Those of us who had the opportunity to see the Charnley house and its small guest house next door with the Southeastern Society of Architectural Historians (SESAH) tour in 2003 were fortunate to walk through this amazing “beach house” and meet the owners, the Ruddimans. The Ruddimans had lovingly stewarded the house for most of their adult lives and graciously opened the house to 40 or so architectural historians dripping wet from the storm that poured down that day.
I remember being amazed that this shingled house, which I would have thought was built perhaps in the 1920s if I had driven past without knowing about it, was actually built in 1890 (and apparently rebuilt in after a fire in the late 1890s). Designed by either Louis Sullivan or Frank Lloyd Wright, or could we just say a happy combination of the two–Frouis? or Sulloyd?–the house stood next door to Sullivan’s own beach house, which was very similar in form, albeit perhaps not as finely finished as the Charnley House. The Charnleys were the same Charnleys whose house in Chicago, also designed by Sulloyd, is now the headquarters for the Society of Architectural Historians.
While Sullivan’s house was completely destroyed by Katrina’s massive storm surge, the Charnley House, slightly less exposed to the water, survived but was severely damaged. The front half of the house floated during the storm and was structurally compromised, with one end completely collapsed and the porch washed away. Brick foundation piers stuck up through the floor in the front half where the house had sat back down on the ground. Beautiful and rare pine panelling that formed the walls and ceiling had cracked apart under the stress or simply disappeared altogether.
The smaller octagonal guest cottage which stood between the Charnley and Sullivan houses was also badly mauled, essentially kept in place by its buttress of a brick chimney, but much of its material washed to the back of the large waterfront lot.
Katrina took a similar devastating toll on the people who survived the storm, and the tragedy of the Charnley House continued when both of the Ruddimans died within six months of the storm. Many teams of volunteers came through the property to salvage the pieces of the buildings from the debris piles behind the houses, but the future of these pieces of history remained in doubt for over two years because of the huge cost involved in trying to repair the damage and restore the house to its previous state.
Finally, after much debate and discussion, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History has stepped up to the plate by offering a very large grant to save the house, with the condition that the property be under a perpetual preservation easement and preferably end up in public use. The work has been tedious and fraught with difficulties and frustrations. A lot of research had to be done into the origins of the house and how it should be restored. Earlier this year, both the main house and the guest cottage were stabilized and put back up on their foundations. The projects are now in the bidding stage for the actual restoration work, and let’s hope the final product is one the Ruddimans would be proud of.
“Where Credit is Due,” Chicago Magazine, July 2008–a great article about the restoration and the debate over the designer.
This is the third post in the Katrina Survivors series–see others in the series?