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Jefferson Davis' retirement estate a symbol of survival in Biloxi, Miss.

Randy McCaffrey rests in Jefferson Davis’ renovated bedroom. His job is to make sure the project follows strict guidelines.

Associated Press

Randy McCaffrey rests in Jefferson Davis’ renovated bedroom. His job is to make sure the project follows strict guidelines.

BILOXI, Miss.

More than 150 years of history guide Philip Ward and Linda Croxson as they dab paint on walls and ceilings at one of Mississippi's most famous landmarks.

Their canvas is Beauvoir, the retirement estate of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Their task is to restore painted murals that Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters nearly erased.

Ward and Croxson, a husband-and-wife team, keep a researcher's dossier within reach. Century-old photos and color charts in the report show them how the murals were painted in 1856.

"It's like trying to copy somebody's handwriting," Ward said. "You can do it accurately once. What's hard is doing it the same way 10 or 15 times."

Applying a historically accurate coat of paint is the final phase of a yearlong, $4-million renovation, mostly paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The painting isn't finished, but that didn't stop Beauvoir from celebrating its grand reopening June 3, the 200th anniversary of Davis' birth, when visitors were allowed inside the beachfront house for the first time since Katrina.

A popular tourist attraction before the Aug. 29, 2005, hurricane, Beauvoir was one of the few historic structures on Mississippi's Gulf Coast to survive — albeit with plenty of bruises.

Storm surge ripped apart the front porch. Eight inches of water flooded the living quarters, leaving mold on the walls and peeling away some of the paint on the murals. All told, roughly 30 percent of the house was gone.

Other structures on the 52-acre property, including a guest cottage, were lost. The storm claimed about a third of Beauvoir's artifacts, including some of Davis' manuscripts and about $250,000 of Confederate currency.

"If that storm had lasted another hour, I don't think we would have had anything left," said Richard Forte, Beauvoir's board chairman. "God was looking over this place."

Preserving history

Replacing what Katrina destroyed wasn't easy.

Slate for the roof was imported from the quarry in Wales that supplied some of Beauvoir's original building materials. Heart pine, another original material, was used to replace wooden beams even though it's rare in the dimensions they needed. Workers used a 19th century building technique to create interlocking joints for the frame of the house.

Randy McCaffrey, an architect, is making sure the project adhered to strict guidelines to preserve Beauvoir's history.

"Our mandate was to maintain as much of the original fabric as possible," McCaffrey said, "and I believe we've achieved that."

Changes are subtle: Crushed limestone replaced oyster shells underneath the raised house because the latter was prohibitively expensive. Ward and Croxson are painting over layers of oil paint and distemper with water-resistant acrylics. Steel braces and reinforcing rods were inserted to make Beauvoir more durable.

"The house now is probably 400 times stronger than it was before," Forte said.

Enhancing its history

Beauvoir was built in 1852 and bought by Davis in 1879, 14 years after the end of the Civil War. After he died in New Orleans in 1889, his widow sold the property to the Mississippi Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. It was a home for veterans and their widows until 1957.

Before Katrina, tens of thousands of people visited Beauvoir every year to learn about Davis, a West Point graduate who was a senator and secretary of war before becoming president of the Confederacy during the Civil War.

The hurricane turned the home into more than a memorial, said Bertram Hayes-Davis, a Beauvoir board member who is a great-great grandson of Jefferson Davis.

"It's something that portrays the (coast's) recovery from the disaster," he said. "It's one of those icons that has risen back to be better than it was before Katrina."

. If You Go

History restored

Beauvoir, the Jefferson Davis home: 2244 Beach Blvd., Biloxi, Miss.; www.beauvoir.org or (228) 388-4400. Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Tours, $9.

Jefferson Davis' retirement estate a symbol of survival in Biloxi, Miss. 06/07/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 1, 2010 10:21am]
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