Oldfields abandoned

January 16, 2010

A few months ago, a friend from Ocean Springs—Ray L. Bellande, a prodigious researcher who helped in many ways with both of my books on Shearwater and on Walter Anderson —sent photos of Oldfields in 2009, the way it is today.

Ray is the historical memory of Ocean Springs, and I’m sure that, through his writing and his efforts at preservation, he has done more than anyone in that town to save the past for the present, and the present for the future.

Oldfields porch, 2009. Thinking of this spot, Walter Anderson wrote: "I had never seen the sea before I stepped out on the front gallery. I was this year's bird born in the mountains. I had never seen the sea."

Ray also sent photographs of Oldfields from the 50s, from the remarkable CC. “Tex” Hamill “Down South Magazine Collection” at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.   In several of those old photographs, we can see Oldfields after the hurricane of 1947: the storm had washed away part of Oldfields’s foundations, eroding the bluff overlooking the Gulf in Gautier.

Oldfields, bedroom, May 2009. Photo Ray L. Bellande

The Anderson family had little money, but, a few years later, aware that the Andersons were keepers of a treasure, Agnes (Sissy) and Patricia Grinstead Anderson scraped together the money to have the entire house moved back from the bluff and placed on new foundations.

No such sense of responsibility –-either public or private– followed the devastation of Katrina. Shamefully, the present owner of Oldfields — a house built in the 1840s,  probably the only antebellum dwelling on the Coast– seems to be doing nothing to prevent its destruction. Instead, on a lot beside Oldfields, he began raising a grotesque 16,000 square foot cariciature of a “southern mansion.”

I wonder what the neighbors, the state of Mississippi, the town of Gautier have done to save Oldfields? Isn’t it worth keeping this piece of our common past, in this age of shopping malls and wallboard (last night, on HGTV I heard a realtor rave about the plastic “crown molding” in a flimflam apartment!)

Oldfields was built ca. 1845 for Alfred E. Lewis and purchased by W.W. Grinstead in 1904. In the 1930s, the Grinstead daughters, Patricia and Agnes (Sissy), married Peter Anderson, founder of Shearwater, and his brother Walter. Photo ca. 1952, showing hurricane damage, before the house was moved back from the bluff by Pat and Sissy. Mississippi Gulf Community College, CC. "Tex" Hamill Down South Magazine Collection; courtesy of Ray L. Bellande.

Don’t  states invoke the policy of eminent domain to seize land and houses for “economic development”? Couldn’t the same practice be used, for once, to preserve the past?  In England, such a house as this would be a public monument (and in fact, in 1980, Oldfields made it into the National Register of Historic Places). A couple of months ago, I wrote to a reporter at the Sun Herald – the Biloxi newspaper— and asked her to write about the abandonment of Oldfields, but got only a perfunctory response: she would check with her editor. I wrote to the lawyer for the owner — the one responsible for the ruin and for the unfinished monstrosity next door–  asking for an explanation, but got only silence for an answer. This is a disgrace.

PS on Jan 22:   Ray sends further news, after checking with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. It seems that MDAH awarded a sizable Hurricane Relief grant for the restoration of Oldfields, but the owners would never return the legal documents necessary to initiate the project.  MDAH gave several deadline extensions and tried hard to work with them, but it turned out that the ownership is in contention (maybe litigation), so no one has the authority to accept the grant for the property.  For the moment, until the legal matter is resolved, there is nothing MDAH can do.

PS  on Jan. 19:  Here’s an another old house with strikingly similar lines, lovingly restored: the Porter House, in Raymond, MS.  Beside the story of the restoration, take a look at the amazing gallery of photographs of Mississippi places and things.

A Post Postscrpt:  The person who took those wonderful photos has just sent me news of another antebellum, Greek revival house that is in danger… Ceres Plantation. Here’s an article by Danny Barrett in the Vicksburg Post.


3 Responses to “Oldfields abandoned”

  1. Kendall Says:

    Brings tears to my eyes. I’m so glad to find you again, Christopher. I have missed you. I’ve been on Leif’s blog and found a link to yours there. Oldfields disappearing. It breaks my heart. And then Haiti. There have been so many reasons for the heart to break lately.

  2. David Richmond Says:

    This is an outrage. Not only is this a rare surviving antebellum coastal home and should be saved for that reason alone, but Walter Anderson did some of his best work here. For that it should be restored as a shrine to a great Mississippi artist. It must be preserved!

    • David, thank you so much for your comment! I agree: an outrage! If the place is neglected much longer, it will surely disappear, or lose its soul! And nothing seems to be happening. There was to be a court case in Pascagoula last winter over the disputed title to Oldfields, but I’m not sure what happened. I gather that clearing the title would make everything much easier.

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