I have written before of my love for architecture and that of Frank Lloyd Wright, whom I still consider to be the greatest American architect that ever lived but I won’t limit myself to admiring just one form of architecture because all are unique. Being born and raised in the Deep South brings with it a deep appreciation of my Southern heritage and the historical architecture of the South is for me one of the few remaining visible expressions of a past that has been consigned to the history books. Over time, good examples of this have become increasingly rare, especially here in Georgia where the ravages of the Civil War and Sherman’s infamous March to the Sea played a big role in the demise of the grand old plantation homes that once were as common as dandelions and with roots just as deep.
Plantations for many decades prior to the war were the industry of the Old South and the source of great wealth to their owners and of great misery to those who worked on them. Those that remain today stand as a symbol of a time that history won’t let go of, a time of gallantry and honor for some and a time of trials and tribulations for others. The symbol of the old plantations, the centerpiece of most all of them were the plantation house, known as the “big house” to some, and during their existence, they reflected both the rise to power and wealth and the eventual fall and decline of the men and women in who lived in them, raised their families and carved out their existence in the tapestry of the South. While each one was different in a lot of ways, they also were very similar in others and fulfilled many of the same purposes. These homes were usually very large, with great receiving rooms, libraries, hallways and always a large dining room, which often was the center of activity for the family. The dining room table was generally large enough to seat the family that lived there and any number of guests who often came for a dinner consisting of vegetables grown on the land, meat from livestock raised in its pastures and bread made from wheat that was milled into flour at the area mills.
Anywhere from four to six bedrooms, sometimes more, made up the second floor to accommodate those who lived there, oftentimes smaller by the standards of today but usually furnished with the finest furniture money could buy, imported from England or other places abroad. Indoor bathrooms were mostly unheard of and very few of these homes even had closets in a time when tall wardrobes were the preferred choice. Kitchens were another feature that was noticeably absent because the likelihood of a fire was a constant reality, so the kitchens were frequently housed in a detached building close by and the food carried up to the “big house” for meals. While this was inconvenient, it definitely would have curbed obesity today as winter cold and rain would surely be a deterrent towards making a “midnight raid” on the icebox. Even with all that, what these homes lacked in conveniences, they oftentimes made up for in sheer size, elegance and grandeur. The prevalent style in the early to mid 19th century was the Greek revival style and no other style of plantation house spoke the language of the South like Greek revival. To the now wealthy plantation owners, growing richer every season, it was the perfect symbol of his achievement and from the 1830’s to the 1860’s, the great plantation homes rose from the same red earth that provided the means to build them.
The Greek revival style, considered by many to be last manifestation of the Classical style, allowed many a wealthy planter the opportunity to express his position in the hierarchy that existed in the Old South, at the very top. Moreover, it allowed the architects of the day an almost endless array of variety on a similar theme of layouts. While exceptions existed depending on the needs of the family, the layouts were almost invariably similar; living spaces on the ground floor and sleeping spaces on the second.
Aesthetically, they were beautiful, usually consisting of a wide front entrance with wings to the right and left of the entrance. From their short pedestal bases, tall columns rose to heights sometimes reaching 60 feet to support the large, oversized roofs that rested on ornamental entablatures. On some houses, these columns would only cover the front of the house, providing a porch to sit on when the weather was hot and maybe a balcony above; others had columns that surrounded the house and provided a peripteral colonnade with a second floor veranda, designed to enhance the visual presence of the house by making it appear even larger than it already was. Still others opted for a grand portico with a pediment atop it (think of Twelve Oaks in Gone with the Wind) to make the statement they wanted. To all of this, skilled craftsman of the type not found these days would create a variety of ornamental
touches including friezes, frescoes, moldings and dentils, all designed to present an imposing image to those that came to visit. The more money you had, the more you could spend and the more you spent, the more impressive the house you could have. It was as much of a testament to the wealth of the owner as were the quality of the materials a testament to the abilities of the builder. Topping it off were slate or shingled roofs, usually pitched or hip style, sometimes with embellishments like a widow’s walk railing or a cupola room and bordered by tall brick chimneys from fireplaces in all of the rooms below.
Construction was mainly of hardwood with a wood plank veneer and the body of the house sat atop foundations of brick or stone, although brick and stucco veneer was used as well depending on the region and the preferences of the owner. In most cases, they were painted white and even the brick homes were frequently whitewashed or painted, partly out of tradition and partly because white visibly ensured that even from a distance, they would not blend into the landscape around it but would instead, dominate it. Of course, no matter how much white paint you put on these beautiful antebellum homes, you couldn’t cover up the dark stain that afflicted each one of them and that was the slave labor upon whose backs they were built and who, in most cases, provided the manual labor that cut down trees, planed the boards and nailed them into place. In fact, the whole of the plantation industry was built this way, with the plantation owner at the top of the pyramid and human beings in bondage at the very bottom.
The living spaces were vital to the family life but even more so to the social life of the plantation owner, who was expected to host any number of events that would take place through the year, including barbecues, parties and balls that were part of the social season in the South. This of course was reciprocated by his neighbors who would hold their own events throughout the year. The giant homes were designed for entertaining and it was unacceptable for a plantation house not to have at least a piano on hand, if not a harp and other musical instruments as well. Children were educated in music and learned how to play from an early age, hauled out to perform every time guests came to visit. When the balls were held, usually in the large entrance halls or in the dining room with the table removed for the occasion, live music was the order of the day and enjoyed by all. The men and women who lived in these great houses were the actors in a long play that ran successfully for many seasons and the great plantation house was the stage upon which they played out their parts. This system, like the homes, could not last forever, but in 1860, these were the examples that could then be found all over my native state and in the others throughout the Old South that were built in the decades leading up to the Civil War. That war would change all of that and the society that the planters had built would crumble into ruin. The great homes they built would follow, but at a much slower rate over the course of man years.
During the war, many plantations would be destroyed, some by battles fought on their grounds, others by the torches of the northern invaders, who waged a war of total destruction as a way to break the backs of the southerners who rebelled against them. In 1864, Georgia alone lost hundreds of plantation homes, burned by the armies as they marched through the state, destroying everything in their path. When the war ended in April of the following year, the Old South was gone and all that remained was the scarred land and the plantation homes that had escaped the devastation.
With the war over, those men who were not killed returned to a world very different for them. Most of them who were rich when the war started were now reduced to poverty, the machines of their industry now free men and women and all that some of them had left were families they could barely feed and mansions they could no longer afford to maintain. Time took its toll on the great plantation houses, chipping away at their façade year after year, divesting them of their beauty and leaving behind aged reminders of days when money was no object and food was plentiful. Without the assurance of funds in the bank and without scores of servants to handle the care of the plantations, the fields once rich with cotton grew fallow and the land reclaimed them for forests of dense pine, while at the great homes, families had to choose between a new coat of paint or food on the table and food always won. Even so, for these families, the homes were all that they had and they clung to them fiercely and were loyal to them, and in return, the house gave shelter to the families that still loved it and called it home. Still, with repairs left undone and the ravages of the sweltering hot summers and the short but cold, wet winters, the houses suffered greatly despite the solid and sound construction they were crafted from. Over time, more were lost to natural or manmade disasters; fires were always a threat in the days of candles and oil lamps while the occasional floods, storms and lightning strikes took out others. Those that survived into the 20th century arrived looking a lot worse for wear, many still housing the second and third generations of the families that had built them, grown now and determined to keep them in the family at all costs, despite the fact that they were losing a long and slow battle against decay and neglect. To those that looked upon them now, they were a symbol of defeat, failure and famine, a visible reminder of a war lost and a way of life gone.
The breakdown of the plantation always started with the land, which over many years, would be sold acre by acre to help pay the taxes and provide food and sustenance for those still living on the land. Over time, the large plantations became smaller and smaller. By the 1930s, most all of them were reduced down to just the land that the big house sat upon and a few acres to plant some meager crops to feed the family. The once grand plantation homes now had taken on the aura of neglect, indicative of the poverty that was the South. Families began to die out or move away to find work as the jaws of the Great Depression opened to consume the nation for many years to come. Many of the homes lay empty now, with no one to care for them and allowing them to further deteriorate. Repairs were left undone; roofs leaked, termites consumed them and vandals pilfered what they could take from them. As the Depression deepened, those that still lived in them could not keep them up, the irony of living in a once grand mansion while in a state of abject poverty lost on no one. Families found themselves at the mercy of the banks, and many were evicted from homes that had now been in their families for four and five generations. The banks sold the ones they could, usually to families that were little better off than the ones who had departed from them. This was the state of things in the middle of the 1930’s.
During that time, the Roosevelt administration commissioned a landmark study of the architectural heritage still available in the United States that would consist of a survey of homes and buildings that were of historical significance, detailed photography of the highest resolution available at the time and the recreation of blueprints detailed enough that a builder could actually reconstruct them. Knowing that the architectural heritage of the Old South was disappearing faster than most others, emphasis was given on preserving the images and legacies of the houses that remained and over the next few years, thousands of photographs were made, historical documents collected and detailed blueprints created. The photographs detailed the shocking reality of the poor state of decline that most of the old plantation homes were in and in some cases, the living conditions that the occupants now existed in. The study brought awareness and helped to light the fires of many Americans who became interested in saving those homes that were not too far gone and in this way, preservationists were born. It was not an easy battle and the losses would continue as those homes deemed unsalvageable finally collapsed from decades of neglect while others, many still worth saving, fell to the wrecking ball to make way for new development. Ultimately though, a lot were saved through the intervention of new owners who devoted themselves to restoration and over time, these homes began to resemble the grand palaces they had once been. Today, new generations of appreciators enjoy these architectural jewels, lovingly maintaining them and keeping the history of them intact as a part of our heritage. While the stains of the past can never be completely wiped away, they stand as graceful and elegant reminders of that past and like the New South that exists today, they overcame adversity, they survived and finally, flourish once again. To me, they are architecturally significant in every way and history lives within them, the remembrances of great balls and parties, of generations of families raised within them, of servitude and ultimately, freedom for hundreds of thousands of human beings and of accomplishment, decline and rebirth, all a unique mixture to be sure. They remind us to learn from the past and not repeat the mistakes that were made but to also treasure what is old and unique and to preserve the past for betterment of the future.