Back to grandeur: Longwood roof undergoing repairs
NATCHEZ — Original Longwood owner Dr. Haller Nutt never got to saunter up marble steps, gaze at a smooth stucco siding or sleep in his completed master suite.
The unfinished house still stands as a symbol of the rapid rise and fall of wealth in Natchez — a monument to the money that rushed in like gold thanks to cotton and slave labor and was quickly cut off with the Civil War, among other things, in the late 19th century.
“(Longwood) is a physical reminder of that,” Natchez Pilgrimage Director Marsha Colson said.
Construction of the house was interrupted in 1861, when the Pennsylvania contractor declined the risk of working in the South following the outbreak of the Civil War.
But nearly a century after Nutt’s ambition of finishing his dream house died, Natchezians are still working to preserve the unfinished product, whose octagonal structure and cupola reach 100 feet in the air to impress.
Longwood generally sells the most tickets to visitors for tours, Colson said. And she said the city’s top tourism officials often point outsiders down the gravel road off Lower Woodville Road to Longwood.
“Eugenie Cates coined the phrase — ‘It’s our Taj Mahal,’” Colson said of Longwood.
The Pilgrimage Garden Club has been fundraising approximately five years to paint the dome of the cupola, PGC member and Longwood tour guide Gay Guercio said.
Colson said when crews from Concordia Contractors hiked six stories to the top of the cupola, they realized more work was needed than originally planned.
For the last few weeks, crews from Concordia Contracting, Smith Sheet Metal Work and painter Johnny Franks have been working to pressure wash then repaint the dome, fix holes in the leaded tin structure, repair or replace wooden spindles on the banisters around the cupola and touch up the woodwork below the dome.
Some crews could work on the woodwork of the cupola by climbing the inside, unfinished staircases, but workers conducted their craft on the dome from a crane.
“It’s a little scary up there,” said Richard Durkin of Concordia Contracting.
Colson said fundraising is always ongoing for Longwood repairs, but proceeds from the Halloween carnival at Longwood have been saved up for repairs in recent years.
This past week, the dome finally got its new shade of red paint.
“We’re thrilled; we are absolutely thrilled,” Guercio said.
Guercio said the dome was painted red after the PGC was given the house in 1989. At that time, the garden club decided to make a fiberglass replica the original 23-foot oak finial that had deteriorated and fallen off the house in 1900.
While working at the high distance to install the new finial, crews did a paint analysis on the dome, which was silver at the time, and discovered it had once been red.
Guercio said before the Nutts lost their money stored in confederate banks, they wanted to paint the dome beige to match the house. The Nutts intended the brick to be covered in stucco and painted beige in order to look like sandstone.
It was painted red as a primer coat before the war started, Nutt died and his wife Julia and her eight children lived out the remainder of their lives in the basement with little money, Guercio said.
Guercio said the garden club decided to paint the dome it’s original color, red, even though the primer was originally just a step on the way to grander plans.
Colson and Guercio agreed its both the story and the structure that make Longwood so compelling.
“It has become iconic of Natchez because it’s unique — I don’t know there’s anything like it…and the story itself is representative of what happened (to the wealthiest in Natchez),” Colson said.
Guercio said the garden club tried to keep the condition in near perfect form, but that is of course relative to an unfinished dream of someone a century and a half ago.
Colson said Longwood and a number of other Natchez mansions were built as monuments to their “wealth, society accomplishments, whatever,” but Longwood might be the one that tells the truest story of how it all unraveled.