Last week’s look back at the buildings we lost in 2010 reminded me of landmarks lost in other years. I haven’t done a Lost Mississippi post in a while because we already have a wealth of books covering our lost mansions, landmarks, and churches in more detail than I could ever do here. But I came across this article from the Greenwood Commonwealth the day after the death by fire of “Malmaison,” antebellum mansion of Choctaw chief Greenwood Leflore, and thought it bore repeating in full. Not only does the article detail the history and demise of the great landmark, it also does a great job telling us about the original architect, James Harris. We’ve seen some of Harris’ Carrollton houses (“Stanhope,” the Ray House, etc.) and those only whet the appetite for his master work, Malmaison.
For a full recounting of Malmaison and its history, make sure to pick up a copy of Mary Carol Miller’s first Lost Mansions of Mississippi.
To help you visualize better, I’ve included pictures of Malmaison taken in 1936 by those indefatigable photographers sent out by the Historic American Building Survey, or HABS for short. MSU also has a little-seen (by me) side-view of the mansion from around 1923 in its special collections.
State Citizens to Recall Malmaison As It Was in 1854
Fire Destroys All But Memories of Leflore’s Home
GREENWOOD, April 1–Historic Malmaison was burned and completely destroyed by fire early Tuesday night. Malmaison, which was a show place and shrine for tourist[s], the mansion of Greenwood Leflore, last chief of the Choctaw nation of Indians.
Origin of the fire is unknown, but it is surmised that it must have started from a defective chimney in the building. When the fire was discovered, Mrs. F.R. Montgomery and sister, Miss Florence Ray were at home entertaining guests from Greenwood.
The group thought they heard someone upstairs but it was soon discovered that the building was burning. The noise they heard is now thought to have been timbers falling. Alarm was given by the shooting of pistols and five negroes answered the call, and managed to save a small amount of the furniture, including the table in the living room. A silver coffee pot, a silver pitcher and a few glasses and chairs were saved, but the greater part of furniture including the bedroom furniture, historic pictures, draperies, silverware and china was destroyed in the blaze.
No water was available and nothing could be done to save any part of the building. One carriage shed was burned, but the carriage in which Greenwood Leflore rode to Washington from Malmaison for his historic visit with President Andrew Jackson was saved.
Malmaison was occupied as a residence by Mrs. Montgomery and Miss Ray, and the property was owned by them and by their sisters, Mrs. P.H. Brown, of Batesville, and Mrs. C.C. Pardue of New Orleans. All are great granddaughters of Greenwood Leflore.
Malmaison was one of the show places of Mississippi. It was visited annually by hundreds from all parts of the United States. Around it clung the memories of transition of Mississippi from Indian territory to the present status. It was Greenwood Leflore as chief of the Choctaws who signed the treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, which provided for the Choctaws, ceding their lands to the United States and moving to the Indian territory, now a part of the state of Oklahoma. Leflore remained in Mississippi on his estate which at its greatest comprised 15,000 acres, and dreamed of erecting a handsome house in his own status as one of the greatest planters of the south.
Near the middle of the nineteenth century (1854) there came to Mississippi from Georgia, a young man, James Harris, an architect and builder. He is described as being of great physical strength, an athlete, graceful and of modest and courteous demeanor. The wealthy planters of the South were then in a golden age of prosperity. Their cotton was a source of riches. It was grown by slave labor. The white men were almost princes of the blood surrounded by their strongholds of caste and station. They entertained with lavish prodigality. They hunted, fished, gamed, and feasted. Gentlemen drank deeply, but remained gentlemen. It became fashionable to build splendid mansions in keeping with the wealth and standing of the planters, where the generous hospitality which was an outstanding characteristic of their time and class might be dispensed without stint.
James Harris made a specialty of the construction of these palatial houses. They were built usually of wood, the heavy timbers hewed by hand and the other lumber brought from some local saw mill. A corps of trained slaves under the supervision of Harris and his expert assistants performed the work, to the most delicate of interior finishing and decorative paneling. The houses he constructed have hardly been excelled for strength, convenience, symmetry, beauty and stability. They were the largest ever built in Mississippi and some of them are standing today as solid as when constructed more than three-quarters of a century ago.
Greenwood Leflore had dreamed of a wondrous manor house, and in James Harris he found his builder. The haughty chief of the Choctaws had been a life-long admirer of Napoleon Bonaparte, in whom he saw the same indomitable spirit, the ambition for power and love of great achievement that he himself possessed. When Napoleon divorced Josephine, Greenwood Leflore’s admiration for the Emperor changed to disdain. But Josephine continued to be his heroine of romance, a martyr to man’s inhumanity like Joan of Arc, as long as he lived.
When the planter sought a name for his manor house he decided on the name of the chateau, ten miles west of Paris on the Seine, where the unhappy “Widow Beauharnais” lived from 1798 to 1814 and where she died. The original Malmaison was also once the home of Cardinal Richelieu. So Greenwood Leflore’s great house was called Malmaison. It was the largest dwelling house that has ever been erected in Carroll County. It was still an imposing edifice, with its wide galleries, many balconies, lofty chambers, spacious halls and beautiful handcarved oak paneling.
Most of the furnishings were brought from France. The silver, glass and china, imperial in its magnificence–came in sets of dozen pieces. The furniture was made by special order. An example was the marvelous drawing room set of thirty pieces, of solid mahogany, finished in genuine gold and upholstered in priceless silk damask. It is said that the Duchess of Orleans tried to purchase the set before it was shipped to America, and, failing, ordered a duplicate set for herself. Then there were beautiful mirrors, tables, large four-poster beds of rosewood with silken and satin canopies, and four tapestry curtains depicting the four palaces of Napoleon and Josephine–Versailles, Malmaison, Saint Cloud and Fontainbleau. The furnishing were planned for the entertainment of two hundred guests at a time and it is said that Greenwood Leflore was in his happiest mood when his home was filled with friends.
The Mansion was occupied by Greenwood Leflore until his death in 1865 and by his descendants until it was destroyed.
During the war between the States, Malmaison was endangered by fire several times for Greenwood Leflore had taken an oath of allegiance to the United States as chief of the Choctaws covenanting that he would never take up arms against the United States and kept that pledge during the great civil strife. Many of his buildings were burned, but the great mansion survived, and Greenwood Leflore kept his peaceful relations with his neighbors who respected his position.
Malmaison perpetuated the glory of the ante-bellum times. It maintained the legends which are history. It shed the glow of halcyon days, upon the later times. These things were instantly caught by those who visited the ancient site. But the shrine is gone, and there is a mass of blackened ashes and only the old carriage house and the Leflore family graveyard to mark the site.