Saving Georgianna

From: Delta Magazine

In the winter of 2017, the Mississippi Heritage Trust published what could easily have been an obituary for the old Sharkey County house known as Georgianna. Built on the banks of Deer Creek in the 1850s, the house suffered from vandalism, storm damage, and natural deterioration over the decades. All that really remained was a massive, intriguing husk, seemingly verging toward collapse.

Yet the Weissinger family, which had owned Georgianna for more than a century, wasn’t ready to give up, and, in a last-ditch effort, offered to donate the structure and surrounding site to anyone who would undertake a restoration. It was a long shot, at best. What sort of person would sink a small fortune into an isolated, derelict, two-and-a-half story house “out from Cary?”

By then, I’d been keeping tabs on Georgianna for decades, having come upon the house during a weekend outing in the 1990s. Each time I approached on the Cary-Blanton Road, I wondered if it would still be there. I wrote an article, at the time, in hopes someone would step forward to take up the Weissingers on their offer and save Georgianna.

Though the family had done some strategic stabilization over the years, there were fault lines in the ground floor walls that threatened to reduce the entire structure to a pile of lumber, tin, and bricks. As things were going, it looked like the house would end up like all of the other historic structures along the road, which had literally fallen by the wayside. A sister house, Lochwood plantation, which faced the Mississippi River about five miles to the west and was built by the same antebellum cotton planter, was likewise gone, destroyed by a tornado in 1971. Georgianna and its two vacant former slave dwellings were all that was left. Finding someone to restore the house fit the mission of the Mississippi Heritage Trust, said its director, Lolly Rash. “Georgianna was one of the few buildings of this architectural integrity and age left in the Delta,” she said. “And it was still hanging on. Plus, it had a tremendous story to tell.”

At the time, Charles Weissinger said that no one in his family had the means to undertake a full restoration but that they valued the house, which was why they were willing to part with it. “My father had a long, deep, and abiding love for these old structures,” he said. “He felt it was his duty to be a steward.” Among many stopgap measures, the family had repaired the roof, patched cracks in the foundation as best they could, and nailed tin over gaping window openings to buy some time. The offer to donate the house was a final gesture of hope.

Anyone with experience restoring and maintaining historic buildings knows that “free” is a relative term, but Georgianna is unlike many plantations in that it was a rustic, absentee-owned plantation house. It was a secondary investment, and its original owners never intended to live in the house year-round, which explains why it was plain and unadorned. It was a grander expression of the simple building style of its original twenty-six slave dwellings, all built of locally fired bricks and milled cypress logs.

When the article ran in the Trust’s Elevation magazine, Francis Clark Lee, of Brandon, read it with great interest. Lee is an avid lover of history and architecture, and has a deep interest in the preservation and restoration of endangered historic structures. He had long been fascinated by David Hunt, who had originally owned the plantation and gave it to his son George and daughter-in-law Anna as a wedding gift in 1857. The elder Hunt was among the five wealthiest cotton planters in the United States before the Civil War. Lee had been exploring the idea of restoring an antebellum plantation house for a while and had looked into saving a similarly endangered one, Prospect Hill, in Jefferson County, as well as another, known as Saragossa, in Natchez. But by the winter of 2017, he was still on the search. As it turned out, he was precisely the kind of person who would sink a small fortune into an isolated, derelict, two-and-a-half story house out from Cary.

Lee got in touch with Charles Weissinger, then hired architects to survey the house to determine what would be involved in restoring it. So began a preservation odyssey that stretched into more than two years, starting with lengthy negotiations over the transfer of the title, followed by months of painstaking research, many unexpected hitches, and inevitable cost overruns, which Lee said were ultimately worth the effort.

Rash describes the completed project, which was awarded the Trust’s biannual Heritage Award, as “a thrilling, meticulous restoration.” Typically, she said, “When someone takes on a building like this, it’s a rehabilitation. You’re preserving it and adapting it. A restoration is different. It means doing your best to put a building back to its original use and form. That’s what Franc did with Georgianna. And to do that, he brought in the A-team.” Lee’s restoration, which was completed in May 2020, was done by the book, down to minute details such as replicating the original exterior whitewash, the original mortar mix, and the unexpectedly vibrant original paint colors of the trim, as well as rebuilding the ground floor and chimneys, installing a period-correct wood-shake roof, and even recreating the elaborate water-capture system that replenishes a huge original underground cistern.

“I guess my appreciation for history is what prompted me to be so accurate,” Lee said during a visit to the finished house, which now looks as it did when it was brand new, surrounded by freshly installed landscaping. “It’s not just about fixing up an old house to use,” he said. “It’s about creating something that memorializes history and teaches us. I wanted something that educated people about the past.”


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