Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Story of the Ruins of Windsor ...


[You can click on the pictures to enlarge them]

My husband and I recently visited one of Mississippi's greatest historical icons, "The Windsor Ruins." Before I share my personal visit to the Ruins and my photographs, I'd like to give a brief history of Windsor.

The story of "The Ruins of Windsor" begins with the birth of Smith Coffee Daniell, II, in Mississippi in 1826, the son of an Indian fighter turned farmer and wealthy landowner. Daniell owned 21,000 acres in Mississippi and Louisiana. In 1849, he married his cousin Catherine Freeland (1830-1903), and they had three children.

In 1859, the couple started construction of Windsor, the largest antebellum Greek Revival mansion built in the state of Mississippi. Windsor Plantation, about 12 miles southwest of Port Gibson in Claiborne County, covered over 2,600 acres and overlooked the Mississippi River in the distance.

From the elaborate furnishings, to the wrought iron staircase, the four story home was designed to reflect the height of Southern life at the time. It is said that Mark Twain compared Windsor to a college instead of a residence, due to its size.

It was built for $175,000 (not a small sum at the time), which included the actual construction cost and its furnishings (today's cost would be approximately 3.5 million dollars).

Windsor's basic style was Greek Revival, with added details borrowed from the Italianate and Gothic styles of architecture. It had twenty-three rooms with twenty-three fireplaces, and an above-level basement containing a school room, dairy, and supply rooms. Tanks in the attic supplied water for the interior baths. The ell-shaped extension on the east side, attached to a single row of columns extending from the main square, contained the kitchen, pantry, and dining room.

Construction was completed in 1861, and sadly, Smith Daniell only lived in the mansion for a few weeks before he died at the age of 34. His wife and children continued to live at Windsor, but were left to suffer the loss of much of the family's holdings.

During the Civil War, Windsor was used by by both Union and Confederate troops. From the roof observatory, signal equipment was used to signal Confederate troops of Yankee advances, and a Yankee soldier was shot in the front doorway of the home.

Windsor was also used as a Union hospital and observation post, which is most likely the reason it was spared from being burned by the Union troops.

In 1991, historians discovered this drawing by Henry Otis Dwight, an officer in the 20th Ohio Infantry, which he made while his unit was encamped on the grounds of the home ...

This drawing is the only known depiction of what Windsor actually looked like after it was completed.

After the war, Windsor continued to be used for social gatherings in the area. Mark Twain stayed at the home and is said to have used the roof observatory to observe the Mississippi River. He wrote of its elegance in Life on the Mississippi.

On February 17, 1890, a guest accidentally dropped a cigarette in debris left by carpenters making repairs to the third floor, and Windsor was consumed by fire. The only remnants were 23 of the 29 columns, a few pieces of china, and a set of wrought iron stairs and portions of the balustrade. The stairs and balustrade are now used at Alcorn State University's chapel which is nearby.

Added to the National Register of Historic Places on November 23, 1971, the Ruins are maintained by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Descendants of the Daniell family donated Windsor Ruins to the State of Mississippi in 1974.

On July 13, 2008, a hot Sunday afternoon, my husband and I traveled to Windsor, which is located about 11 miles southwest of Port Gibson, Mississippi.

At the end of a rural gravel lane off Mississippi Hwy. 552, the 23 elegant 45-foot tall Corinthian columns stand proudly and defiantly, as if they rose from the ashes as a reminder of Windsor's glorious existence.

The only word that sufficiently describes the Ruins is magnificent. As defined in Webster's, magnificent means "marked by stately grandeur and lavishness; sumptuous in structure and adornment; impressive to the mind or spirit" ... and The Windsor Ruins are, indeed, all of that and more.

It is mind-boggling to me to try to imagine building a house like Windsor almost 150 years ago. Basic construction of the house was done by slave labor. The bricks for use in the 45-foot columns were made in a kiln across the road from the house.

The columns were then covered with mortar and plaster. The columns supported the projecting roof line with its plain, broad frieze and molded cornice. This provided protection for the galleries that encompassed the house at the second and third levels. The fluted columns had ornate iron Corinthian capitals and were joined at the galleries by a beautiful ornamental iron balustrade, remnants of which you can see in the pictures.

Skilled carpenters were brought in from New England for the finished woodwork. The iron stairs, column capitals, and balustrades were manufactured in St. Louis and shipped down the Mississippi River to the Port of Bruinsburg several miles west of Windsor.

All of that sounds pretty straight-forward and simple, doesn't it? But if you look at my pictures you will realize there was nothing "simple" about the construction of Windsor.

Just the brickwork alone involved in constructing one of the columns would have been a daunting task.

Then, plaster and mortar were applied over the bricks, and the fluting effect was done.

If you think about it, each column was a work of art created by master craftsmen ... and they built 29 of them!

And speaking of works of art ... just look at the elaborate detailing of the iron Corinthian capitals atop each column, and the iron balustrades which connected the columns.

It was an eerie and almost reverent experience to walk the grounds surrounding Windsor, and to see the huge old walnut trees that were there over 100 years ago. Perhaps Henry Otis Dwight leaned up against this one as he made his sketch of Windsor, unaware of the significant role it would play in the history of Windsor ...

This walnut tree is at the back corner near the crumbling brick fireplace ...

This old oak stands like a sentry across the road from the lane leading to the Ruins. If only trees could talk ...

After withstanding almost 150 years of winds and rains, and hot, humid Mississippi summers, the beautiful vine-covered Ruins of Windsor still stand proud, seemingly determined to endure as a memorial to Smith Coffee Daniell, II, and his Windsor ... the glorious house which once stood in their shadows.

I wonder how many of the mansions of today will still be standing 150 years from now.

I hope you enjoyed my story about the Windsor Ruins." My next post will include photographs I took of a few stops we made after our visit to Windsor. I hope you will join me for that tour.

Sincerely,



7 comments:

Picket said...

Girl I love the detail you give of such beautiful history! We needed history teachers like you when I was in school...You just have a way of making someone wnat to learn! lol I feel like I have been there with you..loved it! I also want to thank you for that beautiful comment you left..I loved the part where you said you & your sweet mama read it together..oh how blessed are we to have such a loving relationship with our parents..thanks so much sweetie and I hope you are having a glorious day!

Diane@A Picture is Worth.... said...

Hi Janie,
I really enjoyed your post today! I've not been to the Ruins of Windsor.....yet!

That was one of the places we didn't make it to on our Mississippi tour...and we were really close I think!

You do a great job of promoting sites and places in our state and around the south. We have so much here that people don't know about!
Diane

Jon said...

Janie, What a great post! I enjoyed both your photos and your text. I majored in history at Ole Miss and have always loved any and everything to do with our unique Mississippi history. One of my favorite teenage memories was going down to Windsor to watch the filming there of the movie "Raintree County" staring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Cliff. I was so excited to see them "in person", and yes, Elizabeth Taylor's eyes are truly that rare "violet-blue" as described back then. We were near enough to the actors (behind rope lines for spectators)that as they walked on and off the set that I could have reached out and touched her. Nobody was allowed to do that of course or even to ask for their autographs, but it created an indelible memory anyway just being there and seeing them go through the many "shoots" the cameramen put them through. Did you ever see this movie? Best regards, Jon on 7-16-08 at Mississippi Garden blog.

The Promoted Princess said...

I am a Star, Mississippi resident who has visited the Ruins. I took a few photos and have hung one of them in my living room. It has started many conversations about the history around Mississippi. You told the story beautifully.

Tammy Rollins said...

I just had a small wedding ceremony at Windsor Ruins. I had on a white and black hoop, corset wedding dress. The groom wore an old-world tux, vest, and stripped pants with a hat. If you'd like pictures, email me. I'd be happy to share our cherished memory with you.

Southern Lady said...

Tammy, I would love to see pictures of your wedding ceremony at Windsor, but don't have an e-mail address for you. Please send them to my southernlagniappe@njwbllc.com address.

Thank you for offering to share your pictures. I hope you get this note.

Anita Hitchcock said...

Thank you for the wonderful pics of Windsor along with some of its history. A very fascinating place I plan to visit soon.