Sunday, September 13, 2009

Natchez National Historical Park

My Labor Day weekend in Natchez included visiting Natchez National Historical Park. The park consists of three sites -- the William Johnson House (pictured above), Melrose (pictured below), and Fort Rosalie. Fort Rosalie is apparently a site with no structures; the other two have (obviously) buildings and exhibits.

I found the William Johnson House to be the most interesting. Mr. Johnson was a free man of color who operated a barbershop in Natchez. He was a successful businessman who owned plantations and slaves and was doing quite well for himself and his family until he was murdered in 1851 by a man with whom he was involved in a dispute over plantation property lines. He and his family lived in an apartment above the barbershop in downtown Natchez. After his death, his sons continued the family business.

Mr. Johnson was freed as a child, which was unusual (the law in Mississippi at that time specifically said children could not be freed), and apparently received a good education, although it's unclear whether he was self-taught or was fortunate enough to receive some formal schooling. He kept a detailed diary, which was first published in the 1950s.

The Johnson house provides an interesting look at the life of a middle class businessman (the Johnsons were definitely financially comfortable) as well as highlighting the racial tensions of the antebellum South. It was well known who murdered Mr. Johnson, for example, but he could not be successfully tried because there were no white witnesses. Given that every other historic house tour in Natchez is of a property similar to Melrose, the William Johnson house is a welcome contrast and reality check. Obviously, not everyone in Mississippi could live the way the folks at Melrose and the other antebellum mansions did, but if all a person did was tour the mansions you might start to think life was just one mint julep after another until the Civil War.

Melrose, built by John T. McMurran, a successful lawyer, is a Greek revival two-story mansion with basement and attic. It's a lovely house architecturally and, because changes in ownership didn't happen very often, it survived with something like 80% of its original furnishings intact, although the Venetian blinds in the dining room below and other rooms of the house are replicas (and that bird on the table is one of the most unappetizing pieces of fake food I've ever seen). The wooden thing hanging from the ceiling is a punkah, a type of ceiling fan that's also referred to as a shoo fly. (The Wikipedia page I've linked to actually shows the Melrose dining room from a different angle; serendipity in action.)
Some of that furniture struck me as sufficiently awful that one wonders why it survived -- Victorians had strange tastes by 21st century standards -- but it is still there, although most has been re-upholstered. The Park Service being sticklers for authenticity and replacement in kind, any new fabrics are replicas of the originals.

The settee below is one of the stranger pieces of furniture I've seen. There was an even odder piece in the front parlor, but flash photography is not allowed inside the house and I wasn't able to hold the camera steady enough to get a picture good enough to post.

The building pictured below housed the kitchen (there was no kitchen in the main house) and dairy on the first floor and had living quarters for slaves above. The parapets at the ends of the roof differ because the end of the roof to the right in the photo faces in the same direction as the house. It's the end of the building that visitors to Melrose were likely to see as they approached up the drive, and is designed so it shares the Greek revival style of the main house. A matching building that currently houses the park's visitor center can be seen sticking out to the left in the photo of the main house. If there weren't trees to the right of the house in the photo, the kitchen and dairy building would be visible, too. When Melrose was built, the design plan wasn't for the house alone; it included the grounds, too, complete with formal gardens, vegetable gardens, and orchards in addition to the various secondary structures like the carriage house, barn, and slave quarters.
The small building to the left of the kitchen and dairy building is a privy. It was a 16-holer. It was divided into 4 separate spaces, each with 4 holes (2 adults, 2 children). The privy was used only by the slaves, of course.

The buildings shown below are former slave quarters and a barn. One of the slave quarters buildings is now set up for interpretation with one furnished room and other displays. The other building is used for office space for the park. The family that owned Melrose kept both horses and dairy cattle so the barn has both box stalls (for the horses) and stanchions for the cattle.

Admission to the William Johnson House is free and you can wander the grounds at Melrose without paying anything, but there is a small fee to tour the house. It's worth it.

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