Ask Rufus: A Sunday stroll of historic homes


In 1939 Eudora Welty wrote:

In 1939 Eudora Welty wrote: "In the fine old City of Columbus, in the northeastern part of the state, hospitality for many years is said to have reached its height in "Whitehall." Whitehall, an 1843 Greek Revival house on South Side, is included on one of the Sunday afternoon pilgrimage tours. Photo by: Courtesy photo


Rufus Ward



Today there are seven different homes and two Churches open on three different tours for the Columbus pilgrimage. The weather forecast is for a grand and beautiful afternoon. It makes for a perfect opportunity to not only visit some historic homes but take a stroll through history. Three of the homes and one church are all within an easy walk of each other. Within what is a 10 block walk are over 40 houses that were listed on the National Register of Historic Places, six houses included in the Library of Congress Historic American Building Survey a National Historic Landmark, a National Literary Landmark and a Mississippi Landmark.  


It is a walk that would take you on a visual tour of historic Columbus architecture. Whitehall is on the Orange Tour of noon to 3 PM, St Paul's Episcopal Church and the Ole Homestead are part of the One Day Tour from 2 to 4 and White Arches is on the Yellow tour from 3 to 6. The pathway between them is the history of Columbus.  


Tickets for tours are purchased at the office of Visit Columbus on third Street behind the Tennessee Williams Welcome Center. It was on this and adjacent city blocks that the Town of Columbus began to grow up. The Military Road which was surveyed in the summer of 1817 and completed in 1820 had its ferry crossing where the bridges at the foot of Main Street cross the Tombigbee. The Visit Columbus office sits about where the first house was built in 1817. By 1820 Spirus Roach was keeping a store and tavern there. Because Roach and his children had long pointed noses the Choctaw Indians who traded with him called him Possum. When going to Columbus they referred to going to Possum's town. 


By 1819 William Cocke resided in a large cross-hall log house where the Tennessee Williams house is now located. At that time it was believed Columbus was located in Alabama (people thought the Tombigbee to be the state line) and the town was recognized as the Town of Columbus, Alabama, by the Alabama legislature on December 6, 1819. After completion of the state line survey in late 1820, Columbus was declared to be in Mississippi in January 1821, and on February 10, 1821 the Town of Columbus, Alabama, was chartered as Columbus, Mississippi. A public school, Franklin Academy, was also established and Cocke became president of its board of trustees. Cocke corresponded with his old friend in Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, about the school and its students. 


On the northwest corner of the intersection of Third Street and College Street (originally named Washington Street) is a ca. 1880 house in the Italianate style. The house presents elements one would find in an Italian villa. On the southeast corner is the ca. 1825 Ole Homestead and east of it is St Paul's Episcopal Church. 


St Paul's Episcopal Church on College Street is a Gothic Revival structure reminiscent of a medieval English country church. Planning for construction began in 1854 with the acquisition of plans from a Mr. Humpage. Those plans were very similar to plans for an "ecclesiastically correct church" that had been published by Rev John Hopkins. The plans were submitted to Columbus architect James Lull for review and cost estimate and construction began. Problems arose with "faithless contractors (and) unreliable friends". Then in the 1855-56 cotton season low water in the Tombigbee prevented the shipment of cotton crops to Mobile to be sold. That brought major hardships to a local cotton based economy and construction of St. Pauls' was suspended for a year. William O'Neal, another Columbus architect and contractor, was hired to revise the building plans and resume work. The church was completed in 1860. 


On the corner is the Ole Homestead. The Ole Homestead is a vernacular raised cottage that was constructed between 1819 and 1829, most likely in 1825. It was originally two rooms over two rooms facing Franklin (now 3rd) Street South and the Tombigbee River. Charles Abert is the first record owner of the property and appears to have either purchased or built the house in 1825. H. S. Bennett was a renter living in the house from 1830 - 1835. He later represented Mississippi in Congress. It was purchased from Abert in 1835 by John Kirk. He added an east wing and reoriented it to Washington (now College) Street. It is one of the oldest raised cottages in Mississippi and is probably the oldest one surviving north of the old Natchez District. It is the oldest building known to have survived within the original town limits of Columbus. It has been designated a Mississippi Landmark. Originally there were no structures between the Ole Homestead and the old steamboat landing on the Tombigbee River. 


A block south of College Street at the corner of Third Street and Third Avenue (Lafayette Street) two historic houses face each other. On the northeast corner is the 1852 Greek Revival style Swoope home. Its original porch was totally different and the present porch with square two story columns may have been added as recently as 1940.  


Facing the Swoope home from the other side of Third Street is Twelve Gables. It is a Greek Revival style used on a traditional house plan. It was built ca. 1837 and is the house in which the Columbus Decoration Day ceremony was organized. That was the event which inspired the creation of Memorial Day. It is named after its 12 gable windows.  


A block south, Third Street meets Fourth Avenue (Bridge Street) and we leave the original town limits of Columbus. The street was known as Bridge Street because in 1842 black engineer Horace King constructed Columbus' first bridge over the Tombigbee at the street's west end. It was a wooden covered bridge that came of off the crest of the river bluff.  


At Third and Fifth Avenue (Eliza Street) three classic houses grace the corners. On the northeast corner is a ca. 1914 brick house in the Prairie style. This was a style created by architects of what is called Chicago's Prairie School and was made famous by Frank Lloyd Wright. Across the street on the northwest corner is a ca. 1869 Italianate style home. On the southwest corner is a turreted Queen Ann style house. This is the classic style popular in the late 1800s ans very early 1900s that most people think of as a Victorian house.  


A block down on the corner of Third and Sixth Avenue (Margaret Street) stands Whitehall, which was built by James Walton Harris in 1843. It is a heavy classical and masculine expression of Greek Revival in the style of early Columbus architect James Lull. During the Civil War the basement served at times as a hospital and then during World War II served as the "Drop in hanger" service men's center. Tennessee William's mother played bridge there and Upton Sinclair partied there. Others entertained there have ranged from Confederate generals to the world heavyweight boxing champion. In 1939 Eudora Welty wrote: "In the fine old City of Columbus, in the northeastern part of the state, hospitality for many years is said to have reached its height in "Whitehall." Welty also wrote of the classic "Whitehall Mint Julep" served there commenting about it, "who could ask for anything more." 


We walk down the block and turn right on Seventh Avenue (Frances Street), going uphill to Second Street (Monroe Street). At Second Street we are greeted by White Arches on the Southwest corner and The Colonnade on the northwest corner. White Arches was constructed by Jeptha Vinning Harris, a wealthy planter, legislator, and Confederate general, about 1858. It is a unique mixture of Gothic Revival, Greek Revival and Towered Italianate styles. Ken P'Pool of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History describes White Arches as "a highly individualistic expression of eclectic architecture." This mixture of architecture seems to occur more in Columbus than anywhere else and P'pool has called the style "Columbus Eclectic". 


Across the street, the Colonnade is a Carolina side hall plan house with a Greek Revival facade. It was constructed about 1860. It was one of the last large Greek Revival style homes built in Columbus. 


Walking north up Second Street and headed back toward the Visit Columbus offices, Lehmquen, a ca. 1838 Greek Revival raised cottage is on the east or right side of the street. The house, though Greek Revival, has the flavor of a Louisiana Creole cottage. Crossing Sixth Avenue, two of the most impressive homes in Columbus face each other. On the east is the Pratt Thomas home and on the west is Riverview.  


The Pratt Thomas home is a raised cottage in the Greek Revival style. It was completed in 1847 and is considered by P'Pool to be "the largest, most elegant, and most unusual of Columbus' raised-cottage dwellings". Among the residents of the Pratt Thomas home were two brothers, doctors William and John Richards. William was a surgeon at Ft Apache with Dr Walter Reed and would sit there under a tree and talk with Geronimo. He was also the doctor who delivered Tennessee Williams. John Richards was a physician for the Rockefeller and Roosevelt families in New York and in April of 1912 was called to meet the Carpathia and tend to the survivors of the Titanic.  


Riverview was completed by 1853 and is now a National Historic Landmark. The house was also probably designed by James Lull as it is a larger more ornate version of his personal residence, Camellia Place. Next to the house the original servants quarters and kitchen have survived. Riverview has possibly the most monumental interior plaster decorations of any house in Mississippi. 


The north end of the block on which Riverview sits was the site of the town's first cemetery. It dated to about 1820 and was known as the Tombigbee Graveyard. The graves were moved after Friendship Cemetery was established in 1849. Half a block off Second Street on Fifth Avenue and across from the site of the graveyard is Buttersworth, an 1820s dogtrot log house converted into a Greek Revival house in the 1840s. Continuing to walk north along Second Street, we again pass Fourth Avenue. At the west end of the street the old footing of the 1842 bridge still survives as a flat earthen pad on the edge of the river bluff. 


On the northwestern corner of Second Street and Fourth Avenue is what appears to be a Queen Ann Victorian House but buried within it is a smaller 1840s house. Turning east -- or right -- onto Third Avenue we find in the middle of the block Errolton a c. 1848 home that is another example of Columbus Eclectic. Walking back to Third Street we turn left or north and return to our starting point. 


This neighborhood is part of the large South Columbus National Register of Historic Places, Historic District. All told there are over 650 buildings in Columbus on the National Register. While enjoying the walk don't forget that the three Sunday tours also include four other fascinating historic houses and Annunciation Catholic Church which was constructed in 1863 and whose design was inspired by Paris' 13th Century gem, La Sainte-Chapelle. Annunciation is also a Mississippi Landmark. 


Rufus Ward is a local historian. Email your questions about local history to him at [email protected]


Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]


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