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.

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