October/november 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 6
On the eve of the Civil War, a Mississippi plantation owner and Philadelphia architect set out to build a massive octagonal mansion in Natchez.
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.
Null persisted with some details: “Mrs. Nutt says she wd prefer the pivot blind.” And something bigger than a detail: could there be a mistake about one hundred thousand feet of rough lumber? “100,000 feet is a large pile of lumber.” No, replied Sloan; there wasn’t any error. (Eventually they ordered three times that much.)
On March 29 Nutt felt it necessary to inform Sloan about the difficulty of putting Negro slaves to work in tandem with white artisans. The white mechanics, he wrote, were accustomed to work a fixed number of hours a day, a custom he could not pass on to his slaves.
On April 9 Sloan was ready to ship nails, gas pipe, water pipe, drainpipe, mantles and grates. By the twenty-first there were also the bay windows and doorframes, brackets, cabinets, tin, nails, slate, doorsills, and stone chimney tops. Nutt had written on the fifth that he was “getting on pretty well with my work—but fear not as forward as you would like.” He had made, in a slaveoperated manufactory that he owned, 180,000 bricks and was getting ready to make 300,000 more.
Early in May 1860 Nutt asked for two Philadelphia bricklayers; slaves could make bricks apparently, but did not lay them well enough for his standards. Sloan provided them and a carpenter. The architect himself visited Natchez between May and July. The letters between the two after this visit became friendly, almost affectionate. Sloan urged Nutt to return the visit: “I hope to see you pass into the office some morning before long.”
But things were becoming difficult in Mississippi. Nutt wrote on July 16 that the frames and slate arrived “very much damaged” and that the bricklayers had left. Sloan replied on the thirtieth that Null’s leller gave him “much uneasiness,” because he knew lhe goods had been so well packed lhal lhey would have arrived inlacl unless harmed “by wilful acts.”
By August things seemed to have quieted. Sloan recommended a change in the entrance and, having learned his lesson, asked Nutt to “talk over the matter” with Mrs. Nutt. The reply was that “Mrs. Nutt and I both agree that this change would be very unfortunate.” With the bitter presidential campaign in full swing, Nutt wrote on August 23 that “something might happen to Mr. Mutton so I will be deprived of his supervision during the erection of my house.” He suggested that the head carpenter, apparently less vulnerable, be made fully cognizant of the architectural plans.
In November 1860 Abraham Lincoln was elected President. In April, Fort Sumter fell to the South Carolina insurgents, and at Big Bethel in June and at Manassas in July were fought the first major battles of the American Civil War.
After Mississippi seceded in January 1861, Addison Mutton, the Yankee who was a houseguest as well as a construction superintendent, became too much of a risk even for the Nutts. He left after overhearing Mrs. Nutt express her worries about his presence. The four carpenters followed him northward in March 1861. Nutt proudly sent Sloan a notice they had filed in the Natchez newspaper, which showed, he said, that “Philadelphia Mechanics have been south and well treated and not hanged.”
On May 5 Nutt wrote Sloan that there was danger sending out tinsmiths, saying that “affairs may grow more aggravating and possibly workmen from the North may be molested.” A portion of this letter was censored by the Confederate authorities, and five days later Sloan wrote Nutt saying he had not heard from him, which led him “to believe that the mails are now interfered each way. The very thoughts of the condition of our country gives me pain.”
On May 19 Nutt replied, as much for the eyes of the censors as for Sloan: “We do not feel much like taking the trouble of writing nowadays and paying postage on letters what are suppressed by the agents of those who issue the stamps.” But, since the rain was coming in through his untinned roof, he asked Sloan to send the tinners after all, if he could find “sober, discrete men” who would “attend to their business.” In this letter he also rejoiced that the dome was complete.
On June 20, between the news of Big Bethel and the battle of Manassas, Sloan wrote, saying that the tinners “to my surprise … declined going in consequence of the state of the country.” A month later Sloan found another set of tinners, twin brothers, who “are quiet men and pay attention to nothing but their business.” He actually thought of going to Natchez himself and taking his son, who had been ill, with him. Sloan apparently had little sense of the conditions along the lower Mississippi, for he opined that the “change might be much benefit” to his son. This letter was heavily censored on its way to Nutt.
Nutt’s Philadelphia suppliers were making large advances to their suppliers and workmen. One of them began to worry about the likelihood that “as long as this war continues there will be no transmitting of goods to the South, nor of money to the North.” One of them, eager to keep his lines open to Nutt, wrote on July 25, four days after the federal defeat at Manassas: “As soon as your house is ready and the communications is opened I can forward the doors.… I do hope our intercourse will soon be renewed but God Only Knows what is to be done as the War spirit predominates here.”
In New Orleans, solder for the tin roofs and gutters was sent along to Natchez by people who apparently thought Nutt to be an enthusiastic Confederate. Nutt wrote Sloan in September, “I now feel broken up as Mr. Smith has concluded to leave me and return to his family.” Smith was apparently the last of the Philadelphia workmen. Despondently, Nutt wrote: “This is perhaps the last chance I may have of writing you until we have Peace.” He asked Sloan to send him the plans of the basement, although, he said bitterly, they might be impounded by the local postal authorities “as contraband of War.” But to Sloan the tone was consistently warm: “I hope you are well and that it may not be long before we can resume our accustomed friendly correspondence.” In December Sloan wrote once more into the darkness, saying, “It has been rumored here that the men have been drove from the work at your house.…”
In the spring of 1862, the war in the South began in earnest, and two thousand bales of Haller Nutt’s cotton were burnt by the Confederates, presumably to keep them out of the hands of the Federal forces. In the fall the Confederates burned his cotton gin and sawmill at Winter Quarters. In the spring of 1863 the army of Grant, closing in on Vicksburg, upriver from Natchez, commandeered without compensation a huge supply of corn that Haller Nutt had grown at Winter Quarters and Evergreen. His wife estimated the total to be sixty-four thousand bushels. She went on to say that “Mr. Nutt, being a strong Union man and already having suffered much from the Confederates, rather welcomed the advent of the Union army as about to receive friends. Accordingly the plantations … at the advent of this Army were like smiling gardens of Paradise.”
At Longwood, construction stopped. Nutt’s slaves boarded up the windows on the upper floors. Orders for furniture were canceled, and the family gathered in living quarters on the lower floor, which had been intended for a billiard room, a wine cellar, and playrooms.
Finally, on July 4,1863, Vicksburg surrendered to Grant, and the Mississippi was open again, flowing “unvexed to the Sea.” Samuel Sloan wrote Nutt that his business was now “in a very flourishing condition.… We see no signs of War and in fact were it not for newspapers should not know such was the case.”
Things were not so blithe in the South. The Union troops did not discriminate neatly among the political sympathies of Southern planters. The “gardens of Paradise” left in their path by Haller Nutt were destroyed, and farm implements, stock, and household articles either taken or broken. Julia Nutt wrote that “Desolation, as the souvenir of some 50,000 to 80,000 men, reigned supreme.” The Union forces stripped the landscape of wood to fuel the river fleet and set the unharvested fields afire. “The Army needed large quantities of both lumber and brick,” said Mrs. Nutt, and took 200,000 feet “of the best quality Cypress” from the piles awaiting construction at Longwood. They also took, she alleged, the contents of Nutt’s new kiln: 426,000 bricks.
Samuel Sloan had only limited knowledge of what was happening to his client. He wrote his last letter to Nutt on December 2, 1863, saying, “There is not a person here of your acquaintances but that will sympathize amply for you and hope with you that this terrible War will soon end—we are all up to the eyes in business and have but little time to think of the terrible condition sections of the country have been plunged into.… Please write me again… as it seems like old times again to receive letters from that quarter.”
It was not quite “like old times.” On June 16, Julia Nutt buried Haller. He had visited Vicksburg “on private and public business” and caught pneumonia. According to his wife, “it was not Pneumonia that killed him. The doctor said it was … his troubles. Three million dollars worth of property swept away; the labor of a life time gone; large debts incurred by the War … and his helpless wife with eight children … looking to him for support.… This crushed him and he died.” She was probably close to the truth when she asserted that in 1863 she “had but one weeks provisions in my storerooms and no money. I had jewels”—she certainly did; their invoices are staggering—“but I could not sell them; I had dresses but I could not sell them. I had twenty-four cows and while I could keep them I sent my younger son, Prentiss”—Sgt. Prentiss Nutt, the son named after the great Unionist orator- “to the Union Camp to sell milk.” So she precariously supported herself until the cows “were taken from me by U.S. soldiers,” who took as well all of her remaining “sheep, cattle, wagons, mules, horses and harness, fencing, axes, and worst of all… the last and heaviest blow, $8,787 in cash” that was being held by one of Nutt’s executors. “Then came the dark and winter days of my life. I gathered wild weeds and fed my children on them and when winter came on we thanked God when we could get a little corn.”
In 1873 Julia Nutt received from the U.S. government the sum of $56,368.25 in compensation for her wartime losses. She took it under protest to pay her debts. Over the next twenty-five years she kept up an unrelenting effort to recover more, pursuing Union commanders from Grant to Gen. Alfred Eilet, who had commanded in Natchez. In 1882 an action by Congress awarded her $256,884.05 more, but the next year she was back again with another accounting for $3,073,357.99 and “For the Life of Haller Nutt, HOW MUCH ?” Prentiss Nutt, her son and attorney, continued the suit until the 1930s. Though he changed his name to S. Prentiss Knutt, his character retained a good share of her steely purpose and her unrelenting and bitter anger.
Julia continued to live in the only finished portion of Longwood, an apartment in the basement, for thirty-three years after Haller Nutt’s death. By the early 1890s she must have been somewhat restored in fortune, for she got estimates on finishing the place. No work was actually performed. It was left the way Haller Nutt last saw it; the upstairs floors were gaunt brick shells. Longwood is best this way, with its geometry exposed, its great spaces left to speak clearly for the rationalist premises that commended the octagon form to the experimental mind of its builder.