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Jefferson Davis Library Receives New Home

Mon June 13, 2011 - Southeast Edition
Lori Lovely

Damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library and Museum at Beauvoir is undergoing a transformation in a new location. The library opened in 1997 as a research center and museum to Davis’ life and times, but the building, along with many artifacts housed on the first floor, such as a giant First National flag that flew over the Spotsylvania Hotel in Richmond, Va., sustained significant damage during the storm. Luckily, guns, swords and other artifacts and much of the research on the second floor were safe from the 24-ft. surge.

Every building at the Confederate president’s retirement home was damaged or destroyed by the powerful hurricane. Renovation and rebuilding have been under way on the various structures, some of which have been completed.

According to Allen Helms, project manager of J.C. Duke and Associates, based in Mobile, Ala., the library was 50 percent destroyed. While, from a structural standpoint, the library could be repaired, because it sits in a new FEMA flood zone, it had to be torn down and built on higher ground in order to collect federal funding in the amount of $12.5 million. The new raised presidential library is being constructed farther back to consolidate museums, gift shop and research center.

The ’Other’

Presidential Home

Located in Biloxi, Miss., Beauvoir was the last home of Jefferson Davis. Built by James Brown, a wealthy plantation owner, from 1848 to 1852 as a summer home for his family of 13 children, it was called Orange Grove because of the Satsuma oranges growing on the property. It was sold at public auction in 1873 by his widow to satisfy taxes due on his estate.

Frank Johnson, a land speculator, purchased the house and then sold it three months later.

In 1877 when Jefferson Davis was searching for a quiet retreat on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, a family friend invited him to stay at Beauvoir. He insisted on paying $50 a month for room and board. Two years later, he made an offer to purchase the property for $5,500, to be paid in three installments. Six months after receiving the first payment, the owner, Mrs. Dorsey, died. As her sole heir, Davis inherited the house and other property.

Upon Davis’ death in 1889, Beauvoir passed to his daughter, but when she died in 1898, Davis’ widow inherited the property, which she sold to the Mississippi Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans with the stipulation that it was to be used as a home for veterans and their widows. It served that purpose from 1903 to 1957. Davis’ widow also requested that the property be used as a memorial to her husband and the Confederate soldier, which it continues to be.

Hurricane Katrina caused considerable damage to the house. Wind ripped off the distinctive front gallery, its steps and roof cover, which also caused damage to interior walls. Eight-foot-tall piers were washed out and the back porch collapsed. But according to Randy McCaffery, architect and construction administrator for the restoration, only 25 percent of the structure was lost. In March 2007, the restoration contract for Beauvoir House was awarded to Lathan Company of Mobile.

The need to repair hurricane damage allowed for restoration of a period look to the Confederate president’s home, now a National Historic Landmark. The trompe d’oeil ceiling has been restored; original faux wood and marble finishes once again adorn window casings, and mantels, doors and paint colors reflect period accuracy.

The work, which was completed within a year, was overseen by Albert & Associates out of Hattiesburg, at a cost of $3.9 million, most of which came from federal and state historic preservation funds — with strict oversight by the Mississippi Department of Archives & History. Other funds came from insurance settlements, private donations and programs such as the National Park Service’s Save America’s Treasures.

The house, now owned by the Mississippi Division, United Sons of Confederate Veterans, has survived 21 hurricanes to become a popular tourist destination. When Katrina hit, because the floor of the house is 23 feet above sea level, only 8 to 12 inches of surge entered Beauvoir. Old-world construction techniques also helped preserve it. However, the two cottages on the front lawn, including the one in which Davis wrote “The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government,” were destroyed. Replicas are being built at a cost of $800,000.

Beyond the Beauvoir

The Beauvoir restoration includes replacement of the carpenter and foreman shops. Although the facades will look authentic to Davis’ time, the interiors will be modern for a catering kitchen and dining hall.

In order to re-create the kitchen, Forte found the original 1885 glass negative of a 1901 postcard in the Library of Congress, according to a report in the Sun Herald. The Department of Archives and History “enlarged the photograph, placed it in the spot the picture was taken on the lawn of Beauvoir and determined the precise location and scale of the building.”

Other buildings on the grounds that were affected by Katrina include the Confederate Soldiers Museum, built in the 1920s as a hospital for Confederate veterans. The brick building housed the gift shop, artifacts from Beauvoir’s Old Soldier’s Home period and the Civil War. Among lost artifacts is $300,000 in Confederate currency destroyed by water in the collection vault. A replica soldier’s barracks was destroyed by the storm, along with the Beauvoir director’s home, a smaller replica of Davis’ plantation home in Warren County.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy Arch that once marked the entrance to Beauvoir is being rebuilt near the cemetery on the northwestern area of the 50-acre property.

Checking Out

the New Library

Next to the historic home, the new library is being erected. Helms, as project manager of general contractor J.C. Duke, anticipates completion by the end of summer — “significantly behind schedule.”

The new structure is a purpose-built museum/library, with display areas and space for rotating exhibits. The 25,000-sq.-ft. (2,322 sq m), poured-in-place concrete structure is built on 160 drilled piers, 60 ft. (18.2 m) deep, 4 ft. (1.2 m) apart and filled with reinforced concrete slurry. The piers range in diameter from 24 to 96 in. (60 to 243 cm).

Built to 140-mph wind specifications with zero-dimension-tolerance finishes, it took well over a year to complete. According to J.C. Duke, a glazed utility brick veneer and cut stone resembling marble is being placed over a grid of concrete for the foundation and concrete walled poured on site. The veneer is entirely pre-coursed (pre-patterned with no allowance for cuts or variance in mortar joints) and laid on a stack bond (vertical mortar joints are “stacked” on top of one another, rather than staggered). The placement of architectural cast stone is exact, coinciding with the coursing of the brick. Helms noted that a few cornerstones from the original building will be incorporated into the new structure.

Interior features include a 40-ft. (12 m) tall atrium with a skylight, 30-ft. (9 m) ceiling entryways, 6 by 11-ft. (1.8 by 3.3 m) pivoting wall panels allowing access to the rotating gallery, four sets of 11 ft 6 in. wooden pocket doors, polished concrete and patterned ceramic tile floors, and floor and ceiling inlays. In addition, the building features a FEMA 361 Safe Room for artifacts on the second floor in case of future natural disasters.

The floor plan calls for a gift shop, offices and a multipurpose room for meetings on the first floor of the building. The second floor will feature the presidential library, two museums — one honoring Davis and one a Confederate military museum — and a boardroom with a balcony overlooking the Gulf. Designed by Larry Albert of Albert & Assoc., the same architect of the original library, it will include impressive features such as a 56-ft. (17 m) entryway, curved balconies and four sets of 12-ft.-tall (3.6 m) wooden doors.

In order to accomplish the work, Helms said crews used “a lot of pump trucks,” sprayer rigs, scissor lifts and back hoes. We used a lot of lifts,” he emphasized. Supplementing its own equipment, J.C. Duke rented three 60-ft. (18 m) man lifts with welders, two 19-ft. (5.8 m) scissor lifts, two 10,000 and one 5,000 fork lifts, an 18-ton (16 t) crane, 30-ton (27 t) crane and 28-ton (25 t) crane, a boom and truck.

Working a five-day week with minimal overtime, an average of 70-100 people, including sub-contractors, were on site. When they were pouring concrete, Helms said 60 Duke employees were needed.

Several factors contributed to delaying the work. Weather was one.

“This spring it’s good,” Helms said, “but last year it kicked our butt. It was either too cold or too hot to pour concrete, and we had lots of rain and lots of freezing weather. Even when the weather was cooperative, crews had to pay attention to archeology. They didn’t find much other than a few bottles.”

While historic preservationists conducted surveys on the 51-acre site for artifacts, volunteers and staff searched the grounds to recover items from the storm. Richard Forte Sr., acting Beauvoir director, told the Sun Herald that all the documents that were on the library’s second floor when Katrina hit and four original Confederate flags, which would be worth at least $100,000 each, were preserved.

Another group of work crews had to accommodate was tourists, once the main house re-opened.

Explaining that the library is a “basic brick and mortar concrete structure,” Helms said the only unique aspect of the project was its former resident. Nevertheless, he said, “We’re excited about being part of it.” CEG

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