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The Legacy Of Longwood: Natchez’ Famed Unfinished Antebellum Home

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It’s nestled like a crowned jewel on the Natchez hillside.

That’s exactly the effect the home’s builder, cotton baron Dr. Haller Nutt, had in mind in 1859 when he bought the land as a surprise gift for his wife, Julia, and hired Philadelphia architect Samuel Sloan to design and build a six story, 30,000 square-foot mansion.

Nutt had made a fortune and wanted a home that reflected that fact. While that never happened in his lifetime, the legacy of Longwood lives on today as the unfinished architectural masterpiece that draws thousands of visitors annually. The historic house museum is open year-round and remains a huge draw for Natchez’ Fall Pilgrimage, an annual three-week antebellum home tour slated to run September 25 through October 12.
The octagon-shaped Oriental Villa, dubbed “Nutt’s Folly,” is the largest of its kind in America. It is one of only six octagonal homes in the country to be designated as a National Historic Landmark. Longwood has been featured in Bob Vila’s Guide to Historic Homes of America on the A&E network, and in 2010, was featured in the HBO series True Blood as the fictional mansion of Russell Edgington, the Vampire King of Mississippi and Louisiana.

The unfinished Natchez home epitomizes the rise and fall of the South, as the war brought the Nutt family’s wealth and dominance, as well as the last burst of Southern opulence, to an end.

Beneath the magnitude of its million-plus brick facade – all of which were made on the grounds of the estate – and its majestic Byzantine onion-shaped dome, Longwood’s half-finished upper level interior remains as a monument to the break of the Civil War, when hired northern artisans literally dropped their tools, collected their pay and fled home as news of the war hit Mississippi.

The completed house was to have had 32 rooms, 26 fireplaces, 115 doors and 96 columns, but when work was halted in 1861, only nine rooms of the 10,000 square-foot lower level were completed.According to modern-day docent accounts, Nutt moved his family into the basement for safety. As a Northern sympathizer, he was awarded papers to protect the property for which he had originally paid $12,000 and invested more than $80,000 in 18 months. Little by little, his cotton crops, equipment and cotton gins were burned nevertheless.

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Scenes from Longwood’s interior show where Union construction workers stopped work on the Natchez mansion at the onset of the Civil War. Many of the home’s original belongings remain, including Julia Nutt’s carriage.

On June 15, 1864, Nutt died in the basement of his beloved Longwood mansion. The official cause of death was pneumonia, but legend has it that he died of a broken heart over his unfinished dream house. Afterwards, Julia Nutt and their children continued to live in the finished basement. She died in 1897 and was buried beside her husband in the Longwood family cemetery. Also said to be buried with the family is a slave who was purchased as a young boy by Haller Nutt’s father to be his playmate. Growing up with Haller and later becoming his man servant, the servant remained with the Nutt family long after Haller’s death – even as a free man. He is said to have been only one of two slaves on record to be so highly regarded by his owners that the family commissioned his portrait to be done in oils.

The Nutt’s grandchildren owned Longwood until 1968. To this day, the basement floor still houses many of the family’s original furnishings. The upper five stories have remained just as they were left more than 150 years ago – a dust-covered magnificent work in progress, tools and materials still scattered about, just as they were left in the wake of the workers’ wartime exodus.
But the legend of Longwood doesn’t end there.

“They say that when you visit Longwood, if the ghost of Mr. Nutt likes you, you’ll be able to find a square nail on the grounds,” said Keri Horn of Fannin, who found not one, but two square nails on a visit to the plantation last year. “And if the ghost of Julia Nutt likes you, they say you’ll be able to smell the scent of roses on the grounds, even in the dead of winter when there are no roses,” she said. “I’ve never smelled the roses, but I know people who swear they have.”

After surviving decades of neglect and near-abandonment, Longwood is now one of Natchez’ most popular attractions. Owned and operated as a historic house museum by the Pilgrimage Garden Club of Natchez, Longwood is one of three museum houses on the Fall Pilgrimage Tour, where 19 antebellum mansions – most of which are private residences – open their doors for historic costumed tours. Longwood’s screened in upper level rotunda is also the site for two American Music concerts slated October 1 and 8. The two evenings of American folk, spiritual, blues and jazz music will feature New Orleans performance guitarist and jazz composer Daniel Schroeder.

“There a lot of rich history here in Natchez. It’s a very unique place,” said Lynn Beach Smith, sales director for Natchez Pilgrimage Tours. Longwood’s unusual edifice draws hundreds of visitors on a weekly basis, and thousands annually. The museum is open 365 days a year, she said. “On any day of the week, any month of the year, we have people from all over the world here to see these beautiful plantation homes. Longwood’s architecture makes it one of the grandest and most spectacular, even unfinished as it is.”

Want to Go?
Natchez’ Fall Pilgrimage is slated for September 25 through October 12. The tour includes 19 antebellum mansions with costumed guides, usually family members who are descendants of the original owners. Each house is unique with 18th and 19th century furnishings, porcelain, silver, clothing, tools, documents and diaries. For more information, visit natchezpilgrimage.com


Story courtesy Legends magazine
Written by Adrienne Dison
Photography by James Edward Bates

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