentally, almost effortlessly.

Once you take the majority of the people out of the equation and start deleting their noteworthy buildings, you’re on your way to creating an empty landscape where the evidence of the past – a particularly rich and complicated past, in this case -- is evoked mostly on historical markers. You can’t see much of anything for yourself. What’s left of the original architecture in the vicinity of Georgiana would have made for a very cool rural historic district, except that… everything, apparently, must go. Given the Delta’s history of exploitation, some people would no doubt be fine with wiping the slate clean, but I like knowing what happened before I came along, and some of the best clues are often found in physical remnants like Georgiana, as well as the exquisitely accomplished barn down the road that is being unraveled even more rapidly by storms, and the cluster of increasingly rare field-worker cabins that are, on the day we visit, being demolished by their owner for salvage wood. Also just down the road is a sprawling, abandoned 1920s mansion, surrounded by formal gardens of camellias and azaleas that have gone wild. Old trees, old buildings and other venerable sites are the elders of the architectural tribe, and around these parts they’re vanishing fast. Those that survive have the feel of abandoned stage sets that are finally being taken down, taking with them their stories of love and loss, of perseverance and betrayal, of human drama, for better or worse. It’s as if you can actually see the erosive power of time in slow-mo.

Prine, who has no connection to Georgiana other than that a friend of his leases the place for his horses and a colony of dogs chained to their personal houses on the lawn, feels the mysterious context of the place. He thinks maybe it was a Union soldier who died in the house, though when he offers this detail he gives us a look that says he really doesn’t know for sure. It’s like he picked up a discarded note from the ground and read it aloud to us. The guy we later meet who is demolishing the field cabins describes Georgiana as “the haunted house” and says there was once a sister house, built by the same builder in the 1820s, which his great aunt lived in but which was destroyed by a tornado in 1971. That would be the sum total of our knowledge, were it not for google.

Fortunately, some records survive, though they can only hint at the breadth of the story. First of all, the records indicate that Georgiana = George + Anna, as in: George and Anna Hunt, the original owners. Members of the Hunt family were large slaveholders in antebellum Mississippi – George’s father, David Hunt, a New Jersey native, reputedly owned 24 Mississippi plantations (some of which he received through Spanish land grants in the late 1700s) and 1,000 slaves; he was among a group of area slaveholders who participated in a repatriation project for freed slaves in the 1840s that led to the creation of the nation of Liberia, in West Africa, part of which is still known as Mississippi in Africa, which, coincidentally, is the subject of my second book.

George and Anna had several plantations of their own, one of which was Georgiana, where, during the Civil War, the noteworthy death occurred. According to the records, a large group of freed slaves banded together after the fall of Vicksburg in 1863 to seek vengeance against slaveholders, and moved up Deer Creek on their rampage. At Georgiana they murdered the plantation overseer, who is identified only as “Mr. Johnson,” which reportedly made it difficult for the Hunts to find another white overseer for years after. Apparently “the last one was murdered by angry former slaves” was not an attractive detail of the job posting. There is also a reference to “a slave trader Hunt frequently did business with” – a freighted phrase, if ever there was one, and a Works Progress Administration interview with a former slave, Cyrus Bellus, who said, “My father’s master was David Hunt. My father and mother both belonged to him. They had the same master… They belonged to the Hunts.” Reading this casts Georgiana in a different, glaring, light.

The house has had more than a minor role in the area’s history, and that history encompasses more than its venerable ruins: Behind Georgiana is a row of identical, 1970s-era worker houses lined up along the road like a later incarnation of slave quarters, most of which are likewise abandoned. In short, all the evidence of the area’s human history, conflicted as it is, is fading away.

Fortunately, there are exceptions. After departing Georgiana, Chad and I continue to Rolling Fork, where we visit Mont Helena, a later plantation house that is being restored by my friend Drick Rodgers, and which is the antidote to the Delta’s pervasive sense of ruin. Mont Helena is an over-the-top wedding cake of a mansion, built irreverently atop an Indian mound so that it commands a stunning view of its plantation fields, which encompass thousands of acres. You would never guess it now, but Mont Helena also descended into ruin -- its roof partially collapsed, with trees growing through the walls -- before Drick decided to reverse the process. He’s been working on it for a few decades now, sinking a bundle of money into it, ensuring that something of the past survives, though he has no desire to live in the house himself. Drick is also restoring an old African-American church not far from the house.

Another notable remnant has been preserved in the Delta National Forest, where a stand of ancient cypress trees at Sky Lake Brake is now a state natural area. The old trees, remnants of the Delta's original architecture, are also on our agenda today, though in the end we can't reach them because the water is too high. Climatologists have studied the cypresses of Sky Lake to determine ancient weather patterns, using core sample growth rings that indicate the oldest of them are 2,500 years old. I saw the old trees years ago, and marveled that they survived in a region where every arable acre has been cleared for agriculture for miles around. But like Mont Helena, Sky Lake's cypresses are only relics. Their preservation goes against the grain. And it's vulnerable, old Georgiana that sticks with Chad and me for the rest of the day, perhaps because it illustrates just what is being lost -- the fuller context of the story. Standing atop the widow’s walk of Mont Helena, four stories above the Indian mound, I ask Chad which house he’d want if he could choose between Mont Helena and Georgiana.

“No doubt about it,” he says. “I’d choose Georgiana.”