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?