Tracing Natchez

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Some of the houses that are open for viewing also offer bed-and-breakfast accommodations for guests who delight in sleeping among antiques and in canopied beds so high that stepping stools are needed to climb into them. I was intrigued to take the tour through Stanton Hall, the mansion I was staying in, and to join a group that was admiring—from behind a rope—the noble, lofty room I had slept in the night before. (The director of marketing for Pilgrimage Tours, Hattie Stacy, told me that she had once arranged for the Japanese ambassador to sleep in that room, forgetting that it bears a silver placard on the doorframe in honor of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who once stayed there. It was too late to change rooms, so Ms. Stacy raced over to Stanton Hall with a screwdriver and removed the possibly offensive nameplate.)

In Stanton Hall front and back parlors join to form a seventy-two-foot-long room with massive mirrors at each end that reach to the sixteen-foot ceiling. Light from bronze chandeliers is reflected back and forth between the mir- rors, making the room seem limitless. The mantels are white marble, and the doorknobs and hinges are all silver. This splendid building occupies an entire block in Natchez’s historic district.

More than five hundred of the handsome houses with which Natchez citizens glorified themselves still stand.

Most of the city’s mansions, including Stanton Hall, were built by men who had made fortunes in cotton. The plantations were across the river in Louisiana, but the planters and brokers chose to live in Natchez, where the air was healthier and the high bluff protected their houses from flooding. There are also old inns and middle-class residences among the buildings open to the public. One of them, the Smith-Brontura-Evans House, was built by the owner of a prosperous carriage business who was a free black man (though the guides in the house didn’t mention this fact).

One of the most beautiful houses, and certainly the most intriguing, to be seen in Natchez is Longwood, a high-domed octagonal mansion, started just as the Civil War was breaking out and never finished. (See the October/November 1985 issue of American Heritage for an article about Longwood.) It was planned to include such locally unheard-of amenities as bathrooms, closets, and skylights.

Natchez has such architectural riches not only because it was a wealthy, cosmopolitan place but also because it was virtually unscathed by the Civil War. Many of the planters, in fact, had business connections with the North and opposed secession when the war first broke out. Their young men went to fight for the Confederacy as a matter of course, but when the town was threatened by Federal troops in 1863, the city fathers threw it open, and Natchez lived quietly as an occupied town during the rest of the war. For the restraint of the conquerors and the good sense of the conquered in saving intact this lovely town, we can be truly grateful.

—Barbara Klaw