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Rheta Johnson: Just another work in progress


Rheta Grimsley Johnson



NATCHEZ -- In all of my visits to this beautiful river town, how have I missed the estate called Longwood? The mansions with their fanciful names run together if you see too many in one trip, but I've made many trips, toured many grand homes. Never, until recently, Longwood. 


I now have a new favorite. The brochures say "Longwood is maintained in its unfinished state by the Pilgrimage Garden Club as a poignant reminder of past glories and tragedies." 


It might have added, "and a reminder of interrupted dreams, lost fortunes and making do with less." 


Now this is a mansion to which any modest homeowner can relate. There's work that never got done, and never will. 


Billed as "the largest octagonal house in America" and "a superb example of the mid-nineteenth century 'Oriental Villa' style," its six floors, 30,000 square feet and Byzantine-Moorish dome with 24-foot finial are not something you see in every subdivision, true. 


But the homeowner's story, when stripped to its bones, is familiar. Grand plans. Life's complications. Fleeing workmen. Living forever in a construction site. 


A Philadelphia architect named Samuel Sloan designed the home in 1859 for cotton planter Haller Nutt and his wife Julia. Work began in 1860 and was going great guns till April, 1861. Then great guns really did get involved. 


When the Civil War started, Sloan's Yankee craftsmen "dropped their tools and fled North." Having worked with a lot of "craftsmen," to use the term loosely, I've seen the dropping of tools and fleeing from a lot less than Civil War. I've seen the dropping-of-tools for a rain shower, deer hunting season and hangovers. 


Nutt used "local workers" -- read that, slaves -- to finish the basement as living quarters. He died in 1864, but Julia and their eight children lived in the basement until 1897. I bet she at times hated the house, the majority of it not usable, the ostentatious exterior a false promise. 


Now when I write "basement," don't envision an Anne Frank situation with a big family huddled in a closet. This basement would hold every house I've ever owned side by side. It is huge, and was furnished well.  


But the Nutts had to feel frustration that their unfinished dream loomed above them, mocking the former glory of wealth and privilege. 


When the garden club ladies bought the mansion, they had to promise never to alter Longwood, to leave it unfinished. So now the effect -- above the basement -- is akin to walking around a carpenter's attic. There are bare boards and plunder all about, skeletal cubbies for statuary and glass that never arrived. 


I kept humming in my head the old song "Satisfied Mind." Once I was wading in fortune and fame/Everything that I've dreamed for to get a start in life's game/But suddenly it happened/I lost every dime/But I'm richer by far/With a satisfied mind. 


I guess we can hope the Nutts came to terms with their circumstance, living without a few thousand extra square feet and five extra floors, but with satisfied minds. 




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