Longwood: The Untimely Octagon

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An article that we published in August/September 1983 entitled “ The Age of the Octagon ” brought such a burst of letters from our readers that we ran a postscript in December of that year showing eight more of the appealing structures that our correspondents had called to our attention.

Now we have come across Roger G. Kennedy’s account, in his forthcoming book Architecture, Men, Women and Money in America 1600–1860 (Random House), of the largest nineteenth-century octagon ever conceived in America—“our grandest exercise in architectural geometry,” according to the author, who is the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Kennedy’s story is of the Philadelphia architect Samuel Sloan (“a tiger”) and his Southern client Haller Nutt (frail but tough), who blithely set out on the eve of the Civil War to build the octagonal mansion named Longwood in Natchez, Mississippi. As the tide of war rose about him and his state seceded, Nutt persevered in his determination to have Northern builders finish his house with Northern materials. The story is given an added dimension by the fact that Nutt, like many of Mississippi’s planter class, remained fiercely pro-Union throughout the war.

 

Our first piece of written evidence of the relationship between Haller Nutt and the architect Samuel Sloan is a letter from the latter responding to a Christmas Eve inquiry from Nutt about the date when Sloan planned to come to Natchez to lay out the house. It was January 11,1860; Sloan said he planned to reach Natchez by the middle of the month. Once there, he departed again before February 3, when Nutt wrote him to apologize for his having been in bed all during Sloan’s visit and, even more apologetically, to introduce his strong-minded wife to their correspondence: “I find on conversation with Mrs. Nutt that some of the views are entirely different from what we had understood before and for fear of producing other difficulties I wanted to write you so you would not go too far.”

There were such matters as her iron safe in the bedroom; best put it in a closet. And the dumbwaiter in the dining room—most offensive; put it in the pantry. And, of course, “all agree” it was “objectionable” to put the kitchen in the basement. And, said Nutt wearily, “I am afraid there is other points not well agreed upon.” These were, presumably, practical matters, for he allowed that in regard to “architectural proportions and style … I feel sure that your taste is far better than Mrs. Nutt’s and my own.”

Nutt gave notice, then and there, that Sloan would have to contend not only with Julia Nutt but that he himself had no intention of being passive: “I feel great interest in the Building and do destroy much of the pleasure attending it if I did not agree on the general arrangements.”

That was on February 3. Nutt wrote again on the eighth with more suggestions, though he admitted being “somewhat fearful that my last might disconcert you.” Mrs. Nutt, it seemed, insisted that the safe be in the bedroom itself. There were problems with the blind doors in the corner rooms, and the difficulty of the dumbwaiter was unresolved, but, apprehensively, Nutt told Sloan to “use your own discretion and GO AHEAD .” Silence from Sloan.

 

Silence from Sloan

Was he letting his client soak for a while, or was he offended? On February 21 Nutt had not had a reply and sent another letter urging Sloan to follow his own plans. Sloan replied on the twenty-eighth, saying blandly that Nutt’s suggestions for the building would not “interfere with the general plan,” the magnitude of which began to appear. Sloan proposed to prefabricate window frames, blinds, sashes, and hinges in Philadelphia, and then ship them by water down the Atlantic Coast, around Florida, along the Gulf, and up the Mississippi—a distance as great as if they were going to Yucatán. Nutt, he said, should start accumulating lumber. They would at the outset require one hundred thousand feet of rough, one-inch boards.

On the second of March, Sloan wrote again, consoling Nutt: on the eighth the windows would be under way, and the plans, in book form, were about to be mailed. Sloan was sure “you yourself and Mrs. Nutt will be well pleased with it in every detail.” He suggested that local carpenters do the rough work until Philadelphia craftsmen came to carry out the complex design for the roof and then move on to the interior. He would send out his assistant to supervise for four dollars a day. The assistant turned out to be Addison Mutton, who became, thereafter, Sloan’s partner.

Nutt wrote back on March 12 that the building “is attracting much attention and considerable stir among the mechanics and many a prophecy is brought up in regard to the result.” The local “mechanics” might well be excited: Who would get the chance to work on such a huge and exotic project? And what about this Northern architect? All the stir, said Nutt, “has excited in me, I must confess, a greater desire to have as perfect a building as we can plan and execute.” Meanwhile, a storm was building in the backwoods. The legislatures of South Carolina and Mississippi were angrily threatening secession if Mr. Lincoln, or Mr. Seward, or any other Republican candidate, won the Presidency.