American Duchess Cruise: Haunting story of mansion never finished because of Civil War

Aboard the American Duchess – Like a magnificent jewel, the Longwood mansion nestles atop a Natchez hillside. But the opulent home hides a secret inside.

“It was never finished,” tour guide Cindy says. “All that was ever finished was the basement and that’s where the family had to live.”

The largest octagonal house in America, Longwood was the unfulfilled dream of wealthy planter and physician Haller Nutt.

. Mary Blair Johnson poses at Longwood in her Spring Pilgrimage finery

“To me, it is a story of romance, tragedy, triumph and grace,” Cindy says. “When I think of Longwood, that’s what I think of.”

The story started when Dr. Haller Nutt married Julia Augusta Williams in 1840. Haller adored his wife and decided one day to surprise her by buying the old house and property where she used to play as a child in Natchez, Mississippi.

“Julia always had loved this place,” Cindy says. “On that day in 1850, Haller and Julia went for a drive and came out here. What Julia didn’t know was that her husband had sent servants and some of her personal possessions to the house out here to surprise her and let her know they owned it. Haller intended for it to be a summer retreat for the family.”

Haller’s goal was to demolish the old house on the property and build an ostentatious home worthy of a wealthy family. He hired Philadelphia architect Samuel Sloan who brought skilled craftsmen from Philadelphia to begin construction in 1860.

Architectural masterpiece

The design of the six-story, octagon-shaped house called for 32 rooms, each with its own balcony. The home would have 26 fireplaces, 115 doors and 96 columns. It would feature a 16-sided cupola topped by a Byzantine dome.

Tour guide Cindy talks about Longwood’s unfinished interior and what design plans showed it was supposed to look like.

For 18 months, workmen buzzed about creating the architectural masterpiece. Then something unforeseen happened that halted construction in its tracks.

War was declared. When the Civil War started in 1861, the Northern workers abandoned the project, dropping their tools where they stopped and returning to their homes in the North.

“Haller thought the war would only last a couple months and the South would win,” Cindy says. “Then he could finish building his home.”

Instead, the war raged on. Haller’s rich cotton property was burned and confiscated. Many of his museum-quality European furnishings and materials being shipped to Longwood were seized by the Federal blockade.

Losing his wealth and valuables, Haller and a few local workers completed the basement level and the family lived there. The Nutts had 11 children but only eight lived to adulthood.

Dying of a broken heart

To add to the tragedy and family hardships, Haller got caught in a rainstorm and came down with pneumonia. He died in the basement on June 15, 1864. Although the cause of death was listed as pneumonia, many believed Haller had died of a broken heart over his unfinished dream house.

“Julia was left to carry on,” Cindy says. “She wrote that her children were going to bed half hungry… Although Julia was born with a silver spoon in her mouth, she rolled up her sleeves and went to work. She planted vegetables and sold them in town out of the back of a wagon. Times were very bad for them.”

Each of the 32 rooms was to have its own balcony.

Julia and the children continued living in the cellar of the elegant shell, doing only the basic necessities to maintain the great hulk looming over them. Julia died in 1897 and was buried beside her husband in the Longwood family cemetery on the estate grounds.

Grandchildren owned Longwood, nicknamed “Nutt’s Folly,” until 1968. In 1970, Longwood was deeded to the Pilgrimage Garden Club and named a National Historic Landmark in 1971. About 80 percent of the furniture and other furnishings now in the basement had belonged to the Nutt family.

Popular with visitors, Longwood is open year-round for tours. If some of the site looks familiar, scenes from the HBO vampire series “True Blood” were filmed at Longwood in 2010.

Unlike other Natchez antebellum homes, Longwood is secluded on a huge tract of wooded land. Massive trees are eerily draped with Spanish moss and entering the winding driveway seems like traveling back in time to visit another world and perhaps ponder what might have been.

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