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A Magnolia State Of Mind

It's a New South, but vestiges of the Old -- its sumptuous mansions, lush gardens and gracious manners -- flower each spring in Natchez.

February 11, 2007|Karen Dardick | Special to The Times

Natchez, Miss. — YOU know those annoying people who peek into medicine cabinets or ask you intensely personal (and highly inappropriate) questions? I'm not one of them.

And yet ....

Last spring, I found myself in private parlors, poking my head into china cabinets, sizing up strangers' furnishings, learning about their pasts and their heirlooms.

Thus began my life as a voyeur, although it lasted only as long as the Spring Pilgrimage in Natchez, an annual ritual (March 10 through April 14 this year) during which 27 of this town's fine antebellum mansions throw open their doors and reveal their past.

It's the ultimate interactive history lesson, one that I have reason to learn: After more than three decades in Los Angeles, I have transplanted myself to Natchez in southwestern Mississippi. I had grown tried of L.A.'s congestion, its traffic and fast-paced living, so I cashed out of my modern, glass-filled house and moved into a stately Victorian in historic downtown Natchez.

My friends thought I had lost my mind, and on the surface, perhaps it seemed so. For openers, I'm a native New Yorker and aside from a stint on a ranch in Newhall, I've been an urban dweller all my life. In my college days, at the height of the civil-rights movement, Mississippi was more a news headline than a potential home.

But a trip to Natchez in July 2005 convinced me that there is a New South, where people of different races and backgrounds live and share responsibilities of government and business.

I was captivated by the town's hospitality, history and beauty -- and, of course, those amazing houses, including Victorians and about 600 antebellum structures in town and in surrounding Adams County.

Most are situated on sweeping lawns, dotted with centuries-old live oaks festooned with Spanish moss. Majestic magnolia trees and heritage camellia bushes fill many of the grounds, as well as colorful azalea bushes, usually in full bloom in early spring.

It is the South at its most seductive.

A sumptuous setting

THE beauty of the houses and gardens is reflective of the setting. Natchez, midway between Memphis, Tenn., and New Orleans, faces the fertile lands of Louisiana directly across the Mississippi River, and its location made it a prime site for settlement. Natchez Indians settled here a millennium ago, but their civilization was destroyed with the arrival of European explorers and settlers -- first French, then Spanish, English and finally Americans who settled in what had been western Florida.

Natchez thrived when cotton was king. "Before the Civil War, Natchez had more millionaires per capita than any other city in the country," Hugh Howard writes in "Natchez: The Houses and History of the Jewel of the Mississippi." Many of the cotton barons had plantations across the river, but in Natchez and surrounding areas, they built sumptuous mansions and filled them with elaborate furniture and antiques.

Besides doing business in the North, many had families there too. So when the Civil War began, there was some sympathy for the Union, even though Mississippi was the second state to secede.

Because of its location, Natchez was, militarily, an important site. Union forces demanded surrender in 1862, and city leaders quickly complied. Although Union troops occupied Natchez for the rest of the war, the elegant mansions remained largely unscathed. Only a grand estate named Clifton was destroyed, supposedly because a Union officer was offended when he was excluded from a dinner party there.

Natchez's buildings were intact, but its economy was in ruins, and it fell into -- and lingered in -- genteel poverty for decades. The warm, wet and humid climate took its toll too, and some structures decayed or collapsed.

But in 1931, a chance event changed everything. While hosting the annual convention of the Mississippi Federation of Garden Clubs, several of the town's leading ladies opened their antebellum homes to guests. The visitors were astounded by the gleaming sterling silver on priceless tables, Cornelius and Baker chandeliers hanging from elaborate ceiling medallions, lush carpets, draperies and wallpapers that dated to antebellum times.

Katherine Grafton Miller, owner of Hope Farm, part of which dates to 1775, quickly recognized the value of opening these private homes to paying guests. With help from her friends, the Spring Pilgrimage was born in 1932. (There is also now a Fall Pilgrimage, although fewer homes are open.)

In those early years, visitors could stay at the homes on tour. Today, it's still possible at Hope Farm, the Shields Town House, Linden, Elgin, Glenburnie and Monmouth Plantation.

Hospitality was an essential part of pilgrimage. At Montaigne, circa 1855, owner Mary Louise Shields welcomed guests and pinned a camellia fresh from the gardens on each female visitor. She did so until she was 97, when she began sitting on the porch to greet guests and share tales of her family.

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