Efforts Underway To Restore Beauvoir

A Columbus native has an ardent interest in restoring the Gulf Coast estate where Confederate President Jefferson Davis lived his final years. Beauvoir was severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina, but Phillip Gunter hopes it can be repaired by the 200th anniversary of Davis' birthday in 2008. ``It is structurally sound and we can restore it,'' said Gunter, a member of the Beauvoir Board of Trustees.

Katrina's 145 mph winds and massive storm surge wiped out many structures on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, but Beauvoir was left standing. However, the hurricane ripped off the 153-year-old mansion's front and side porches and caused its roof to cave in. An estimated $32 million is needed to renovate Davis' house and adjacent library, said Gunter, a Brandon financial planner. He noted he had been at the beachfront property for a Beauvoir board meeting just two weeks before Hurricane Katrina smashed the coast Aug. 29. He has since returned to see the damage. ``It's been through a lot of hurricanes. This one did real damage. Camille did too (in 1969), but not to this extent,'' Gunter said.

Also left standing at the Biloxi estate is the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library. While its first floor was gutted by the tidal surge, the upstairs archives were not damaged. The contents of the house and library have been retrieved and are now in safe storage. However, Katrina destroyed the library pavilion, where Davis wrote his memoirs. Also leveled were the Confederate Soldiers' Museum and all other buildings on the Beauvoir property. Built in 1852, Beauvoir was Davis' retirement home until his death in 1889. It's a National Historic Landmark and Gulf Coast tourist attraction. Davis served as the Confederate States of America's only president from 1861 to 1865. Prior to that, he was a U.S. senator from Mississippi from 1847 to 1851 and 1857 to 1861 and the U.S. secretary of war from 1853 to 1857. Beauvoir is owned by the Mississippi Division of the United Sons of Confederate Veterans. The state over the years has provided money to help maintain it and to build the presidential library, which opened in 1998. ``I look at it as a Mississippi treasure and not just a Coast treasure,'' said Gunter, who was born in Columbus where he spent much of his youth. Private and public funds are needed. ``We're getting a lot of offers from historic groups to help,'' Gunter said. Among them are the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Winterthur Museum. The History Channel has also been in contact, Gunter said.

The antebellum mansion has been stabilized and its roof sealed as renovation plans get drawn and money raised to bring it back to the way it was. ``The building is quite solid and very restorable,'' said Ken P'Pool, director of the Historic Preservation Division at the state Department of Archives and History. With it designated a National Historic Landmark, federal funds will likely be provided. ``The property gets special treatment under federal consideration and, hopefully, federal funding for it,'' P'Pool said. Beauvoir's restoration will be slow, as will the whole Gulf Coast rebuilding effort. ``It's going to have to come back along with the Coast,'' said Gunter, expressing hopes the house will be ready by June 2008 to commemorate Davis' 200th birthday. ``It would be really nice to have everything back by then.'' Of the 1,500 historic buildings on the Gulf Coast, about 300 were obliterated, according to the state Department of Archives and History's latest survey. ``Our history has been erased,'' Gunter said of the old buildings destroyed by Katrina. Gov. Haley Barbour has asked Congress to provide $55 million to restore or rebuild Mississippi's historic structures hit by Katrina. Among the ``heartbreaking losses'' are Tullis-Toledano Manor in Biloxi and Green Lawn in Gulfport, P'Pool said. Both were destroyed. Tullis-Toledano was built in 1856. Green Lawn was built in 1836.

Along with Beauvoir, other historic Coast buildings that withstood Katrina include the oldest in Mississippi _ an early 1700s structure known as the Old Spanish Fort in Pascagoula _ and the 1848 Biloxi Lighthouse. ``Fortunately, we had some others that did survive,'' P'Pool said. Gunter noted historic preservationists have a daunting task ahead of them to fix Beauvoir and other old buildings on the Gulf Coast. ``Our slogan before this was that we're giving the past a future. We now need to work harder to give the past a future,'' he said. Gunter has served as chairman of the Beauvoir Board of Trustees and has also been on the Mississippi Civil War Battlefield Commission. His interest in Civil War history is a trait that goes back to his family roots in Lowndes County. He noted several ancestors were members of a Confederate army unit from the area. Gunter, 57, is the son of Jack and Virginia Gunter of Columbus. Donations to the Beauvoir Relief Fund can be sent to P.O. Box 7, Meridian, MS 39302-0007.

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)