Saturday, January 4, 2014

Windsor Ruins: A Mississippi Historical Treasure

[Revised from post orginally published August 2008]

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 share 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 in rural Claiborne County, about 11 miles southwest of Port Gibson, Mississippi.

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

At the end of the 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 comes to mind to sufficiently describe 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 below. 

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 ... note the elaborate detailing of the iron Corinthian capitals atop each column, and the iron balustrades which connected the columns. 


It was an eerie, almost reverent, experience to walk the grounds surrounding Windsor, and to see the huge old walnut trees that were there over 100 years ago. 

The tree in the picture below is at the back corner, near a crumbling brick fireplace.

Perhaps Henry Otis Dwight leaned up against it as he made his sketch of Windsor, unaware of the significant role it would play in the history of Windsor.

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

Epilogue:   These pictures captured The Ruins as they were six years ago, and I doubt I will ever return to Windsor, preferring to remember them as they were then.

If you are ever in the Vicksburg or Port Gibson area, I encourage you to take the time to visit this awe-inspiring icon of Mississippi history before it crumbles and fades away even more.


Judy said...

I'm so glad you introduced me to this magnificent place a few years ago when we first visited it. You are so right...magnificent doesn't even begin to describe this place. Mind boggling, maybe? We went again last February. I don't know if we'll ever go back again either, but I hope it is maintained so this piece of history is preserved. If not, I have my pictures (and yours) and memories of Windsor Ruins.

The Quintessential Magpie said...

I get a lump in my throat every time I see a photo of these sentinels.

Elizabeth Taylor stood on the steps there when she filmed "Rain Tree County", steps which now grace one of the most beautiful structures at Alcorn. They are as sturdy and gorgeous as they were when they were installed at Windsor. It is amazing. And loving architectural history the way I do, I particularly loved your photos and the history you recounted here. When my father and I toured special places in the South, I remember seeing this for the first time as a child and being awed. It is still as magnificent today.

Thank you, Janie. Your photography is a gift.



Richard Cottrell said...

I'd so love to walk among the ruined finery and dream that I once might have been entertained inside. Days gone by, never to be again. Thanks for sharing.Richard

Beth said...

I visited Windsor just a few weeks before you did in the summer of 2008. I was TOTALLY unprepared for the breath taking away, heart stopping awe that came over me as I came around the corner and saw the ruins for the first time. I wished it had not been so secluded so I would have felt comfortable to take time to sit and contemplate the history of the house and the many souls that were a part of its past. Thanks for sharing (I need to do a post on this property, too).

Pat said...


My husband and I visited the Windsor Ruins area thanks to your original post.

Loved this post with all the historical information and your beautiful photos.

Yes, we could feel the echoes of the past as you have so nicely documented in your latest post ... Wonderful historical information. Loved it!
Pat in Tallahassee