Elms owner finds new love in old house

Published 12:01 am Friday, April 6, 2012

LAUREN WOOD/THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Esther Carpenter holds her dog Lucy outside of the Elms, which she owns and manages as a bed and breakfast. The Elms has been in her family for five generations, being passed down from one woman to another woman in her family.

NATCHEZ — A woman’s touch can weave a spell on a home, and The Elms has had five generations of women intertwining their presence at the historic home.

Esther Carpenter’s great-great-grandmother bought The Elms in the 1870s, and the house has since been passed down through the women of the Carpenter family.

Carpenter’s mother owned the house until she died in 2006 and left it to Carpenter and her siblings. Carpenter said she took over The Elms and has worked to keep the home in her family.

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The historic home is nestled under the mighty oak trees that tower over the grounds on Washington Street. Carpenter said each of her family members has left their special touch and their presence at The Elms.

“They’re still here, that’s the way it feels to me,” she said. “They’re here watching over the house.”

Taking care of The Elms has not been a piece of cake, Carpenter said, but she said her prior work experience has helped. Carpenter is an artist and also a professional chef. She previously operated a decorative painting business and lived for 20 years in Los Angeles.

The Elms is a bed-and-breakfast and venue for weddings, parties and other events.

“It’s been very difficult running the place with the economy the way it has been the past few years,” Carpenter said. “I run the bed and breakfast and do weddings and other events all to make ends meet.

Carpenter has considered selling The Elms more than once, she said, but could never bring herself to give up her family’s home.

“I feel like after so many generations put so much hard work into and sacrificed so much to keep it, it just wouldn’t feel right for me to give up and sell it,” Carpenter said.

Carpenter said her favorite thing about The Elms is its “quirkiness” and mix of architectural styles.

The house was built around 1804 and originally held two ground-floor rooms, two second-floor rooms and a two-room attic. In 1815, an extensive remodeling added a new two-story wing with higher ceilings and a parlor on the first floor and a master bedroom above it. The remodel also enclosed the front galleries into halls.

An element of The Elms that many people find interesting, Carpenter said, is the personal possessions left behind by Carpenter’s family.

The diary of her great-great grandmother, love letters exchanged between her great-aunt and uncle and her great-aunt’s unusual artwork are just a few pieces of the family’s history discovered at The Elms.

Carpenter said her great aunt Alma made plaster molds, which she used to make wax fruit, flowers and other things for art. One of Alma’s creation’s, an arrangement of red wax flowers and greenery framed in a shadow box, was displayed at the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia.

The Smithsonian Institution, Carpenter said, requested the piece for its collection, but she said her mother believed it was too fragile to travel. The piece now hangs in the parlor at The Elms and, Carpenter said, is a conversation piece for Pilgrimage-goers.

Pilgrimage has been a Carpenter family tradition since the Natchez ritual began in the 1930s.

“In Natchez, many people will say our homes own us not the other way around,” Carpenter said.

Carpenter said Pilgrimage is a reminder of the unique gift she has found at The Elms.

“It’s my home and my connection to my family,” she said. “I love it so much.”

A home and a link to her past are not the only gifts Carpenter has found at The Elms, she has also found true love.

Carpenter met her fiancé, Mark Lowrey of Lafayette, La., while he was a guest three years ago at The Elms.

“He loves it here in Natchez and loves The Elms,” she said. “We want to be married here and share our lives together here.”

Carpenter said she believes people visit Natchez, especially during Pilgrimage, because several antebellum homeowners have a real, personal history and connection to the home’s past.

“I think that’s what people who come to Natchez like to see, that somehow there is a tangible connection to the past and not just a museum-like preservation of the past,” she said. “We’re a living continuation of the way it was.”

The Elms is on the Pilgrimage green tour and will be on tour from 1:30 p.m. until 5 p.m. today, April 10 and April 14, which is the last day of Spring Pilgrimage.