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Rheta Grimsley Johnson: Windsor and Harry Dean Stanton

 

Rheta Grimsley Johnson

 

NEAR PORT GIBSON -- You can waste a lot of time trying to get others to appreciate what you see in certain people, certain places. If the beauty is less than obvious, and more of the haunting variety, it's often a fool's pastime even to try. 

 

I can, for instance, give a rhapsodic pitch for Patricia Neal, Harry Dean Stanton, old rotten boats, Alligator, Miss., and the crumbling bricks that once were downtown Camp Hill, Ala. Can and have. But over the years, I've done it too many times for too little return enthusiasm. 

 

I still prefer character-driven looks to spit-and-shine. But somewhere along the way, I've had to admit that most people prefer vibrant, polished towns to dying ones, starlets to fading beauty, young versus old Elvis. I've given up all expectations that soulful can trump pretty if you make your case. And lately I try, with limited success, to keep quiet about my preferences. 

 

So it was with some reluctance that I drove a recent visitor to the Ruins of Windsor, a sight that for me ranks with the bookstalls along the Seine in Paris and the shanties on Sapelo Island in Georgia as sense-heightening and holy. 

 

Windsor's 28 columns, all that remains of what was once the grandest of Mississippi's antebellum mansions, have been compared countless times to ancient temple ruins. They are manmade monoliths, alone in the dense woods, proof somehow that grand plans not only go astray but sometimes go up in smoke. 

 

Work began in 1859. Mississippi native Smith Coffee Daniell II was determined that his dream home would make other wealthy planters wince in envy. Slaves did the grunt work; Yankee artisans iced the triple-tiered cake. 

 

Daniell's timing was awful. As the last architectural T's were crossed, civil war began. And just weeks after moving into the mansion, Daniell died, at age 34. 

 

The house, however, had a life, almost longer than that of the man who built it. Daniell's widow carried on, and Windsor survived the war. It served as a hospital after the Battle of Port Gibson, and became, for a time, the center of area social life. 

 

It was an invited guest -- not a Yankee -- that struck the match in 1890 that destroyed all but the home's 28 (of 29) columns. A young man's cigarette was carelessly tossed into a carpenter's trash, and the enormous edifice and all its contents burned -- including house plans and photographs. Until a Union soldier's sketch of the place was discovered last decade, nobody knew for sure exactly what the grand loss looked like. 

 

That didn't stop people from making pilgrimages to see the Ruins of Windsor. Thousands came, everyone from Eudora Welty to Elizabeth Taylor, the latter when they filmed "Raintree County." 

 

Back to my own visitor. We snaked through the tangle of green that is summer in Mississippi, both of us wondering, I'll wager, if the journey was worth the trouble. I expected a shrug from my guest, at best. My car's captive didn't know what to expect. 

 

He loved it. All those perfectly maintained Natchez mansions might run together, melt to memory mush. It's the one left in ruins that survives. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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