Arlington Mansion

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Arlington Mansion | Adams County, MS | c. 1818

It would be difficult to describe the feeling that overcomes you as you stand in front of Arlington. This feeling is only trumped by the next one that overcomes you as you enter the hollow shell of a mansion from another era. But through 200 years, this place has seen a lot and been through even more- and you can definitely tell. Embroiled in a tenuous battle between private owner and the city where it sits, the future of this historic treasure is very much in jeopardy.

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Arlington: the belle of natchez

This land where Arlington sits was purchased by Lewis Evans, a wealthy plantation owner in 1806. At that time, Natchez was already a thriving river town that had been founded in 1716 by French colonists.

It grew quickly to prominence because of its location on the busy Mississippi River. This would explode even more with the invention of the cotton gin (1793), steamships(18xx), and the subsequent growth of the Southern cotton industry. In fact, by 1860 Natchez had more millionaires per capita than New York City.

Early Natchez River Scene

Early Natchez River Scene

The records are somewhat contradictory about what happened on this land next, leading to some confusion about when Arlington was actually built.

In 1814, a land speculator named Jonathan Thompson bought this land from Lewis Evans then in 1818, Thompson sold it to Mr. and Mrs. John & Jane White who were from Elizabethtown, NJ.

By most accounts, Mr. John White (who designed the first bank building in Mississippi) is accredited with designing this home for his wife, Jane Surget White. While other accounts speculate that it was designed by architect Levi Weeks who also built Auburn and many other mansions nearby. And a final theory that this home was actually designed and built by Pierre Surget for his daughter Jane Surget (White).

However, an architectural survey in the 1970s surmised that portions of the house dated back to 1806. If this was true, it seems that the home might have actually be started by Lewis Evans and then perhaps expanded and improved upon later.

In any case, John & Jane White oversaw the final construction of the home on 55 wooded acres, but John would not get to see it finished as he passed away October 15, 1819 from yellow fever. When the home was completed in 1820, Mrs. White had an opening party for friends and family.

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The whole chamber had a yellow sheen- Aubusson carpet, embellished with floral patterns; lines of gold flowers against the paper wall; satin damask curtains, French mirrors framed in gold leaf; gold leaf cornices, tie-backs at the windows in the shape of gilt-bronze leaves holding grapes of milk-white glass.

-Description of the drawing room when Mrs. White opened the home

She died mysteriously the next day. The couple are both buried in Adams County and had no children. Arlington and all its antiques and furnishings were then passed to Jane’s sister, Mrs. Bingaman. Then passed to Judge Samuel Stillman Boyd, a rising lawyer from Cincinnati and his wife. It reportedly sat empty for sometime before coming under the ownership of Mrs. L.S. Gillette from 1917-1924.

Sometime after Mrs. Gillette, a widower named Hurbert Francis Barnum bought Arlington with many of its original furnishings still inside. Soon, he met his neighbor, Annie Shotwell Green Gwin, the owner of Monmouth and a widow with 3 young children. In a short period of time, he proposed to Annie and offered Arlington as a wedding gift to her. She moved from Monmouth next door with her 3 children. Mr. Barnum died in 1937 (or ‘39), leaving the house to his wife Annie who would continue the long traditions of Arlington.

HABS photo c. 1934

HABS photo c. 1934

When Annie passed away, her daughter Anne Gwin Vaughan was the next to inherit along with her husband Jack Chapline Vaughan. They had at least three children in this home, Anne, Thomas, (its current owner), and Gwin. Sadly, in 1945 at one year old, Gwin died from an accident that occurred at Arlington.


1970s-Today

As recently as the 1970’s the home was still in great shape- boasting a beautiful garden of azaleas, magnolia trees and moss-laden Live Oaks- some of which are registered with the National Live Oak Society. It still had a 300 year old piano, art from around the world, thousands of books-many of them first editions, chandeliers, fine china, and more. In 1973, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places and in 1974, it was designated a National Historic Landmark.

But according to accounts from locals, it had fallen into disrepair by the 1990s, after Anne & Jack Vaughan passed away. There were reportedly plans and efforts underway to repair the home but in September of 2002, the home was nearly consumed by fire that started upstairs, reportedly from an electrical fire that started with a faulty extension cord in the attic.

2002 Fire Damage closeup

2002 Fire Damage closeup

September 2002- Arlington on fire

September 2002- Arlington on fire

The roof was completely destroyed as well as much of the interior of the home. At the time, many of the fine furnishings, books, and art were still in the home-mostly in the attic where the fire started. There are stories that the Smithsonian intended to visit the home to acquire some of the books and art before the fire, but it isn’t clear if they ever made it.

The local historic society rallied together to replace the roof to prevent further issues while something was decided. The owner, Dr. Thomas Vaughan (who lives in Jackson, MS), alleges that at this time, valuables, art, furnishing, and equipment were stolen from inside the home. This would be the start of a strained relationship between Arlington’s current owner and city & preservation professionals that continues to this day.

Upstairs bedroom missing windows and walls burnt from 2002 fire

Upstairs bedroom missing windows and walls burnt from 2002 fire

Upstairs bedroom fireplace with visible fire damage and vandalism

Upstairs bedroom fireplace with visible fire damage and vandalism

Although the roof was replaced, most of the rest of Arlington remained in ruin with fire damage to mantels, walls, doorways, and floors. The home was open and unmonitored as well which led to vandals and thieves making their way with this home. Today, nearly all of the finishes, detail work, and any wood that could be removed has been. A home that was once decorated with the finest art from around the world is now a shell adorned with obscene graffiti and littered with trash and signs of vagrancy. The front porch railings are missing and the two-story back porch has collapsed completely. Every window and door is gone.

The owner has been taken to court on numerous occasions and levied with huge fines to do something about the home, but the allegations and distrust have been bred so deep, that Dr. Vaughan and the city seem to be doomed to an eternal gridlock. He has been charged with demolition by neglect, however, because the home is his private property, it has been difficult to compel him to act. A small victory came when arrangements were made for monthly lawn maintenance here so as not to be an eyesore to the community.

To add to the troubles, insuring Arlington is a huge hoop that any potential buyer would have to be ready to face. After all-how do you insure something that is literally irreplaceable? Alas, I’m getting way too far ahead, as he refuses to sell the home to interested buyers so only time will tell how soon we might lose her altogether.

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A Grand southern home in its prime

Entry foyer as it looked in the 1930s

Entry foyer as it looked in the 1930s

 
First floor parlor photo

First floor parlor photo

Entry foyer as it looked in the 1970s

Entry foyer as it looked in the 1970s

“Across the broad hallway which is hung with rare paintings by old-world masters such as Vernet, Baroccio, Carlo Dolci, and Coccanari, is the Music Room which contains a spinet more than three hundred years old. There are family portraits in this room—some of musicians in the family—by such renowned artists as Sully, Audubon, Albani, Fidanza, and Maratti.

The Library holds some five thousand books.”

Source

Interior Hall image with art, furnishings, and antiques

Interior Hall image with art, furnishings, and antiques

Many things were passed from owner to owner, creating an irreplaceable collection that spanned the globe and many eras.

The incredible collection that once resided in this home began with the antiques, art, furnishings, and literature of the Surget Family. They were wealthy French immigrants who acquired most of their collectibles from Europe, including a piano that was 300 years old and still here in the 1970s.

Judge S.S. Boyd reportedly had an incredible collection of books as well.

Mrs. Annie Barnum continued the collection by adding more rare books, many of which were first editions.

Drawing Room with chandeliers, fine carpets, mirrors, and furnishings, much of which were imported from France. Some of the images you see below are of this same room as it looks today.

Drawing Room with chandeliers, fine carpets, mirrors, and furnishings, much of which were imported from France. Some of the images you see below are of this same room as it looks today.

Arlington’s Library which, over the years, came to be known as one of the most extensive collections of fine literature thanks to Arlington’s many owner-book collectors. At one point, this library reportedly kept many priceless first editions, including Tom Sawyer. Some of the images you see below are of this same room as it looks today.

Arlington’s Library which, over the years, came to be known as one of the most extensive collections of fine literature thanks to Arlington’s many owner-book collectors. At one point, this library reportedly kept many priceless first editions, including Tom Sawyer. Some of the images you see below are of this same room as it looks today.


A palace now in shambles

Doorway openings are trimmed with radiating brick voussoirs and with keystones and impost blocks of carved marble. Each opening contains a twelve-panel, single-leaf door, two sidelights with decorative muntins, and a fanlight with radiating, swag and oval muntins

Doorway openings are trimmed with radiating brick voussoirs and with keystones and impost blocks of carved marble. Each opening contains a twelve-panel, single-leaf door, two sidelights with decorative muntins, and a fanlight with radiating, swag and oval muntins

The view from the second floor central hall. The exposed beams from the ceiling and surrounding the door are damaged from the the 2002 fire.

The view from the second floor central hall. The exposed beams from the ceiling and surrounding the door are damaged from the the 2002 fire.

One of the 4 large rooms on the first floor-likely the library or sitting parlor.

One of the 4 large rooms on the first floor-likely the library or sitting parlor.

One of the 4 large rooms on the first floor. I believe this to have been a sitting parlor or maybe the library.

One of the 4 large rooms on the first floor. I believe this to have been a sitting parlor or maybe the library.

2nd floor bedroom with windows missing and graffiti. The exposed beams you see above are from the new roof that was put on after the 2002 fire. The shutters you see on the ground used to adorn the front windows.

2nd floor bedroom with windows missing and graffiti. The exposed beams you see above are from the new roof that was put on after the 2002 fire. The shutters you see on the ground used to adorn the front windows.

More visible fire damage to the 2nd floor bedrooms as a result of the 2002 fire. The damage to this particular room makes me think that the attic fire likely started above this room.

More visible fire damage to the 2nd floor bedrooms as a result of the 2002 fire. The damage to this particular room makes me think that the attic fire likely started above this room.

Another view of a 2nd floor bedroom with fire damage to the wood portions of the room and vandalism to the interior hearth. I wonder how many cold evenings were warmed by this fireplace before heat and electricity were available.

Another view of a 2nd floor bedroom with fire damage to the wood portions of the room and vandalism to the interior hearth. I wonder how many cold evenings were warmed by this fireplace before heat and electricity were available.

2nd floor bedroom with substantial fire damage. The exposed beams in the ceiling are from the new roof that was replaced after the fire in 2002.

2nd floor bedroom with substantial fire damage. The exposed beams in the ceiling are from the new roof that was replaced after the fire in 2002.


Arlington floor plans

ADDITIONAL Notes

  • During the ownership of L.S. Gillette from 1917-1924, bathrooms were added on the landings of the stair and on the rear gallery

  • A long drive would’ve approached this home from the East elevation

  • There were numerous outbuildings and likely slave homes- although none are still within the property lines


Arlington Then and Now

Rearview of Arlington c. 1930s and in 2015. you will notice that the entire rear two-story porch, including its columns, have collapsed.

Press the arrow Left or Right to see then and now images.

Another view of the rear of Arlington and its backyard, circa 1940s or 50s and as it looked overgrown in 2015.

Press the arrow Left or Right to see then and now images.

The front elevation of Arlington c. 1930s and 2015.

Press the arrow Left or Right to see then and now images.

Front doorway c. 1930s and 2015

The entry was once described as: “The great carved entrance door leading to the spacious hall is crowned with intricately wrought fanlights, and the broad veranda is approached by wide steps of concrete.”


Reflections on Arlington

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Imagine a carriage that approaches on the long drive to the magnificent entrance of this home. Mrs. Jane White climbs from her surrey in a fine custom dress and bonnet. She pauses to admire the American palace that she now calls home. As her wide hoop skirt brushes the doorway, she steps into the grand central hall adorned with art work and antiques that have been gathered from across the world.

As she passes through the hall she marvels at the collection and grins in gracious acknowledgement. Moments later, her first guests are announced- the time has come to open her home to showcase her standing in Southern society.

The finest h’ors d’oeuvers are served, fine wines from Europe are imbibed, music fills the rooms, and the upper crust of Mississippi Plantation Society saunters from room to room, admiring the marvel that was erected here.

A great evening is had by all and at nights close, she bids her guests adieu and heads up the grand central staircase. She climbs into her bed and lays her head upon fine silk sheets. As she takes stock of the evenings success, she passes into sleep. Mrs. White would never wake up.

The stairs that she climbed to head to bed that last night

The stairs that she climbed to head to bed that last night

This narrative, while slightly embellished, is the generally-accepted account of Mrs. White’s last night in Arlington and her last night on this earth. I think of this story often and of that night in her home.

I recall the bedrooms I stood in and know that one of them was the room. How bizarre that almost 200 years later, her home still stands here and here I find myself, pondering her life in the very room she took her last breath.

In many ways, it feels intrusive to be in such a heavy place, but on the other hand, the story is important and deserves to be brought to light. I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I did.

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Unknown child on the front stairs of Arlington

Unknown child on the front stairs of Arlington


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