Blink Twice and Arlington Might Vanish…

The stairhall at Arlington (HABS image)

A disastrous fire swept through the attic story of Arlington on September 17th, 2002. The roof was repaired the following year and it was thought that the eventual restoration of the house would follow, if not immediately, then within a reasonable period of time. Instead, the house continued to sit and decay before the eyes of the City of Natchez as its owner, Dr. Thomas Vaughan of Gulfport (later Jackson) did little to stop the increasing number of vandals and other visitors to the property.  Not quite nine years after the fire, we have a National Historic Landmark (listed on May 30, 1974) crumbling before our eyes.   Arlington’s once pristine rooms are filled with trash and covered with graffiti.   Much of its irreplaceable woodwork and finely detailed plaster medallions have been set upon by thieves and vandals.  While I understand that Dr. Vaughan has certain rights to keep his property as he pleases, I would respectfully suggest that such rights end when the property in question is in clear and present danger of demolition by neglect.  Any rational person viewing the property would surely arrive at this conclusion.

Built for John Hampton White in 1816, Arlington is still, even in its sadly decaying state, one of the greatest houses in Natchez.   Though there is no certain evidence, Arlington’s design has been attributed to Levi Weeks, the architect of nearby Auburn.  Its fine Federal detailing is matched by only a few houses in the city.  The basic floorplan of Arlington would become the prototype for many Natchez houses. It survived the ravages of the Civil War and went  through most of the 20th century before falling into decline.   Through the valiant efforts of Mimi Miller and the Historic Natchez Foundation, repairs were made to the mansion before that fateful September day.  As Ken P’Pool, Director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History noted, buildings such as Arlington are not easily replaced.  Nor, unfortunately, are they easily insured.  One of the hindrances to the resurgence of Arlington was the lack of insurance on the house when it burned.  How does one adequately insure the irreplaceable?

The Natchez Democrat has run several articles about Arlington recently.  The comment sections are especially dispiriting and are rife with references to “private property” and “owner’s rights” and so forth.   There appear to be many who do not value Arlington’s history nor its especially fine architectural qualities.  While I understand the need for Natchez to attract business, the preservation of historic resources in Natchez has indeed been good business for the city.  Preservation of historic resources is more than merely the province of blue-haired old ladies.  For a city like Natchez, it is of the utmost importance.   Other cities have realized the importance of their historic resources and have taken them all the way to the bank.  Natchez could do this as well, but its residents must first realize the value of its irreplaceable historic resources.

As for what can be done immediately, a civil suit by the city might attract Dr. Vaughan’s attention to the point that he would consider selling the property to a buyer with the deep pockets and the determination required to restore the house and 55 acres of park-like grounds.  Perhaps the National Park Service could be persuaded to buy the house and restore it.  Even its conversion into an inn might be an option.  The house could serve as the centerpiece for a hotel, much as Monmouth does today.  Creative thinking may be needed, but the first task is perhaps the hardest.  This task is prying it from the hands of an owner incapable or unwilling to save it.  Is Natchez ready to assume this responsibility and stick with it?

Rear view of Arlington- 1934, Historic American Buildings Survey- original photograph- Ralph Clynne- tinting TB

Arlington First Floor Plan, from National Register nomination



Categories: Antebellum, Cool Old Places, Demolition/Abandonment, Historic Preservation, Mississippi Landmarks, Natchez, National Register

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31 replies

  1. Your next to the last sentence is how I feel about Mt. Holly in Washington Co. whose private owner from Texas couldn’t care less, does not even reply when contacted. As a visitor to Natchez’s Pilgrimage in the past, all the historic homes need some organization’s or individual’s care and sponsorship to keep them viable.

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  2. An excellent article – thank you for raising the awareness of this unique and precarious treasure and the difficult issues surrounding its future. For more than 70 years of spring pilgrimages, Arlington had been counted among the most stellar of Natchez homes. So the horror of the Arlington 2002 fire (attributed to a spiderweb of electrical extension cords at the rear of the 2nd floor) was quickly met by a public outpouring of community support that dragged furnishings and books to safety from the wet house as soon as the fire marshall allowed them entrance – with no concern about the absent private owner, only the immediate needs of the beloved resource.

    Professionals from the Historic Natchez Foundation, the Mississippi Department of Archives & History, and the National Park Service worked alongside dozens of private citizens to salvage and pack draperies and furniture and thousands of books. Several counties were scoured for large plastic containers to hold the waterlogged books, placed in the containers spine-down and wrapped in wax paper under archival instruction, and quickly whisked away to local meat freezers (who generously donated space for them). An NPS grant from the Lower Mississippi Delta Region Initiative paid for freeze-drying of the historic volumes, most of which were then donated to MDAH and NPS, where they have joined a collection of historic volumes from John McMurran and George Malin Davis at Melrose as well as William Johnson. Renovations to the Historic Natchez Foundation building will one day allow broad public access to these and other local archival collections. Once the freeze-drying was complete, an army of volunteers again assembled to clean the books under the direction of a paper conservator, and then to catalog them into the park’s collections.

    Thank goodness the priceless Ballard collection of correspondence about the slave trade had already been transferred from an attic trunk at Arlington to the University of North Carolina! And thank goodness for the work of furnishings scholars like Jason Busch from Winterthur who had photographed many of the original furnishings and their makers’ labels – including a fabulous Lannuier armoire that had belonged to the McMurrans at Melrose – for many of these are now lost forever. Ironically, the tremendous armoir now displayed on the second floor of the William Johnson House is almost certainly an original Arlington piece – bought secondhand by Johnson from Arlington about 1840, sold back to Arlington by his descendants 100 years later, then quietly sold at auction and bought by the NPS prior to the Arlington fire – and so preserved.

    Circa 1850 renovations to the Federal Arlington mansion had made it truly a sister house to the original furnishings at nearby Greek Revival Melrose, since their drawing room window cornices and drapery tassels were identical, their elaborate gilt-and-glass curtain tiebacks very similar, and much of their furniture from the same manufacturers. However, 20 years of NPS stewardship at Melrose – which never underwent a tragedy similar to Arlington and has only suffered usual wear-and-tear over the years and endured the decorating tastes of different private owners who still preserved the vast majority of original pieces – have incurred restoration and maintenance costs which are astronomical compared to other NPS units. There has been quite a learning curve for certain government contracting officers when they learn the cost of authentic silk tassels. And wallpaper, carpet, and floorcloth reproductions. And grained doors. And exterior marbleizing. We haven’t even gotten to the horsehair upholstery yet.

    In today’s climate of federal budget cutbacks – and with a more intact property (Melrose) telling a very similar historical story already in NPS ownership only 1/4 mile away – it would be extremely difficult to imagine the political will for for the government to take on a project of the scale of what Arlington would need for restoration as a historic house museum. I think its best hope lies in thinking “outside the box” – either through government stewardship that preserves the architecture and the grounds for an alternate purpose, or through private ownership and restoration.

    And sadly, Arlington is certainly not the only NHL in Natchez (or Mississippi) whose stewardship is in doubt in these difficult times – only the most apparent example.

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    • Hi, just reading this article on 5/14/14. Kathleen, I hope you see this and can answer this question for me; since the home belongs to Dr. Thomas Vaughn, did he give you permission to remove and store those items? I was just wondering how this is viewed, legally. Also, how did he come into possession of the mansion? Did he ever actually live there? When was it last occupied? A number of salient details such as those were left out of the article and I would appreciate knowing.

      It is truly a shame. I wonder if the good Dr. would be held liable if someone was injured on the property? I suppose he could plead that they were ‘trespassing,’ but since it has clearly gained a reputation for being a ‘party hang out’ it seems the least the local authorities would require would be that board the house up to curtail entrance and as an aside, prevent more structural damage.

      I wonder what his reasoning is? Has anyone ever actually interviewed him to determine WHY he allows this to happen? It seems inconceivable that anybody would stand by and allow this to happen; particularly if it had been their family home.

      Thanks.

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  3. I do not understand why laws of eminent domain cannot be applied so that important cultural properties like Arlington can be seized for their preservation in circumstances like this. Property rights be damned. Would anyone argue that one has the right to burn a Van Gogh just because one is wealthy enough to buy it? If so Van Gogh burning would surely become a prestige symbol for wealthy asses.

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  4. Rightly said! I don’t understand how the powers that be have been so inefectual so far in the fight to save Arlington. Perhaps something will happen son, otherwise the house might be lost. If then, what is to ensure the fate of other landmarks in the city?

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    • I would think that eminent domain could easily be justified not only by the cultural importance of the property but also because of the value of tourism to the Natchez community’s economy which only exists because of these old houses.

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  5. 2 years ago I was driving to Natchez and stumbled upon this place. I was able to drive right up to it. I peered through the window openings and saw all the vandalism. So sad. I have never forgotten this place- ever. I searched for information and found just a few places that listed it. I hope somehow, someone or some group can rescue it, especially now knowing that many of the drapes and books were already salvaged. Sincerely, Liz from Michigan.

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  6. Hello!My name is Shelby.I go to natchez a bunch.My sister Rose Roberts works at Green Oaks. ONE day during the time pilgrimage was going on I went to see just how all that worked. My sisters boss Joey let her take her lunch break. So Rose took me around to see some of the homes there . She showed us some really beautiful manchions. We enjoyed looking at them all.Then Rosie said OHOH I forgot to show you our Fallen Manchon!We went by there ! It took my breath away it was so beautiful! I wished i owned it. It just needs a whole lot of love and attention!There were some of the prettiest camilias and Azalias around the front yard!It sure would make someone a lovely home! Ever since I saw it I just loved it! I sure would love to have it!

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  7. This was my greataunt’s home. I would love to see it restored to the way it was when I was a child. I don’t know my cousin Tom, but how can something like this be salvaged? I would love to be able to help, if by only manual labor. This is so heartbreaking.

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  8. Any updates on the status of Arlington ?

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  9. Unfortunately, I have no information regarding the current status of the house. It appears as though the city is far more interested in other matters at this point.

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    • In May 2012, Bigland Oil applied to begin drilling on the property. The city turned down the request, but it looks like strings are being pulled. Now this pitiful building will be surrounded by drilling, possibly even fracking. As a local, this is tragic. I am from an outlying small town and have seen almost my entire hometown dismantled as antebellum structures have been razed or relocated. We don’t need more vacant lots. We need revitalization on the same lot in the same town.

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  10. Thanks’ Tom,

    I was afraid that might be the case.

    So Sad .

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  11. This is heartbreaking. We are visiting Natchez from Texas this weekend (Fall Pilgrimage) and have discovered the decaying Arlington and its sad story. I hope that the city of Natchez and/or private funding can come together to save the site (and that the current owner allows that to happen).

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  12. Rebekah,

    Thanks for the post. I hope you enjoyed the 2011
    Fall Pilgrimage.

    I was also in Natchez this past weekend,
    & made a special detour to see for myself
    the current condition of Arlington.

    It is worse than I thought.

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  13. My husband and I went to Natchez for our fortieth anniversary, last spring. We chose to go there because of the beautiful antebellum architectural jewels,and all the priceless artworks (furniture and architecture counts as art, yes) and we did drop a sizeable chunk of change there.While visiting there, we met a great many people from all over the world who were there for the same reason- a history walk, and enjoyment of a priceless, beautiful cultural and artistic heritage. People go to Italy and England and France etc. for the same reason. And a few nice things to consider- english is spoken in Natchez, and it is highly unlikely that international terrorists will target you in the dining room at the Eola: you can also have your choice of splendid antebellum accommodations at a wide range of prices; and Southern food is spectacularly wonderful, French cuisine cannot hold a candle to genuine Southern food.You do not necessarily have to undergo the horrendousness of having to fly in this day and time to get there, since we have an Interstate highway system. It’s a great place to visit.The antebellum mansions are a major draw. Natchez is unique, in the world.I have been to the good stuff, and I know. Natchez is right up there with the best the world has to offer.I have a burning question: why, in the name of God, is a glorious, beautiful, historic home like Arlington left to go to hell in a handbasket? Who is this man, this “Dr. Vaughn”, who apparently does not care about this wonderful house, and refuses to take any action? And who is in charge of this contretemps at the National Register of Historic Places, and do they not know what has happened here? This is criminal negligence on the part of this Dr. Vaughn. And why, also in the name of God, was no insurance purchased for this house- I know for a fact there ARE companies who would sell it..A house like this is the kind of thing many companies specialize in- my husband restores classic automobiles costing millions of dollars each, and they sure as heck have insurance on them.This is akin to setting fire to a Van Gogh- this is iconoclasm at it’s worst.This is as bad as the Bamiyan Buddha being blown up, worse because it is right here in America and those who would do something about this desecration have their hands tied.The human race has done some awful things, but it has also done some glorious ones.This house is a glorious one- an example of architectural beauty from a time and place unique, and also valuable historically-veritably, irreplaceable. Our future, our selfhood as a nation, is tied to our national identity, and this house is part of it.Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.I am a college professor, who teaches art history and studio art. I teach young people in my art history general education classes about what great things the human race has done.Seeing living history is one way to make an indelible impression on them.Preserving battlefields, historic homes,and great art is something we absolutely must do for the future generations of Americans- museums are there for a reason. We are not animals living from day to day. We are the cumulative result of all who have gone before.Our descendants will be the cumulative result of what we do and accomplish- and preserve. And- let’s give some long overdue credit to the “blue haired old ladies”, as you call them, who don’t have to work but do anyway ( I’ll bet for NO pay ) in order to preserve what must be preserved.These women have done an invaluable service to all by working for historic preservation.Whoever you are, fine ladies, thank you so much and thank the good Lord for your foresight in snatching from time and tragic dissolution some of the best America has wrought.I myself know a few bazillionaires through my husband’s business. I have been talking to some of them, since my lovely visit to Natchez (and a tearful visit to what is left of Arlington), hoping to find someone with deep pockets who has the will to keep this lovely Southern home from the tragic effects of neglect.I hope someone will.
    Sincerely, Professor Elizabeth Manns

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  14. Dr. Manns ,

    Thank you for this post. You have expressed the same feelings of many of us that
    wish to preserve Arlington.

    Unfortunately, legal issues allow the owner to let this
    piece of American History continue to rot under the “demolition by neglect”
    rule of law.

    Obviously , no Natchez Preservation group has initiated any efforts to preserve
    this landmark .

    Therefore, if you can help secure a national entity that is willing to save Arlington,
    please let us know.

    Many of us will contribute.

    Gary E. Magee

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    • I wasn’t involved in the efforts immediately after the fire, but I know from friends in Natchez that the Historic Natchez Foundation did undertake immediate rescue and stabilization of the house with no guarantee that they would be paid back for their efforts. I heard they rescued what was left of the very valuable collection of antiques and books and have undertaken restoration of those. They also mobilized a crew to re-build the roof in short order so that the building could at least be protected from the elements. Obviously, that was all done with the hope that Dr. Vaughn would move quickly with full repair and renovation, which hasn’t occurred and now those stabilization efforts are diminishing in value the longer the house continues to sit abandoned.

      The City did take Dr. Vaughn to court over the issue, but Municipal Judge Jim Blough fined him only $559 for all their efforts. Guess Judge Blough doesn’t really care about National Historic Landmarks.

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  15. I will absolutely pursue someone with deep pockets.There are a great many philanthropists out there. Pop is always going here and there to do estimates on those collector cars. A lot of them (very wealthy people) collect art, as well. I have only been to Natchez once, but I am here to tell you, as far as history and architectural treasures it’s right up there with the very best. I cannot imagine that the Coliseum would be allowed to fall down (or the Leaning Tower of Pisa, for that matter) or the Petit Trianon, or any of the Cathedrals and castles bombed out during WWII. They were rebuilt, after terrible destruction, because they were valuable for history and education and beloved by their people. Arlington is a spectacular relic of our Nation’s history. America has had a bad habit of bulldozing historic places and remainders. Respect for arts and architecture has not been, sadly, a great priority. We are comparatively a very young nation: but our history is still our history, and French people and Italians, etc., come to Natchez to see a part of it. There are chapters in some of the books I use for Art History that have material from the era of American history represented by the architecture in Natchez. American Cultural Studies is a Doctoral degree given by a lot of top of the line schools. Arling ton is important, in American History, and needs to be preserved. As to the person responsible for this debacle: is he sane? If he isn’t, that’s something to go after.Also: I believe he has his price.I think it is a do-able thing, and I plan to keep on talking to as many wealthy people as I can,and spreading the word about the tragedy at Arlington.A lot of them are very well meaning, but don’t have much knowledge about the arts.And for those brave souls who went in after what was left: kudos to you, because it is no joke to preserve things like that.I have done preservation work, and it is not for the faint of heart. There has got to be a way. There are people who pay for a private jet to fly my husband to one of their cars for an estimate.They have more than one plane, too.I think this is do- able, and can be hunted down like a raccoon, with a good enough dog.
    Sincerely, Professor Manns

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  16. Thank you Professor Manns for sharing your thoughts. If only Arlington could be wrested from the hands of its owner. Has the city really investigated all options available to rescue the house? It appears as though they are doing little more than wringing their hands and turning their attention elsewhere. It’s a shame that more pressure can’t be placed on an owner who obviously cares nothing for the treasure he’s no longer guarding adequately. Perhaps we could think of a proposal or a way to reach the intransigent doctor?

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  17. This house is a piece of art, a relic, and certainly one of the most notable examples of architecture in the city. I first learned about Arlington reading an architecture book when I was a kid, and thought it was one of the most beautiful houses I had ever seen. After googling it years later I found it in this condition. It makes me sick to my stomach to see something so beautiful, so irreplacable just left alone like a piece of trash. Houses like this cannot be replicated or reproduced. Who the heck does this man think he is and how dare he deprive people of this beautiful house? Allowing this house to decay is not just appaling, its also selfish. To take something so wonderful and irreplacable away from all these people who clearly care about it just because of your own selfishness is just awful. Even if he doesn’t have the funds, it sounds like he still has multiple ways out of this situation. There are no excuses that could even begin to rectify the crime that has been committed here. As for the Judge, once again I am enraged that he gave him a fine that could not possibly begin to approach the wrong that is being done here. The time to wish you had preserved something is not years later when attempting to reconstruct it, but when there is something still there.

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  18. I couldn’t agree with you more Nathan! It is nothing less than criminal that Arlington has been left to the vagaries of vandals and nature and that the city has been powerless to arrest its decay. Perhaps it can yet be snatched from the jaws of destruction, but each passing day without help spells imminent disaster for Arlington. It is indeed a tragedy.

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  19. The silence from Natchez about Arlington is deafening. I have heard nothing lately. Will try to find out more for you.

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    • Good luck Tom !

      I lived in Natchez for over 16 years, and I can tell you it’s virtually
      impossible to uncover anything that the locals consider “off limits”.

      For some strange reason, Arlington appears to be “off limits” .

      Don’t misunderstand, Natchez has some of the nicest people that you will ever meet.
      Historic preservation is taught to all Natchez Pre-Schoolers before the kids even learn
      basic Math. Natchez has some of the best architectural preservationist
      in the nation.

      However, while local scandals (marital affairs,ect.) remain daily topics at the coffee shops
      and Garden Clubs … Arlington continues to rot .

      A jewell of the Mississippi Territory is almost beyond saving.

      I’m starting to think that Stephen King may have the best chance of preserving what’s left of this
      treasure, as it’s current appearance looks like a Hollywood set for a Southern Gothic vampire movie.

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  20. With reference to your query Nathan, I have asked several people I know in Natchez and the consensus appears to be that the status quo, as horrible as it is, stands. Arlington decays while the city dithers and does nothing. I wish I had better news, but the present state of affairs for Arlington does not look good at all. It is nothing less than criminality at its worst.

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  21. It just doesn’t make sense that in 2012 we can’t preserve our heritage. Will the house be demolished or will it just continue to rot?

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  22. Please advise if I can help. Sounds like this Doctor needs to be reminded of the significance of his investment or in this case, write-off. Perhaps a petition, fundraiser and good old fashioned work committee is what is needed. Save our Past. All the best, everyone. Andy from New Orleans

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  23. This may have been answered already, but what effect, as a last stop effort, would placing drill wells have? Is there any way they could coexist, even with fracking? If it meant tanks and noise fairly close, hell, even visable…is that an option? Also, isn’t there a house museum in SC that is preserved but w/o furnishings, curtains, etc? It looks very evocative in the pics I’ve seen.

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  24. Owner summoned to court yet again. Nothing’s changed even after he was found guilty four years ago. Here’s a link in today’s Natchez Democrat newspaper.

    http://www.natchezdemocrat.com/2013/06/20/arlington-owner-called-to-court-trial-scheduled-for-july-1/

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  1. MissPres News Roundup 4-23-2012 « Preservation in Mississippi

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